My three years at Starbucks led to quite an education on the subject of coffee and tea. The genesis of this document came from my early training at that job, shortly after I got out of college, and reflects pretty much everything I knew then and can remember now of the lingo. A lot of people do get intimidated by coffeehouse slang; comedians have made entire routines out of finding calling order and drink modifiers intimidating and confusing. This document is, in my opinion, still one of the best of its kind on the net, and now that I've moved it over to my new site on Google Sites, I intend to make it better.
The scope of this document covers as much as I know about the coffee-making and ordering process. Most of this is in the context of a commercial coffee bar (in my case, Starbucks store #871 in Belmont, MA, USA, where I worked for close to three years), but there is considerable overlap with your morning coffee routine. I do make the occasional disparaging joke; please understand that I intend only to insult ;-)
It may be worth mentioning that at least at Starbucks, many of the slang terms are deprecated for one reason or another. I don't hold with this particular policy, but it should be acknowledged.
barista -- The guy who makes the coffee. Italian for bartender, more or less, but in English exclusively means a coffeehouse bar operator. In this country barista is an occupation considered only slightly higher than burger flipper; in Italy it's a job with some respect. Of course, in Italy, almost all baristas are men, too...
Café Au Lait -- A drink consisting of half milk, half coffee. More or less the same thing as the Caffe Misto and far more common; despite similarity of construction, this is not the same thing as a Caffe Latte. Not even close. At least not the way I learned it. You can use either steamed or scalded milk for this, though the scalded milk may have a bit more of a caramelized taste to it.
Caffè Americano -- More or less a cup of coffee the long way around; consists of espresso and hot water. I imagine this term dates to the American occupation of Italy during WWII; I picture a GI ordering a "caffè" in a coffee bar somewhere and getting an espresso, then having it watered down to make it palatable. I'd appreciate a bit of corroboration on this...
Caffè Corretto -- An Italian term referring to coffee with a shot of liquor; literally means "corrected coffee", if you must know. Loosely related to the notorious Irish Coffee (coffee with whiskey and cream). Known in Spanish as El Carajillo and you really don't want to know what that means if you don't already.
Caffè Cubano -- A heavily sweetened shot of espresso. I make them at work by adding brown sugar directly to the portafilter, but that's not the canonical way of doing it; a good Cuban cookbook will give you the correct technique. Carries a considerable head of crema.
Caffè Latte -- A drink made by pulling a shot of espresso into a cup and filling it up with steamed milk, topping it off with foam. The quintessential product of an American coffee bar; Italians tend to prefer cappucinos and straight espresso.
Caffè Misto -- A drink made with half drip coffee, half steamed milk. The resulting drink is a slightly Italianized Café Au Lait. As far as I know, Starbucks may be the only place (at least in the United States) that uses this term in preference to the better known au lait; feel free to correct me on this.
Caffè Mocha -- Essentially a latte with chocolate syrup and often whipped cream. Often comes with whipped cream; Starbucks makes a rather nauseating variant called a Mocha Valencia that involves orange syrup and extra espresso to make it drinkable. Occasionally also referred to as a Mocha Latte.
Cappuccino -- A coffee drink consisting of roughly equal parts of espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam. Can also be made dry or wet; a true cappuccino rarely has flavoring and almost never has whipped cream, cinnamon, or a cherry on top. Just get this through your head: there is no such thing as cappuccino-flavored coffee.
Chai -- An Indian beverage (known more formally as chai masala) that is essentially spiced black tea in milk. Has become quite popular in recent years, and Starbucks sells Tazo's chai (mainly because they own them), which is quite good if a bit heavy on the black pepper; Oregon Chai is another common brand. Madhur Jaffrey (the Indian cookbook author) has at least one book with a recipe from scratch. If you want to make your own, common spices include coriander, ginger, star anise, and black pepper; steep with your favorite black or green tea and add steamed milk and honey.
coffee -- Nectar of the gods? Addictive stimulant drug? Public utility up there with light, water and sewer? People who really like the stuff will say all of the above. What you need to know is that almost everybody doesn't use enough of it when brewing; the proper measure is two tablespoons/10g per six-ounce cup. Too much, you get excessively strong coffee; too little, you get caffeinated turpentine. And no, I'm not saying this to get you to go buy more coffee.
Personally, I never drank a lot of coffee until I became a barista; these days, though, I can never quite tell whether I'm tired or not...
