Coffee Words

Coffee Words, Decoded

Coffee Words

Cary, NC — I’ll have a two-shot, skinny, half-caff, no-foam latte with caramel. This “complicated coffee order” is a source of confusion for many coffee enthusiasts and non-coffee drinkers alike. I’ll translate the meaning of this drink along with other confusing “coffee words.”

Coffee Words, Decoded

Do you know the difference between a latte and a cappuccino? Have you ever tried an Americano? What does it mean for a drink to be skinny or dry? Coffee words can confuse anyone, so whether you’re a coffee newbie or loyal to your daily cup, I hope this guide helps you order your coffee with confidence.

Coffee vs. Espresso

Let’s start with the basics – coffee vs. espresso (not to be called expresso).

Espresso is, essentially, super-concentrated coffee. One “shot” of espresso is approximately one ounce of liquid, but even that little bit is enough to give you the same “caffeine buzz” that you’d get from drinking one eight ounce cup of regular, brewed coffee.

Most of the drinks you order from a coffee house are made with espresso, not coffee, which gives the drink a bolder, smoother taste and allows ingredients like milk and chocolate to be added without diluting the beverage. Basics like lattes, mochas and cappuccinos are all made with espresso, along with many other beverages.

What’s a _____?

People order lattes and cappuccinos all the time, but a surprising number of coffee drinkers don’t understand the difference between the two. If you’re confused, here’s your cheat sheet, and, if you’re not, who knows? Maybe you’ll discover a drink you didn’t even know you could order, like my personal favorite–the Americano.

Espresso Drinks

For the most part, unless you order tea or plain ol’ coffee, any hot drink (and many cold drinks) you purchase at a coffee shop will be made with espresso. These, however, always are:

Latte – Espresso and steamed milk
The name is a shortened form of the Italian “caffellaatte,” which means “milk coffee.”

Cappuccino – Espresso, steamed milk and lots of froth (foam)

The ingredients in these drinks are the same; it’s the amounts that make them different. A cappuccino is 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk and 1/3 foam. A latte is a cup of espresso and steamed milk with just a dollop of froth on top.

Mocha – Espresso, steamed milk and chocolate

Americano – Espresso and water

The Americano is the “espresso version” of a cup of coffee. The espresso is diluted with water, then, it can be enjoyed black or with cream, sugar, etc. Think of it as a richer, smoother, cup of coffee. Sometimes, Americanos aren’t listed on menus, but, if a coffee shop serves espresso, they can make one for you.

Espresso – Some people just order espresso shots straight-up; often served in teeny cups

Depth Charge – Brewed coffee with a shot (or more, if desired) of espresso

These are often called different names at different coffee houses–a large coffee chain calls them “Red Eyes.” Like Americanos, these may not be on the menu, but you can order “a coffee with a shot of espresso” almost anywhere.

Breve – A latte made with steamed half & half instead of steamed milk

Drinks Made With Plain Ol’ Coffee

Are any “coffee drinks” at a coffee house actually made with coffee? Well, espresso is coffee (hence the confusion). However, if you’re wondering if anything is made with good, plain ol’ coffee, the answer is yes. You can always ask for flavored syrups or chocolate in your drip coffee if you want something more than just cream and sugar.

You could also order a cafe au lait, which is coffee with steamed milk poured over it. It’s frothy like a latte without the espresso shots, and you won’t need to add cream. And, at some coffee houses, frozen, blended drinks are made with a cold coffee base instead of espresso.

Descriptor Language

Now that you know what drinks you can order, let’s translate “drink descriptors,” the odd terms used to specify what ingredients (or how much of them) you want in your beverage.

Half (1/2) Caff – Not decaffeinated but not full caffeine, either.

Keep in mind that large drinks can contain as much as four, five, or even six shots–even when ordered half-caff, that’s a lot of caffeine! If I want to consume the volume of a large espresso drink, I always order half-caff to enjoy a big drink without getting shaky.

Skinny – Skim milk is substituted for the default milk (which is usually 2%).

Sometimes, people will also use the term skinny to imply that they don’t want whipped cream on top of their drink. Most baristas will ask customers who order skinny if they want whip or not–but if you have a whip/no-whip preference, it’s better to just say so.

Sugar-free – Not to be confused with skinny, sugar-free implies that, if a drink contains syrup or chocolate, you’d like it made with an artificially sweetened substitute.

Common syrups, like caramel, vanilla and hazelnut (and sometimes chocolate) usually come in sugar-free versions, but this varies by coffee house.

Dry – This cappuccino descriptor means that you want more than 1/3 of the drink to be foam.

Wet – Another cappuccino descriptor, this means that you want less foam–somewhat of a mix between a latte and a classic, 1/3 foam cappuccino.

You don’t ever need to use the terms “dry” or “wet” unless you’re ordering a cappuccino.

1 Shot, 2 Shot, Extra Shot, etc. – A “shot” is one ounce of espresso.

You don’t really need to specify how many shots you want, because the various sizes already come with a set number, though many order an “extra shot” if they’re feeling tired.

Customize Your Drink

Coffee houses, especially in the mornings, are busy places. Partly to speed up ordering, and partly because drink combinations are endless, many beverage options aren’t listed on the menu. All you need to know are the “often hidden” espresso drinks listed above and the different types of syrups and chocolates available.

If the coffee house has cinnamon syrup, you could, for example, order a mocha with cinnamon syrup (even if a caramel mocha” is the only flavored mocha on the menu). And, many drinks can be made over ice (iced) or blended (frozen) in addition to their hot versions.

Putting It All Together

Now, as promised, let’s translate a two-shot, skinny, half-caff, no-foam latte with caramel. You should be able to do it yourself now.

I’ll have a no-foam caramel latte made with skim milk, two shots of espresso and half the caffeine.


Story by Jessica Patrick. Photo by Will Keightley

1 reply
  1. Len Nieman
    Len Nieman says:

    I’ve learned enough new languages in my life. I think I’ll stick to the places that give you a mug of coffee with the cream and sugar along side.

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