In my coffee preparation guides and automatic espresso machine reviews, I'm constantly referencing this espresso drink or that cold brew cocktail. I figured it might be a good idea to write a comprehensive guide to the different types of coffee drinks.
In my coffee preparation guides and automatic espresso machine reviews, I’m constantly referencing this espresso drink or that cold brew cocktail. I figured it might be a good idea to write a comprehensive guide to the different types of coffee drinks.
After all, if you’re new to the wonderful world of coffee, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed by the sheer scope of coffee types. There are just so many questions:
- What is a cortado?
- How is it different from a cappuccino?
- Is cold brew the same as iced coffee?
- How many types of coffee drinks are there?
Even if you’ve been drinking coffee for years, you might be a little intimidated at the prospect of branching out and trying something new. So, I’ve done my best to gather together the most popular types of coffee drinks and to give you some background on each.
Still, part of what makes coffee such a fascinating subject is that things are always changing and evolving. I fully expect to hear from you about the latest trends in the world of coffee drinks, so this guide will likely expand over time.
Table of Contents
Brewed Coffee: Back to Basics
Any discussion of the different types of coffee drinks has to start with a simple cup of black coffee. After all, before there were caramel macchiatos, flat whites or even espresso, there was just, well…coffee.
In my article on how to make coffee, I touch on how simple the concept really is: hot water and ground coffee beans mingle together for a while and the resulting liquid is coffee.
On street corners throughout Indonesia, vendors sell kopi tubruk — plain black coffee. Upon asking for coffee, you’re given a glass containing hot water and super fine coffee powder. There’s no filter and no frills — you simply wait for the powder to sink to the bottom. Then you get to enjoy some strong coffee.
I’ve got no problem with brewed coffee in its simplest form, but the subject would be pretty dull if that’s all there was. Thankfully, there are countless ways to brew a cup of black coffee. The results vary widely, depending on which method you use.
Brewing your favorite beans in a French press will result in a satisfying, full-bodied cup of coffee.
On the other hand, you’ll get a clean, complex result when using the same beans with a pour-over coffee maker. Even the good old kitchen coffee maker has made great strides in recent times. Check out my review of the Technivorm Moccamaster to see the latest in coffee maker capabilities.
Best coffee maker
Cafe Au Lait
A traditional morning drink in France involves adding hot milk to strong, black coffee. The resulting cafe au lait, or “coffee with milk,” is consumed from large bowls, into which croissants are dunked with joyful abandon.
It’s one of the names for coffee that can be difficult to say for non-French speakers. There’s nothing inherently French about this type of coffee drink though. Cultures across the world do the same thing.
There’s cafe con leche in Spanish-speaking countries, milchkaffee in Germany — the list goes on.
Preparing cafe au lait is as simple as it gets. There’s no need to worry about creating microfoam or a pretty design on top.
Depending on who you talk to, a true cafe au lait should be half coffee and half hot milk. That said, it’s really a matter of taste.
Espresso: The Coffee That Launched a Thousand Drinks
If you ask someone to talk about their favorite types of coffee drinks, you can expect to hear a list of beverages that involve espresso as an ingredient. There are many different types of espresso drinks!
This concentrated elixir forms the base for many a coffee shop favorite, though far too many people seem hell-bent on disguising the coffee flavor with as much sugary syrup and whipped cream as possible.
It’s important to note that a “true” espresso — with its incredible complexity and aromatic crema — can only be achieved by using a portafilter machine.
Also known as a stovetop espresso maker, a moka pot such as the Bialetti Moka Express acts more like a percolator and doesn’t produce anything like the 9 bars of pressure needed for real espresso. However, you can get rich, aromatic coffee from this Italian classic.
As I’ve mentioned before, there’s still a surprising amount of confusion surrounding espresso shot volumes. Every other cafe seems to have its own idea of what an espresso should look like, and I’m often disappointed.
- A ristretto or “restricted” shot of espresso should have a volume of around 0.84 ounces (25 milliliters), and the extraction time should take around 25 seconds. With these specifications, the result will be a perfectly balanced and complex espresso with no hint of bitterness.
- A doppio espresso is the way to go if you want more volume. It’s fairly straightforward: double the amount of ground coffee used in the portafilter. Then, lengthen the extraction time and you’ll end up with more espresso to savor.
According to historians, American soldiers stationed in Italy during World War II just couldn’t handle the strong espresso they were served in local cafes. Their solution was to add hot water in order to create a drink that was more like the coffee they enjoyed in their home country.