Cowboy Coffee -- Seldom seen in coffee bars, this is coffee the old school way, boiled up similar to Turkish coffee on a campfire, with a crushed eggshell used to settle out the grounds.
crema -- When a shot of espresso is made, it comes out in three layers. The bottom of the shot is referred to as the heart, and that's where most of the sediment is. The bulk of the shot is the body. However, on top there is usually a thin layer of golden-brown foam; this part, which is what usually tempers the bitterness of a fresh shot of espresso, is known as the crema. Interestingly, when Achille Gaggia invented the first piston-based espresso maker, a lot of people considered the crema an impurity and didn't want anything to do with it.
double -- Two shots of espresso in a drink. And there's also triple and quad; the overwhelming majority of people, though, will never order more than four shots in any one drink thank God almighty in heaven above. There are FAA regulations against that...
Espresso -- An extremely strong method of brewing coffee that involves forcing high-pressure hot water through finely ground, dark-roasted coffee. The resulting shot actually has less caffeine than the typical cup of regular drip coffee, despite what you may have heard.
flavored coffee -- Avoid it at all costs. You can do much better just getting a nice blend of Latin American beans (straight Colombian, Starbucks House Blend, Peet's Blend 101, and related coffees; I like to think of these as "tofu coffees" that just scream to be kicked up a notch) and adding flavored syrups or extracts. Lots of places do sell these, it's true, but if they're using bad coffee they're covering something up and if they're using good coffee they're wasting it. Starbucks doesn't touch the stuff.
frappe -- A drink made with ice cream and milk (and don't let anyone tell you otherwise :-) ). Also, strongly deprecated Starbucks slang for a Frappucino (though in that sense usually spelled frap); also also refers to a popular Greek beverage (properly, frappé) made from instant coffee, milk, ice and sugar that is probably a precursor to the Frappucino and similar drinks.
A quick explanation of the above wisecrack; in Massachusetts, we call what everyone else calls a milkshake a frappe. That's milk, ice cream, and syrup, blended. A milkshake is just milk and flavoring. I figure since we Massholes have about the best ice cream in the country... :-)
Frappucino -- A Starbucks trademark for a blender drink that combines ice, extra-strength dark roast coffee, and a mixture of milk, cocoa, and sugar. The general idea (usually, however, in soft-serve or slush form) has also popped up as Dunkin Donuts' Coffee Coolatta, among other variations, and is generally quite popular.
Incidentally, I'm proud to say that the Frappucino, or at least the name, is a Boston invention; the basic idea was inherited by Starbucks when they bought out The Coffee Connection in the process of moving into the Boston area. The Coffee Connection is deeply missed, but Starbucks has gone to great lengths to accommodated their customers, who were generally accustomed to a lighter roast than Starbucks'. If you want a taste of the old days, next time you hit a Starbucks in the Boston area try the Lightnote or Starbucks Breakfast Blends. I'm not overfond of them, but they do seem to carry on the tradition.
French press -- Also known as a press pot and a plunger pot as well as a Melior, the company that first invented them (now part of a Danish manufacture called Bodum). May be a trademark. This device consists of a glass or plastic pot and a filter attached to a plunger; the coffee, coarsely ground, is put into the bottom of the pot (2 tablespoons/10g per serving; no cheating), adding hot water at the rate of about six ounces per serving, stirring to mix the grounds in, and then allowing to steep for a period of time (standard is about four minutes). At the end of that time, the filter-plunger is pushed down, separating the grounds from the coffee liquid. The official party line at Starbucks is that this gets the best flavor from the bean; I suspect gold filters do a very good job of this as well, but this is the way coffee tasters do it. Pressed coffee can occasionally be rather gritty (and very strong), and cleaning the pot can be difficult (especially glass pots, which can be quite breakable, not to mention expensive). If you're sampling a new coffee, though, this is the way to do it.
French Roast -- At Starbucks, at least, French Roast indicates a coffee roast so dark that it destroys a good amount of the coffee's natural flavor. The end result is an ashy, smoky flavor in the pot and coffee grounds that look like model railroad coal dust.
I am personally not fond of French Roast coffee due to its burnt-out flavor profile, but it appears to be fairly popular around the Boston area. If I'm not mistaken, Trader Joe's (the bicostal semisupermarket with a reasonably good specialty coffee selection) may go even darker with their ultradark Bay Blend Ultraroast.
gold filter -- A filter made with a fine metal (almost always gold-plated) mesh and a plastic frame. Designed to replace paper filters, since it's thought that metal interferes less with coffee flavor than paper. It's traditional to grind coffee slightly coarser for a metal filter than a paper one; no one really knows whether there's any real benefit to this.
