A Somewhat Comprehensive Crash Course on Espresso Drinks

A photo of a coffee mug undeneath a drip coffee makerWritten by: Sam Zhang, 3rd Year Med Sci

Photo by: Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Do you like coffee but aren’t sure what you should order so you just order a latte every time? Don’t worry, I used to be like that too. After this blog, you will know everything there is to know about ordering an espresso drink at any specialty cafe around the world. So next time you visit a posh cafe, don’t be afraid to try something new.

#1. Espresso Shot

Let’s begin with the foundation of espresso drinks, the espresso shot itself. Believe it or not, there are so many ways to brew coffee that it makes your head spin, ranging from the cold nitro brew, vacuum pot, french press, to your good-ol North American drip coffee. Each has its own purpose, to elevate a certain aspect of the coffee bean it’s brewed from. The espresso can be thought of as the answer to the question: “How to stuff as much flavour (& caffeine) into the smallest volume of liquid possible?”

While most coffee snobs claim to know exactly what espresso is, it’s near impossible to actually define modern espresso. But for the sake of sanity, we will define espresso as a small strong shot of coffee brewed under pressure, covered with a foam called “crema”. Before someone sends me an email about the misrepresentation of espresso with the legal criteria for espresso given by the Italian Espresso Institute (yes, it’s real), it’s important to recognize that just like food, espresso differs between geographical locations and that variety makes it interesting.

While the espresso could be said to have been invented in the early 20th century, its rise to popularity occurred mostly after WWII when it broke into the post-war European culture. However, espresso didn’t become well known in North America until the “Second-Wave Coffee” movement marked by the growth of Peet’s coffee and its rival Starbucks. In terms of taste, when compared to drip coffee, espresso is very rich and viscose with delicate crema on the top. In general, one shot of espresso is brewed from about 7g of coffee yielding around 25mL of espresso. Each shot is about as strong as a small latte (you will see why) in terms of caffeine. At most cafes, you can just order a single or a double shot, but at Starbucks it’s called solo and doppio.

If you travel often, then you have probably ordered a shot of espresso (or even worse, a cup of milk) at a coffee shop abroad by accident. This is because, in Europe, Oceania, or Asia, espresso is the most common, or the only style of coffee available. So by default, coffee is a shot of espresso. If you want a taste of home, order drip coffee if they have it.

#2. Ristretto & Lungo

Ristretto is the Italian for “restricted”, this is a variation on the espresso where even less water is used and the taste is sweeter than espresso. However, you also get less coffee. 

A drink growing in popularity recently, Italian for “long”, Lungo is the opposite of Ristretto. You get more coffee brewed with more water.

However, these two are slightly too “WOKE” for Starbucks so they aren’t usually on the menu and the barista there might not be able to make one. You might need to search online for a specialty cafe if you want to try them.

#3. Americano

This is a way to make espresso similar in strength (not taste) to North American filtered drip coffee. It’s an espresso diluted with hot water.

#4. Long Black

A long black is similar to an Americano but with more coffee and less water. Generally, it’s a double ristretto mixed with hot water.

#5. Espresso Romano

Espresso with a hint of lemon added.

#6. Espresso Con Panna

This is just espresso with a bit of cream (whipped or double) added on top. The name just means “espresso with cream”. From here on, the drinks increase gradually in milkiness as we go down the list.

#7. Macchiato

It means “marked”, traditionally (in Europe) it’s an espresso with a tiny bit of milk. But for modern espresso, especially in North America, it’s made with about an equal amount of milk and espresso, partially because latte arts are cool and require more milk.

The greatest scam in coffee: Starbucks caramel macchiato is not a macchiato but instead is actually a latte with caramel drizzled on top. Technically the name “caramel macchiato” means  “caramel marked” in fake Italian (should be caramello macchiato). But I’m not going to buy this poor excuse, especially when they are listed under macchiato in the menu, and so many people order it thinking that’s what macchiato tastes like that the regular macchiato needed to be renamed to “espresso macchiato”.

#8. Cortado & Piccolo

Cortado is basically a macchiato but instead of regular milk, you steam the milk first. Piccolo is just a miniature latte. Some places offer a Gibraltar which is a 1:1 mix of milk and espresso. They all can sometimes taste essentially the same depending on the store.

#9. Cappuccino

Believe it or not, cappuccino likely predated espresso and originated as a similar but different drink. The name comes from the German word “kapuziner” and describes the color of the drink as being similar to that of the color of the robes monks from the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin wore.

It’s a relatively strong drink made using steamed milk and espresso, with a thick layer of creamy foam on top.

#10. Flat White

It’s often described as a stronger latte with less milk, but could also be thought of like a cappuccino with less foam and a bit more milk.

#11. Latte

A relatively weak drink, well-liked by people who enjoy milkier and sweeter cups of coffee. Generally made with more milk compared with a cappuccino, and this extra milk allows baristas to pour cool-looking latte arts. Breve Latte is a variation made with half and half cream instead of milk.

When travelling abroad, order Cafe Latte, not Latte. That’s how you get a confused Italian barista giving you a cup of milk.

#12. Corretto

Espresso with booze. Author’s note: “corretto” means “corrected”, which is absolutely the correct name for this drink.

#13. Mocha

Originally referring to coffee from the port of Mocha in Yemen, especially when mixed with coffee with Java. The blend is popular for its chocolatey flavour but is entirely unrelated to modern Mocha drink. How the modern mocha came about is really a mystery, but regardless, it’s generally considered to be a cup of hot chocolate mixed with a shot of espresso.

Often looked down on by espresso enthusiasts, but it’s my favourite. It’s just the right blend of sweet and bitter, the best of both coffee and hot chocolate.  

#14. Red-eye

The name refers to sleep-deprived individuals, and it’s a super-strong cup of coffee made from a cup of North American drip coffee and a shot of espresso. Also, it’s what keeps me up on an all-nighter. Just ask for an extra espresso shot with your drip coffee, some baristas don’t know the name.

#15. Affogato

“Wait, that’s not a drink! It’s solid”, well, unfortunately, I get to write this blog so I’m adding it because it’s great. It’s a shot of espresso poured over a scoop of vanilla gelato.

PSA: Starbucks Cup Sizes

Seemingly with the goal of confusing customers, Starbucks named the small 12oz cup “Tall”. But the actual reason is that the original sizes go from short (8oz), tall (12oz), grande(16oz), venti(24oz), and trenta(32 oz). Originally, you could order drinks in short, but people thought short was too small so they removed it, leaving tall as the smallest size for most drinks. The sizes are in Italian like everything else because it’s good marketing.


To be honest, just drink whatever you like. Most coffee shops, especially chain stores like Starbucks don’t have good enough coffee beans for it to be worth drinking black. I would just recommend going to a specialty coffee shop to try an espresso, macchiato, or cappuccino (try a coffee tasting menu if they have one). Latte and mocha are less affected by the quality of the coffee itself, especially when sugar is added. At the end of the day, let’s be real, we all drink coffee for the caffeine and the flavour is really just secondary.

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