As the days get colder and the coats get puffier, the coffee lines get longer. Instead of standing in front of the barista at a loss for words, it might help to know a little bit more about all the options that the full espresso bar presents you.
Now, I was classically trained by La Colombe out of Chicago, but the makeup of espresso drinks is, for the most part, universal. The biggest exception, of course, is Starbucks. Their caramel macchiato is an iced caramel latte anywhere else. I cannot even begin to describe how priceless the encounters are when I have to explain to someone that, yes, they did order a macchiato, and yes, Starbucks is the outlier. Here is where it might be nifty to learn a thing or two about what happens at the espresso bar. Find your order, learn something new and shock the barista by knowing what you are ordering before you order it.
The foundation of any drink off of the espresso bar, except for chai lattes but we will get to that later, is espresso (pronounced ESS-PRESSO, not EX-PRESSO). A common misconception is that espresso is a specific kind of bean. In fact, it is a method that turns coffee into a concentration. Extracted in groups of two, one shot of espresso is equal in caffenation to a 12 ounce cup of regular coffee.
To achieve a perfect espresso shot, the coffee is ground fresh into a portafilter (the strange tool in the photo above), firmly pressed down using a force of about 35 pounds, tapped on the side to loosen the extra grounds, tapped again and then inserted into the espresso machine. The ideal shot takes about 23 seconds to extract; this number wavers depending on the coarseness of the grounds which the barista can change by hand at any given point of time. As a fun fact, the way in which the beans react to this compression can be manipulated due to factors like the weather. In other words, how the espresso shot pulls is something that should be monitored by the barista at all times.
The keys to determining the quality of the espresso shot are the elephant tail and the crema. The elephant tail is regarding the shape and speed of the espresso as it is extracting. The stream should slightly curve inward and be medium-thin in thickness. Once the shot has settled, the next important quality is the crema, or the lighter brown layer on top. It is not necessarily fair to say that the thicker the crema, the better the espresso. Rather, the crema should be of a certain thickness– around a centimeter. If your shots pass these two checkpoints, congratulations, you are on your way to being a professional. This is the drink you get when you have a very small amount of time to get a very big project done. It is also the key ingredient to every coffeehouse.
A latte, as with nearly all espresso drinks drinks, is a combination of milk, foam and espresso. In regard to proportions, a latte is about 75 percent steamed milk (it has the consistency of wet paint), 10 percent foam and 15 percent espresso. This is easily the most instagrammed drink since baristas are often required to draw an image with their foam. This is a hard skill to hone. Tip them.
From a latte you can get a mocha (add chocolate syrup), a pumpkin spice latte (add pumpkin spice syrup) and a dirty chai (more on this later).
A cappuccino is similar to a latte, but with more foam. The trick is to steam the milk in a way where the foam is thick– this process is called “stretching”– and not just a bunch of little bubbles. A quality cappuccino comes from a barista who knows their fundamentals. Once you have this drink down, you can master anything.
The makeup of a cappuccino is a double shot of espresso and then the rest of the cup is filled with equal parts milk and foam. Though it is typically stronger than a latte, the drink is still primarily milk. If you really want to impress your local barista, ask for the cappuccino either “wet” or “dry”. A wet cappuccino is essentially a latte, meaning less foam than usual for a cappuccino. A dry cappuccino is almost a macchiato in the traditional sense of mostly foam and espresso.
As previously touched upon, the term “macchiato” has a direct Italian translation of meaning “marked with foam”. Taking a double shot of espresso, the barista places a dollop of foam on top. This is the second strongest drink that a barista can give you. Use it wisely.
A cortado is equal parts espresso, milk and foam. It is served in a cute little cup called a gibraltar and I love it. This drink is stronger than a cappuccino but has the same general proportions. This is the drink I recommend for those who want one of the strongest drinks possible, but not necessarily the strongest.
An americano has a similar taste to drip coffee and essentially the same brewing process on a smaller scale. Espresso shots are poured on top of hot water and served as such. The americano should have a crema just like the espresso shot. If you are someone who wants a pourover but you do not have enough time to wait ten minutes, get an americano.
Triple Lindy/Red Eye
This is the strongest thing that a barista can give you, and yes, it should come with a verbal warning. A triple Lindy, also known as a red eye, is a combination of coffee with a double shot of espresso on top. You will be awake for days.
Chai Tea Latte
There are two common misconceptions with chai tea lattes. The first is that there is espresso in the drink. This is not the case. A second mistake is that a chai tea and a chai tea latte are the same thing. This is also wrong. A chai tea is, well, tea. A chai tea latte is half milk and half a chai concentrate. In regard to health, the chai latte is actually worse for you than two cans of soda whereas the chai tea is incredibly good for you. To each their own seasonal specialty.
Dirty Chai Tea Latte
A dirty chai tea latte is the exact same thing as a regular chai tea latte but with an espresso shot on top, hence the dirtiness.
A hot chocolate is a mocha without the espresso. As we all probably know, it is steamed milk with chocolate sauce. If the barista knows what is good for them, they have homemade whipped cream. It is magic and completely transforms the drink. Also, ask for cinnamon on top.
These drinks are all available hot or iced, decaf or regular, and in a mug or to-go at every coffee shop with a full espresso bar. Deviation comes in regard to the barista crafting your drink, the bean supplier and the ambience of the shop. Wherever you go, keep those three things in mind.