Hot Chocolate -- Mentioned only so far as to say that the usual coffeehouse recipe for hot chocolate is chocolate syrup and milk, usually with whipped cream on top. This tends to make a particularly sweet sort of beverage that likes a generous stirring up before drinking.
instant coffee -- Caffeinated beverage made by freeze-drying the life (and flavor) out of a pot of brewed coffee. Tends to be rather sour and unpleasant to those trained on coffeehouse coffee. IMHO its only real use is in the odd dessert recipe; even then I'd say go with a shot of espresso and adjust liquids appropriately. (I once tried to brew a shot of espresso with Folger's Crystals to see what happened. This is an extremely bad idea; the end result rather resembled driveway sealant.)
macchiato -- /makija'to/ Italian for "marked". Unqualified, refers more or less to a shot of espresso with a topping of foam, sort of a minimalist dry cappucino. A latte macchiato is steamed milk with a ristretto shot poured through the foam (at least at Starbucks); Starbucks also makes a caramel macchiato, which is essentially an upside down vanilla latte with caramel syrup over the top. Also, the most frequently mispronounced word on any coffeehouse menu.
Melitta -- A company named for the first name of the German housewife (Melitta Bentz) who invented the drip coffeemaker; also a slangish term (trademarked) for a manual drip coffeemaker consisting of a funnel, a filter, and a coffeepot. Operates by pouring hot water through the grounds in the funnel; the end result is basic drip-brewed coffee, pretty much the same as an automatic drip with maybe a bit more work.
Middle Eastern Coffee -- see Turkish/Greek Coffee.
misto -- Italian for mixed; shorthand for a Caffe Misto.
mocha -- Commonly refers to a mixture of coffee and chocolate; in a coffee house, it's usually used in the slightly restricted sense of a Caffè Mocha. Also refers to a specific type of Arabian or Ethiopian (where it's spelled Moka or Mocca) coffee with a pronounced acidic, fruity flavor (incidentally, Yemen Mocha Sanani is exceptionally good iced); this is often combined with smoother, heavier-bodied coffees from Java (in Indonesia) to create the well-known Mocha Java blend. To compound the confusion, a stovetop espresso pot (works on more or less the same principle as the percolator, but without reboiling the coffee) is also known in Italian as a moka (originally, I'm told, a brand name). The connection between coffee/chocolate and the former port of Al-Mukha in Yemen seems to have something to do with flavor similarities between coffee and chocolate.
Mochaccino -- Cappucino with chocolate syrup. The problem is that most people who come into Starbucks are thinking "mocha Frappucino"; this term should be considered obsolete.
panna -- Italian for whipped cream, sometimes unsweetened. "Con Panna" indicates a drink with whipped cream added. Incidentally, at one time unsweetened whipped cream was the common practice at Starbucks; I don't know how common that is, and we now flavor it with vanilla syrup anyway.
percolator -- A room-freshening device designed to use coffee grounds as the scent agent. Produces a spectacularly lovely smell in the room by reboiling water through the coffee grounds, but the brown liquid produced as a byproduct of this process should not be confused with brewed coffee; it is considered unfit for human consumption.
portafilter -- An espresso machine operates somewhat like a drip machine with a lot more pressure. The grounds, instead of being held in a basket, go into a small container with an insulated handle called a portafilter, which contains an insert with a grid of tiny holes in it. The coffee (ground almost to a powder) is put in the insert and tamped down, and the portafilter is inserted into a holding bracket and turned to a locking position. The water is blasted under pressure into the portafilter and through the coffee grounds, draining through the holes in the insert. The end result is a shot (or two) of espresso. The insert is usually securely locked into the filter with a spring, allowing the barista to empty it by whacking it against a bar that stretches across the top of something called a knock box instead of having to gouge out the hot grounds with a spoon or finger.
Raktajino -- Not actually a coffeehouse term, and only a diehard Trekker barista will understand it, but according to Marc Okrand, who invented the Klingon language for Star Trek III and ought to know about these things a raktajino (a portmanteau of two Klingon words meaning "warrior's knife" and the word cappucino) is sort of a cappucino or latte spiked with Klingon bloodwine and served appropriately hot. I suspect brandy or red wine might be an appropriate substitute; YMMV and don't try to get me to drink the damn thing.
Redeye -- (slang) A regular drip coffee with a shot of espresso. Meant strictly for those who need the caffeine boost. Other terms for the same drink include Shot In The Dark (possibly an Alaskanism), Scrap Iron, Speedball, Depth Charge, Bellman, Boilerhouse, and Caffè MF. Seems mostly to be favored by the blue-collar and high-tech crowd; I used to joke that some people who ordered redeyes didn't have enough paint on their clothes to qualify for one. Dunkin' Donuts began in 2006 to market this as a "Turbo Hot".
regular -- Means absolutely nothing. In New England, it's cream and sugar; elsewhere I've been led to believe that it implies strictly black. When you ask for a regular, you get what the locals think is a regular. Do yourself a favor and say exactly what you want. For what it's worth, now that Starbucks does mild roast, regular implies dark.
ristretto -- Italian for restricted or restrained; refers to an incomplete espresso shot used (for example, in latte macchiatos) when the espresso flavor must be especially intense.
sweet -- This is a tricky definition; coffee isn't generally sweet in the usual sense since most of the sugars in the bean would be caramelized out of existence in the roasting process. When talking coffee, sweetness refers to tempering of its natural bitterness. A sweet shot of espresso will have bitterness similar to a fine beer; a bitter one will be more like the smell of permanent marker or turpentine. It won't kill you like the petroleum products will, but you won't enjoy it either. The moral of the story: always order your espressos "for here". You'll enjoy it a lot more if it doesn't make it beyond the bar.
