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The Espresso Menu Explained

Introduction


The coffee menu and what defines your favorite beverage is a hotly debated topic among baristas, coffee enthusiasts, and casual café goers everywhere. The exact definition of what constitutes a latte or a cappuccino has changed over the decades, and the drinks still vary greatly depending on where you order them. Let’s look at the coffee menu as experienced today and consider where these drinks came from.

Espresso/Short Black


This is the basic building block for almost every other drink you make. A single espresso can be beautiful and delicious or even truly horrible, depending on the barista's skill. There’s a bit of variation in what can be defined as ‘espresso’.


Most baristas would agree that espresso should be brewed at a ratio of 1:2. So, a 22g dose of coffee would be extracted to produce a 44g double espresso. Still, not everyone brews their espresso at a 1:2 ratio. Some baristas prefer to make their espresso lighter and more diluted, brewing at a 1:2.5 ratio (or 22g in, 55g out), while some prefer stronger, more intense espresso, brewing at ratios as little as 1:1.5 or 22g in, 33g out.


Not every café uses the same amount of coffee in their basket. Here at The Coffee Cup, we dose 17-17.5g and yield approximately 34-35g for a double espresso. The variation in each shot pulled comes from a myriad of elements, from the temperament of the beans due to the roasting process or the atmospheric pressure in the café to the espresso machine's water output based on the pressure and duration of each shot.


In the USA, hearing 19-20g in and 38-40g out is more common. In the UK, 18g in and 36g out is the norm. In Italy, where making a single espresso is more common, your barista is likely dosing 7g in and 14g out. They’re all brewing coffee to the same strength but yielding different amounts, so while we use the same name—espresso—we can get different-sized drinks.


For an interesting perspective, check out the results of this 2015 survey, which James Hoffman published: The State of Espresso in 2015.


Long Black/Americano


A long black is typically a double espresso extracted over hot water. How much water goes into a long black varies from café to café, but ‘enough to fill the cup’ is a good rule of thumb. Depending on the size of the cups you’re using, that might mean your long blacks are 2oz of espresso and 10oz of water, or 2oz of espresso and 14oz of water – or even something else entirely! The temperature of the water should also be considered. Most machines dispense water at tea brewing temperature instead of drinking temperature. Therefore, considerate baristas might mix some cooler water into their long blacks so they can be drunk sooner rather than later.


Milk Coffees


Love it or hate it, the reality is that over time the humble flat white, latte, and cappuccino have become more similar than different. Back in the olden days, the espresso for a latte was poured into a handled glass, and the milk and foam were intentionally separated into layers that the consumer had to stir together before drinking. This looked very dramatic but wasn’t particularly practical or enjoyable.


Cappuccinos were made with mountainous peaks of dry, cloud-like foam, and this drink varies greatly depending on the barista’s skill set or where in the world you order your drink. Here in Providence, Rhode Island, baristas customarily make a light microfoam-style cappuccino that avoids the soap bubbles that can be seen in so many other markets.


So customers started asking for a more straightforward coffee than these two—plain creamy coffee, in a cup, without all that frothy nonsense. And thus, the term "regular" gained the definition of cream and sugar mixed into your classic coffee.


Back then, the flat white was literally a milky coffee in a cup with no foam whatsoever, and some people still make them like that today. However, as baristas became more skilled at their craft, foam crept back onto flat whites as baristas wanted to balance the cup with a little creaminess and display their latte art skills. Seeing these professional drink handlers create hearts and tulips with the most minimal foam canvas is awe-inspiring.


As the takeaway coffee culture surged, cappuccinos, lattes, and flat whites were served in paper cups far more frequently than in their original glass or ceramic vessels. Their differences became less pronounced, with only foam depth differentiating them. This drink differentiation crept back into the dine-in versions of the drink.


Macchiato


This single beverage probably has more variations than the rest of the espresso menu combined. The word ‘Macchiato’ means ‘stained’ in Italian, so the drink was initially prepared as an espresso, which was ‘stained’ with just a dash of textured milk. The exact amount of milk this ‘dash’ contained became the point of interpretation for baristas and consumers alike. People also fill their macchiatos with various levels, ranging from barely any milk to half-filled or topped up completely.


Long macchiatos experience more variety again. An Australian ‘invention’, they’re bigger drinks consisting of two shots of espresso but are typically served in a latte glass. The traditional method was to add just a dash of milk to these drinks as well, but many consumers then found the beverage too intense or lacking in overall volume. To dilute the coffee, people started asking for more milk (or water!) in their macchiato, and today, there are many different varieties of this drink to offer.

Ultimately, we like to inform customers about what drink they are requesting. This consideration is a professional split-second judgment, a moment of calculating if they know what they are ordering or if we can smoothly explain to them what they ordered is not quite what they envisioned. After all, Starbucks has entirely altered American coffee culture. If you don't know what I mean, go to Starbucks and order a Macchiato, then go to a traditional café and order the same thing. The two drinks are made on totally different planets.


Cortado


These are essentially smaller, stronger lattes. They’re served in an espresso cup and are the same as a short macchiato that’s been topped up. It is said to have originated in the Basque region of Spain in the early 20th century, where it was known as "Café con Leche Pequeño" or "small coffee with milk." In its original form, the cortado was made with a single shot of espresso and an equal amount of steamed milk. As many traditions do, this drink evolved as it migrated, and when it reached the Americas, it changed into what we at The Coffee Cup now serve: a double shot of espresso with roughly an equal amount of milk.


Ordering Your Coffee


The espresso menu can seem confusing and inconsistent and varies from café to café, city to city, and country to country. This can be a point of confusion for customers. They want to get the coffee they like but don’t want to feel uncomfortable in the process of ordering. This is where empathy from hospitality professionals is vital. For some, this makes ordering a simple decision; for others, it adds to confusion.


Other menus list all the options exhaustively, taking up half a wall in the process, naming all the possible variations on offer, but the prices remained the same. This was confusing in its own way. Choice is essential, of course, but too much choice can be overwhelming when all you want is something delicious.


Ultimately, this is where a barista's discretion becomes the game-changer. Each coffee drinker’s preference is unique, leading them toward particular service styles. There’s no single ‘right’ way to do things; make sure you put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t know the difference (or lack thereof) between a flat white and a macchiato. We were all that person once upon a time.

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