Different Types of Coffee Drinks Explained for Beginners

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Understanding the different types of coffee drinks can be confusing.

If you’re like I was, you’ve heard of some of the basics (espresso, latte, etc.), and have your safe go-to order when it’s your turn in line at the local coffee shop.  “I’ll have a grande vanilla latte please…”

But do you really know the difference between them all?

What separates a cappuccino from a macchiato? What about the other dozen options chalked in on the blackboard?

We’ve done the research and explained the differences between some of the most popular types of coffee drinks.  If you want to branch out with your next order, or you are looking to be more creative with your home brew, read on to learn more. 

Latte (Café Latte)

The latte is the most commonly ordered coffee drink in the United States.  Most likely due to its smooth milky texture and mild flavor. Given the high milk to espresso ratio, the latte is the perfect drink for coffee newbies or people with sensitive pallets.

Ratio: 1 part espresso
2 parts steamed milk
Thin layer of milk foam

Pro tip: Try adding flavor using syrup or spices to experiment with your latte.

Cappuccino 

Cappuccinos are the most popular breakfast coffee drink in Italy.  But you don’t have to be Italian to enjoy this drink.  Cappuccinos are ordered round the clock worldwide!

Like the latte, cappuccinos are made by cutting espresso with steamed milk.  The difference is, cappuccinos use less milk which gives them a bolder flavor. Don’t be fooled by the smaller cup cappuccinos are served in. This drink is meant to be sipped slowly. 

Ratio: 1 part espresso
1 part steamed milk
1 part milk foam

Pro tip: Try sprinkling cocoa or cinnamon on top for a little sweetness and flavor.

Americano

An Americano is similar to a standard black coffee. Both use hot water to cut the strong flavor of the coffee base.  The difference is, an Americano always starts with an espresso shot for the base. Hot water is simply poured into the espresso shot to dilute. 

Black coffee can come in many forms; drip, pour over, french press, etc.

Some people prefer an Americano since it tends to retain more of the full flavor of the coffee.  Plus you still get all the caffeine from the espresso shot! 

Ratio: 1-2 shots espresso
6-8 oz. hot water 

Fun fact: The Americano originated during WWII, when American soldiers stationed in Italy were served water-down espresso to help ration the scarce amounts of coffee. 

Espresso

This Italian coffee drink uses pressurized steam forced through finely ground beans to produce a strong cup of coffee. It is highly concentrated and served solo or as the base to several different coffee drinks (many listed in this article).

Typically served in a small demitasse cup, this drink is meant to be sipped slowly.

Ratio: Single shot = 1 oz. coffee
Double shot = 2 oz. coffee

Tip: Use a small spoon to gently stir your cup as you drink.  Since you’ll be drinking it slowly, this helps keep it from settling.

Macchiato

Meaning “stain” in Italian, the macchiato gets its name from the mark made by adding a small amount of steamed milk or foam to the top of an espresso shot.  

As far as coffee drinks go, macchiatos are as close to a straight up shot of espresso as they come.  If you like the rich bold flavor of espresso, but are wanting to branch out, a macchiato is a great place to start.

Ratio: 1-2 shots espresso
1-2 teaspoons of steamed milk or foam

Tip: If you don’t like the boldness of the traditional macchiato, try a latte macchiato. Like what you’ll find at Starbucks, they have a far more milky flavor and texture.

Cortado

The cortado is possibly the most balanced espresso-based coffee drink. Cortado means “cut” in Spanish, which is appropriate given the way the milk cuts through the strong espresso.  What you are left with is a balanced, mild flavor with a very creamy texture. 

Ratio: 1 part espresso
1 part steamed milk (No foam)

Iced Coffee

Simply put, an iced coffee is any coffee prepared hot then added to ice to cool it down.  There are a variety of ways to do this, making iced coffee one of the most versatile coffee drinks out there. 

Try it black or mix it up by adding milk and/or a sweetener!

Ratio: 2 oz. drip coffee or espresso
4 oz. ice
4-6 oz. cold water or milk (optional)

Tip: Be sure to chill your freshly brewed coffee in the refrigerator before adding it to your cup of ice.  This will slow the ice from melting and watering down your drink. 

Mocha 

A mocha is made by adding cocoa or chocolate syrup to a latte base.  They tend to vary depending on where you order them from, so feel free to experiment at home with your chocolate to coffee ratios.  Don’t forget to top it off with some whipped cream!

Ratio: 1 part espresso
2 parts steamed milk
Chocolate syrup/cocoa to taste
Whipped cream (optional)

Tip: Try blending your chocolate with your steamed milk before you add it to your espresso shot(s). This will give you a far richer creamier texture. 

What’s next?

So there you have it.  Eight of the most popular coffee drinks explained.  Hopefully this has equipped you with the knowledge you need to start branching out with your next cup. From a bold espresso to a mild mocha, I am sure there is a drink on this list that is perfect for your taste buds.  

If you are looking to make these yourself, head over to our article on how to make espresso at home. This will get you started on the right foot as most of the drinks above use espresso as their base.

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Neal Drown
Neal has been proudly wearing the label of coffee enthusiast for over a decade now. He has an M.A. in Research and a true passion for all things coffee. Let's Brew Coffee was created to leverage his skills as a researcher and deliver the best content available on crafting the perfect brew.