11 Espresso Drinks, Decoded By A Barista

From macchiatos to cappuccinos, the wide world of coffee beverages explained in simple terms.

If you've found yourself staring at the menu board in a coffee shop, wondering how all the various Italian terms relate to one another, then it's time someone cut to the chase and explained what you're looking at, drink by drink. Drip coffee is fun and all, but there's more to the caffeine puzzle. Having been a barista for nearly five years, I've come to know these various coffee drinks up and down, and I'm here to tell you, they're not that deep. So here are 11 espresso drinks, explained in simple terms by a barista who knows they can get confusing.

Latte

The most basic of espresso drinks. Understanding the fundamentals of a latte will make you a pro at scanning the coffee shop board for what to drink on the haziest of mornings. A latte consists of espresso and milk. At its smallest size, a latte is typically served in a 12-oz. cup with two shots of espresso. Any type of milk suits a latte, and the larger the size, the more espresso is used to maintain balance between the two ingredients. A hot latte's milk is steamed, but not overly foamy at its top. If served cold, a latte is simply a cup of ice filled with milk and espresso. Lattes take well to the addition of flavor syrup, cinnamon, or sugar.

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Cappuccino

Though a cappuccino is, on paper, similar to a latte (both contain espresso and milk) there are a few distinctions that make it unique. A traditional cappuccino is eight ounces in size, rendering it a tad more concentrated than a latte. The rest of the cup is filled with milk, but, unlike lattes, the milk of a cappuccino is foamier, frothy at the drink's surface. A cappuccino can also be made "dry," a term used if you'd like a cappuccino made almost exclusively with foam. In essence, a cappuccino tastes heavier on the espresso than a latte, and you'll finish it in fewer sips.

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Macchiato

In my time as a barista, countless customers have ordered macchiatos and wondered why their drink isn't like the Starbucks macchiato—that is, milky and syrupy with vanilla and caramel flavors. This is because a traditional macchiato is nothing like that. The fact that you have the option to order a tall, grande, or venti macchiato defeats its purpose. A true macchiato is simply two shots of espresso with a spoonful of steamed milk. If you're into double shots but wish to cut the natural bitterness of espresso a bit, the macchiato is for you.

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Americano

The Americano, made of water and espresso, may seem oddly similar to a regular cup of drip coffee when you drink it, because... well, it is. During WWII, soldiers from the United States stationed in Italy missed regular drip coffee. In Italy, the usual drink was espresso alone, which wasn't favorable to everyone. So, the soldiers took the espresso and added hot water, creating a DIY drip coffee. The Americano was born, though unlike drip coffee served black (which would fill the cup entirely), an Americano has a little room left at the top, about a quarter of the cup, so that the espresso isn't too watered down. This is why Americanos are typically offered as an alternative to drip an hour or so before coffee shops close for the day, since they don't want to brew more drip but can easily pull an espresso shot.

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Cortado 

Two shots of espresso and milk: This is the cortado, and the amount of each element is what defines this drink. A cortado has as much milk as it does espresso—the drink itself only reaches about halfway through an 8-oz. cup. This isn't a milky drink; the star here is certainly the espresso. A cortado is also served warm rather than hot, because it's meant to be enjoyed as a quick caffeine hit, able to be tossed back rather than nursed. Imagine the busiest person you know just wants a pick-me-up on the go, pronto, in as few sips as possible. Intense.

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Red eye

Ever wake up and feel the opposite of unstoppable? This is the kind of clientele the red eye attracts. A red eye is drip coffee with a single shot of espresso added, sort of like the Tylenol Extra Strength of coffee drinks. (You can also get it with two shots of espresso added—this is known as a black eye.) The same drink can be made cold, using iced coffee or cold brew instead of hot drip coffee. My barista advice is to add a little milk to make it less bitter in taste, since coffee and espresso are meant to be served separately and the flavor can be overwhelming when they're combined.

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Dirty Chai

Let's get this straight: Chai does not naturally contain espresso. However, because it has a black tea base, it does contain caffeine. A regular chai will not be as strong as a regular cup of coffee; it will have significantly less caffeine. If this fact is unsettling, behold the "dirty chai." This is a chai latte with one shot of espresso added for oomph—order it with two shots, and it's known as a filthy chai. Any kind of milk is suitable for a dirty chai latte, and its sweetness may vary based on the milk and the type of chai concentrate used, but you can pretty much always count on some blend of cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves adding a comforting flavor.

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Mocha

Mochas can vary based on which coffee shop you go to. It's a combination of espresso, chocolate, and milk, and usually sits on the sweeter side. While chocolate powder is normally steamed in with the milk and then poured into a cup holding two shots of espresso, some cafes blend in store-bought chocolate sauce instead. Others will make their own, blending dark chocolate powder with hot water and sugar to create syrup that can be dispensed from a squeeze bottle. Why is the mocha such a satisfying drink? In the same way that salt brings out the sweetness of salted caramel, coffee enhances the flavor of chocolate.

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Affogato 

The affogato is less of a drink and more of a dessert, featuring vanilla ice cream topped with espresso shots. Two small scoops will usually feature two shots of espresso. Most everyday coffee shops won't have an affogato on the menu, but some do specialize in it, and you'll also find it on the dessert menu at some sit-down restaurants. The affogato can be recreated at home if you have a way to make espresso, or you can simply purchase a double shot somewhere and bring it home to pour atop some scoops.

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Flat white

The flat white is an Australian coffee drink that has grown in popularity across the rest of the world. It's composed of espresso and milk, only this drink has a twist: Unlike a latte, which has a little microfoam at its top (meaning the kind with small, fine bubbles), the milk of a flat white is literally flat, steamed in such a way that it does not develop foam. And, unlike a latte, there's less milk in the cup, so that the drink is more about the espresso and less about its dairy counterpart. If you like a little more milk than a cortado but less than a latte, go for the flat white.

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Ristretto espresso

You might have heard of a "ristretto shot of espresso" and felt overloaded with coffee terms. This Italian term translates to English as "restricted" espresso, meaning it's extracted a little differently from a regular shot. While a typical shot of espresso can take an average of 25-28 seconds to finish pulling, a ristretto shot is pulled earlier for a richer taste—though this method results in a smaller dose of espresso. Ristretto is typically served with no added sweeteners or milk and is more commonly available at higher-end coffee shops.

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