The coffee shop explosion of the '90s brought a surge of delicious espresso and milk drinks into the popular imagination. With that, it also brought a bunch of (mostly Italian) terms for coffee shop patrons to memorize, understand, and eventually have strong opinions about.
Overall, this is a huge positive. With a few basic terms you can order a delicious drink exactly how you want it. But it also created an unfortunate opportunity for coffee drinkers to feel bad about not knowing all the jargon and plenty of disagreement at the counter about exactly what those terms mean. (Not to mention about a billion jokes about overly frilly coffee orders).
I used to stress to the baristas I trained that memorizing standards for drinks wasn't about being right. And it certainly wasn't about convincing customers that we were right and they were wrong. Definitions, as much as they can even be made standard in the first place, are constantly changing. Our definition of a cappuccino, for example, wasn't some access to the Platonic truth of what a cappuccino is. But there was a standard we needed to set to make a consistent drink at our coffee shop. If a customer had a different idea of what a cappuccino was, we would be happy to use that as a starting point to make them a drink they’d be happy with.
So, I’m sorry to say, there’s a chance that this guide may not give you exact definitions of drinks that will match the ones at your local coffee shop. But at the very least, it’ll give you an idea of the basic structure of all these drinks to start that conversation.
The affogato is simply a shot of espresso coffee poured over a (usually small) scoop of ice cream, gelato, or vegan frozen dessert. The only reason I wouldn’t call it objectively the best espresso drink is because it’s arguably more of a sundae than a drink. Either way, if you’re at a coffee shop that has ice cream, you should order one.
The history of the cappuccino has been much documented, and I think it’s pretty safe to say it has something to do the cowls or habits of Capuchin Monks. As for the drink itself, I’ve heard many coffee professionals describe the traditional ideal of the cappuccino as a drink of thirds: one third espresso, one third milk, and one third foam.
This doesn’t mean that it’s a layered drink. Rather its one where the milk has been steamed to integrate some air and poured to integrate all of that with espresso. Most specialty shops serve cappuccinos that are a little longer on milk, though they do mostly keep them to eight or 12 ounces at most. Some shops focus on the ratio of milk to foam as a differentiator between a cap and a latte (with the cappuccino having more), some just have a latte as the larger drink. Basically, if you want a drink that’s milky, but not too milky, cappuccino is a safe order.
If you replace the chocolate in a mocha with caramel sauce (and sometimes add vanilla syrup), you get a caramel macchiato. Why is its name so similar to a tiny espresso and foam drink? It’s probably because the drink originated as a variation not of the espresso macchiato, but of the latte macchiato — a drink that I’ve never seen on the menu of a coffee shop that didn't have a mermaid.
The inversion of an espresso macchiato — espresso marked with a little milk on top — the latte macchiato is milk marked with a little bit of espresso on top. That said, most shops that offer caramel macchiatos these days will make it like a latte or mocha, with the caramel mixed into the espresso and steamed milk poured over.
Usually slightly larger and less foamy than a macchiato, the cortado burst onto the American specialty scene in the early 2010s (it was catalogued at the time in Oliver Strand’s memorably named NYT Magazine article “ A Cortado is Not a Minivan”).
The drink has its roots in Spain, and usually comes in at around four ounces. So, if you’re looking for a drink with the same milk texture as a latte but less milk overall, this is the one. The cortado is occasionally known as a Gibraltar, named after the specific glass it's sometimes served in. The Australian “Piccolo” is another very similar drink.
When a barista steams milk, they’re pushing air in from the atmosphere to create tiny bubbles. In most drinks, they’re trying to integrate those bubbles with the liquid in the pitcher. If you order a drink dry, they’ll try to get more foam and less liquid, making for a drink that at its extreme (the “bone dry” cappuccino) is just espresso sitting at the bottom and airy foam on top.
Espresso con Panna
This doesn’t get ordered very often, but it’s more or less a macchiato with whipped cream instead of whole milk. It’s a great excuse for baristas to eat a little stray whipped cream.
Macchiato means “marked” in Italian, and the idea here is that you’re just barely marking the espresso with a little bit of milk foam. This drink usually gets made in one of two ways.
Some shops pour the steamed milk like they would for any other milk drink, with perhaps some latte art. Other shops will steam the milk and then scoop a bit of foam onto the espresso. Either way, the drink is small, with about equal parts espresso and milk/milk foam.
We know the flat white was invented in either Australia or New Zealand. We also know that it’s a drink made from espresso and steamed milk. Despite many people’s very strong opinions, there isn’t really that much agreement about what makes it different from a latte or a cappuccino (as clearly demonstrated in Alex Berson’s flat white magnum opus for Sprudge, easily one of my favorite coffee articles of all time).
Some folks think flat whites need a specific kind of espresso shot, some folks insist it has to be small. Still, wide agreement evades us. Long story short: if you order one of these, you’ll get something that looks more or less like a small latte or cappuccino.
Most of these drinks can be made iced, and they’ll remain pretty similar, aside from the fact that you’ll generally get the same amount of espresso but roughly half the milk (to make room for the ice). Plus, the milk won’t be steamed.
The iced cappuccino is a tricky one, usually created by making an iced latte with a little room at the top, then steaming some foamy milk, and dumping the foam from that milk on top of the drink. If you’re into it, I recommend drinking it without a straw, as that textural difference on top is really the only thing that sets it apart from an iced latte.
A latte, much like a cappuccino, is a combination of espresso and steamed milk. They are generally no smaller than eight ounces, though there really isn’t a limit to how small or large they can be. A latte involves milk steamed with a little foam, but generally not too much foam. Most specialty shops will pour that milk in a way that creates pretty patterns on your drink.
The latte has become a jumping off point for endless variations, with espresso being altered through syrups, and replaced by matcha, turmeric concentrates, and more. Generally, though, if you order anything that says latte, you’re probably getting a cup that’s at the very least 75 percent steamed milk (dairy or otherwise).
It’s a latte with chocolate in it. And it’s delicious!