Whether or not this story is true, a cafe americano is a rich and deeply satisfying beverage. An americano’s intensity varies depending on the ratio of espresso to water, but one thing is certain: you can’t hide badly extracted espresso, no matter how much water you add.
In Italy, an Americano is called a lungo, and is created by pulling an extra-long shot of espresso. That’s fair enough.
In Australia, though, they’ve come up with the long black. This is supposedly different from an americano because the espresso is added to the hot water, rather than the other way around.
Unfortunately, no one told the Aussies that baristas around the world have been preparing americanos like this for years.
Milk-Based Espresso Drinks
It’s no secret that perfectly steamed, full-fat cow’s milk is utterly delicious. I’m resisting the urge to turn that into a cheesy joke!
The fat in cow’s milk is a fantastic flavor carrier, and ensures a satisfyingly creamy texture when heated.
Plus, the sugars in milk are broken down and caramelized during the steaming process, creating a pleasant sweetness.
All this, in combination with well-extracted espresso, equals a match made in heaven.
It’s important not to overheat milk, though. Scalded milk tastes like soggy cardboard and most certainly doesn’t enhance the flavor of espresso.
That’s why I always ask baristas not to make my cafe latte, Cortado or Cappuccino too hot. A good barista should already know this, but ya just never know.
As I mentioned in my milk foam guide, I’m really not a fan of nonfat milk. It’s watery, full of extra sugar and just generally out of balance.
Anyway, as long as you aren’t downing three 16-ounce cafe lattes a day, a little full-fat milk with your espresso won’t impact your waistline.
Plant-based milk alternatives are more popular than ever, and every cafe offers at least one or two choices. I can’t admit to having tried them all, but I am a fan of Oatly. Although the flavor takes a bit of getting used to, oat milk steams up really nicely.
I recommend avoiding almond milk. Most of the world’s almonds are produced in drought-stricken California, yet it takes obscene amounts of water to sustain the trees.
I tend to think of cafe latte as a “gateway coffee.” It’s one of the most popular types of coffee drinks around, thanks to its mild, milky flavor profile. It’s perfect for those who are flirting with coffee for the first time.
The cafe latte originated in the United States, but its inspiration is the latte macchiato, an Italian classic. A small amount of espresso is drizzled over steamed milk in a tall glass, hence the name, “latte macchiato” which translates to “stained milk.”
Ideally, a cafe latte should consist of a double shot of espresso, 236 to 295 ml (8 to 10 oz) of steamed milk and half an inch of silky foam on top.
That said, it’s quite common to see people walking around with 591 ml (20 oz) lattes, pumped full of artificially flavored syrup and topped with whipped cream.
If you’re interested in a flavorful latte without sugar, check out my pumpkin spice latte recipe.
Cappuccino is one of Italy’s most beloved exports, and enjoys popularity worldwide. It was sidelined for a while, but has made a comeback in recent years. It’s a great example of one of the many types of espresso drinks that people love to drink.
Just don’t order a cappuccino in Italy after about 10 a.m. There, cappuccino is strictly a breakfast drink, and your server will judge you harshly.
A traditional cappuccino involves equal parts espresso, steamed milk and dense foam. Whereas, a “dry” cappuccino is nothing more than espresso and foam.
In either case, a cappuccino shouldn’t exceed 8 ounces, although many hip third wave cafes only offer a 6-ounce option.
Please don’t ask for a 12-ounce cappuccino in one of these places unless you want to be talked down to and “re-educated.”
I go into greater detail about cappuccinos in my article How to Make Cappuccino.
Until fairly recently, hardly anyone outside Australia had heard of a flat white coffee. These days, it’s a firm favorite in trendy cafes from London to New York and everywhere in between. What is a flat white coffee, exactly? A wet cappuccino? A small cafe latte?
Flat white advocates will tell you it’s all about the texture of the milk. The microfoam has to be “just so” to qualify the resulting blend of espresso and steamed milk for true flat white status.
Personally, I remain skeptical about the whole thing. Call me cynical, but I feel like the flat white is little more than a marketing ploy, designed to convince us there’s a new and exciting way to drink coffee with steamed milk.
Espresso macchiato is another coffee drink that originated in Italy, where it’s called cafe macchiato.
As I mentioned in my guide to espresso macchiato, this is one of the types of coffee drinks that’s a firm favorite among seasoned baristas.
This elegant little beverage consists of a single or double ristretto shot of espresso, “stained” with a small amount of fine milk foam. The milk enhances the complex espresso without diluting it too much, resulting in a rich and delicious drink.
It’s important not to confuse the espresso macchiato with the Starbucks caramel macchiato abomination.
