Sip on this hot coffee tutorial

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Editor’s note: Mrs. Language Person is taking a break this week. Her substitute? Ms. Coffee Person.

Coffee recipes may be short and simple, but their preparation isn’t — or, as coffee snobs would say, they shouldn’t be. Tuesday, your Ms. Coffee Person offered a barista’s primer on common coffee drinks. (Sorry; we baristas don’t all speak “Starbucks.”) Today, we go back to coffee basics, starting with the espresso shot.

Let’s start with our dubious American addition to the coffee legacy: the Americano, which, legend says, began as a way for our troops to enjoy their morning brew in World War II. Unaccustomed to the strong flavor of espresso already in vogue in Europe, one innovative G.I. Joe was said to have added hot water to his morning espresso, thus minimizing the bitterness and acidity often found in coffee. Voila, the Americano.

Civilians drink that by choice? Yes, sir. The extra water minimizes the natural bitterness of coffee, which is off-putting to some. The result is richer than what you brew at home without the extra milk that goes into most espresso-based drinks.

Does a large Americano actually have more coffee than a small? Usually. Most shops add more espresso shots to larger sizes, but some will only adjust the amount of water. But this is true of most espresso drinks.

The difference between a large and a small latte is how much milk and syrups are added to the espresso base. Some shops will add more shots of espresso, but many won’t assume you want the extra caffeine unless you ask.

Drip coffee is what we in the biz call “normal coffee,” often made by brewing coffee as you might at home. It’s called “drip” because it’s usually made by dripping boiling water into coffee grounds, and filtering through them into the pot.

Cold brew: This is simply any coffee brewed at cold temperature, and often has a stronger flavor. It’s commonly prepared by letting ground coffee and water sit in the fridge overnight.

Half-caf(feinated) or split-shot drinks are made with roughly half the caffeine. Instead of putting only caffeinated or non-caffeinated coffee in the espresso machine, we do some of each.

Skinny or non-fat drinks are made with low-fat or non-fat (dairy) milk, rather than with whole or 2 percent milk.

A breve is a latte made with cream instead of milk, or with half cream and half milk.

A café au lait is half a cup of strong drip coffee topped off with steamed milk.

Speaking of which, proper technique is required for milk as well. Beyond creating texture is knowing how to adjust for milk types — whole milk steams more easily than almond, and a good coconut milk cappuccino is the sign of a well-trained barista.

A chai latte is a type of tea inspired by a popular Indian tea drink — thus the term “chai,” which means tea in Hindi. This is made with a tea base and steamed milk; no espresso is involved. A dirty chai latte, however, has espresso shots added.

Curious about white coffee, or the differences among dark, medium, and light roast coffees? This goes back to how coffee is prepared. Lighter coffee beans have been roasted less, have the lightest flavor, and the most caffeine. White coffee is simply very light coffee. Dark coffee beans have been roasted longer, so dark coffees have relatively less caffeine and the strongest, richest flavor. Most espresso is made from dark-roasted coffee. Drip coffee varies by shop, but medium roasts seem to be more common.

So why do all of these simple drinks taste so different, depending on where you go? Ingredients and technique. Coffee from diverse climates grown in varied conditions, and roasted in different ways before they ever reach the shop will naturally hold different flavors. This variance in preparation also affects the differences between light/medium/dark and white coffee.

About all those other complicated names on the coffee menu, when all you want is your morning buzz, most are just fancy ways of indicating simple preferences (e.g. “skinny” to refer to low-fat milk). Feel free to refer to Tuesday’s primer at The others are likely house specials, particular combinations of milk or syrup choices known only to that shop. You’re right to be confused.

Can I still call it “normal coffee,” you ask? Of course. We know what you mean and we like simple coffee, too. Another sign of a good barista is knowing when to can the soliloquy and let the customer get back to their cuppa.

Your Ms. Coffee Person is signing off. Whether you’re a macchiato enthusiast or proud flag-bearer of our American(o) legacy, she hopes the next time you walk into your favorite coffee shop, you’ll swagger in, smug with the knowledge of a bona-fide coffee snob.

And please, folks, tip when you can.


Ms. Coffee Person is a Java barista, coffee snob, and Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy grad who, like many linguistics majors, is discovering more lucrative employment may lie in the coffee industry than her impending degree from Earlham College.

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