When ordering, make sure your barista knows exactly what you want. Otherwise, you run the risk of walking out of there holding an enormous sugary concoction, topped with whipped cream and containing all your calories for the week.
Hailing from Spain, cortado is another popular coffee drink that’s now found all over the world.
Cortado translates as “cut” and refers to the warm milk “cutting through” the espresso to soften it.
Inevitably, the hipster third wave movement appropriated the cortado, and it’s now a favorite among coffee snobs.
That’s not to say that cortado isn’t a fabulous coffee drink, though!
A good cortado is slightly larger than an espresso macchiato, comprising equal parts espresso and steamed milk. The milk shouldn’t be too hot, and the texture should be similar to a cafe latte.
A cortado is usually served in a small glass. In fact, you’ll sometimes hear it referred to as a “Gibraltar,” which refers to the type of glass that Blue Bottle Coffee Roasters uses for their cortados. You get extra hipster points for ordering it that way.
Coffee and chocolate share many similarities, and can often be found growing on the same plantation. They tend to display many of the same tasting notes, so it’s no surprise that they go great together. A cafe mocha is essentially a cafe latte with the addition of chocolate.
The best cafe mochas contain specialty chocolate sauce that’s blended with hot espresso. I don’t need to tell you how delicious this concoction becomes with the further addition of hot milk!
Whether or not you choose to go all the way and add whipped cream and chocolate shavings on top is up to you. The cafe borgia variation involves orange zest, which adds a completely different dimension, flavor-wise.
Endless Summer: Iced Coffee Drinks
In my guide to making iced coffee drinks, I go into detail about all the different ways you can enjoy coffee on ice. I even show you how to make coffee ice cubes — the ultimate iced coffee hack for lazy bums.
The market for iced coffee drinks has exploded in recent years, and supermarket shelves are bursting with a million different versions of canned cold brew. I have no problem with this whatsoever. I enjoy all types of iced coffee drinks and love experimenting with new flavor combinations.
DeLonghi has even developed TrueBrew Over Ice technology to make it easy to create iced coffee drinks on a super automatic espresso machine. You see it on models such as the DeLonghi Dinamica and the DeLonghi Dinamica Plus.
As it happens, cafe americano is as tasty and satisfying when iced as it is hot. This is one of my all-time favorite ways to enjoy iced coffee.
Espresso is added to water at room temperature, then ice is added to the glass. As the ice melts, it helps create the right ratio of water to espresso, and all’s right with the world.
I’ve heard that some baristas never pour hot espresso directly onto ice, as this “shocks” the delicate coffee and deadens the flavor. Whether there’s any science to back this up, I really can’t say. It certainly sounds cool though!
Cold Brew Coffee
The current craze for cold brew coffee doesn’t seem to be dissipating and, quite frankly, why should it? After all, making a batch of cold brew is about as simple as it gets.
You just immerse ground coffee in room-temperature water for a few hours, filter it, then add ice and enjoy.
Of course, different coffee beans and varying extraction times all have an effect on the results, but in general, cold brew coffee is light, floral and incredibly refreshing.
It’s the type of coffee drink you want to sip on a hot day.
Cold brew takes milk, cream and plant-based milk alternatives really well, and it makes an excellent base for creative cocktails. You just need to be careful, as it goes down really easily.
Whenever I’m in a cafe with cold brew on a nitro tap, I always give it a go. The combination of pressure and nitrogen gives cold brew coffee a creamy texture and adds a pleasant sweetness to the flavor profile.
Iced Latte and Iced Mocha
Cafe lattes and cafe mochas are both delicious as iced coffee drinks. It’s as simple as it sounds: instead of steaming the milk, it’s just added to the espresso, along with a scoop of ice.
A similar but more calorie-intensive take on the iced latte is Vietnamese iced coffee. The strong, syrupy coffee is made with a dripper called a phin, which means “filter.”
It takes about five minutes to brew. Sweetened condensed milk is then added, followed by plenty of ice. The results are decadent and delicious. Plus, the caffeine buzz from one of these things is pretty intense — perfect for working off all those calories!
Affogato: Last But Not Least!
Although we’re crossing into dessert territory, this coffee drinks guide just wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the affogato. Yum!
This decadent concoction involves pouring hot espresso over vanilla ice cream, resulting in a melty and absolutely delicious flavor combination.
In Italy, this indulgent experience is called affogato al cafe, and is often enhanced through the addition of a shot of alcohol. If you can imagine anything more delicious than espresso, ice cream and Kahlua, I’d like to hear about it.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my guide to the different types of coffee drinks. What’s your favorite coffee drink? Is there a timeless classic that I’ve overlooked? I look forward to your comments!