Turkish/Greek Coffee -- A not-entirely-unpleasant preparation made from powdered light-roast coffee beans, Turkish/Greek Coffee (compromise names include Middle Eastern and Balkan Coffee; best to sit on the fence if you don't know your audience) is prepared by putting a couple of teaspoons of powdered coffee, a teaspoon or two of sugar, and a demitasse-full of water into a small pot called a jezve or ibrik. The coffee is brought to a slight boil two or three times until it foams and is then served, grounds and all. Try not to drink the grounds; they're not that good. (Incidentally, it's not worth spending big bucks on coffee beans for this. Most of the flavor is burnt off in the process, leaving a drink with a flavor vaguely remniscent of a coffee caramel.) Most American coffee houses don't serve this; it's a decent drink, but IMHO it's not really worth the trouble. If you're going to do this, though, it's worth noting that Turks prefer Brazilian coffees, while the Greeks like Ethiopian (unless they're drinking instant-based frappes).
Vietnamese coffee -- The tradition in Vietnam, where they grow Robusta that's actually drinkable, is to serve coffee with sweetened condensed milk instead of regular milk. It's quite nice, though it can be startlingly sweet.
wet -- Containing more milk than is usual. This generally only applies to cappuccinos, but can also apply to drinks such as a caffe misto/cafe au lait; best to avoid the extended usage, though, as it can be confusing.
Why Bother -- Any of a series of closely related and supposedly rather pointless lattes revolving around the decaf skim theme. IMHO the ultimate would be a decaf triple venti skim latte or something along that line, but you get the general idea; a decaf double tall skim latte is the canonical form. The term "gutless wonder" has been observed on the television show Frasier (set, of course, in Seattle).
This advice can also apply to making any other drink, but lattes are probably the easiest way to start. This advice assumes you're using a pump or thermoblock espresso machine; steam units are fine for some applications, but they're terribly bad at steaming milk without some ingenuity. I wouldn't waste my time.
You want to steam your milk first. Steaming can be a bit tricky; a professional unit has a steam wand design that's more or less idiot-proof, but you may not be so lucky. You'll need a pitcher first (a four cup measuring cup, preferably metal, will do the job fine) and an instant-read thermometer such as a chef might carry; these sorts of things are available wherever you can buy an espresso machine. Fill the pitcher no more than halfway; this is important, as if you're not careful the foam will overflow. Open the steam valve with the wand in the milk (for safety reasons; steam is hot) and lower the pitcher until it stops howling. You will want to keep lowering the pitcher as the foam forms; as soon as you've got all the foam you need, raise the pitcher again and keep steaming until the milk hits about 130-140 degrees F. The temperature will continue to rise after you stop steaming; try to make sure you don't go over 170 degrees F or you'll burn the milk. Set the milk aside; the foam and milk need time to separate (whole longer than skim). Don't worry too much about heat loss; milk foam is a great insulator and the temperature will stay high for a while, at least until you start making drinks.
Now you need to pull shots. You'll need some coffee (a dark roast is preferable; I prefer Starbucks Caffe Verona at home) (never ever ever use flavored coffee in an espresso machine. You'll never get it clean again.), a couple of shot glasses or a mug, a timer or stopwatch, a coffee scoop that holds 7g of coffee, and a tamper (I have a special spoon that does both). Scoop enough coffee to fill the portafilter; a commercial-grade portafilter will hold about 7g per shot. Follow the instructions in your owner's manual, but do your own tamping; it is my experience that customers who believe they have self-tamping espresso machines are more often than not disappointed by the results. Now work fast; espresso shots tend to go downhill very quickly. Pull your shots according to the manual, then pour them into the mug. Using a large spoon to hold back the foam, pour the milk into the mug over the espresso, then top it off with a layer of foam. And that is a basic caffe latte, the way it's done a la Starbucks. Most other such drinks are done in the same way, with flavorings added and proportions adjusted accordingly.
I was once (April '98) privy to an unusual conversation between a customer at the Starbucks I work at and my (now former) manager; she, apparently a Spanish speaker and a regular customer, had come in and ordered a "Frappucino grande" (her exact order) and then, apparently offended by hearing the callback as "grande Frappucino", proceeded to take it upon herself to give the manager a lesson in Romance language adjectieval syntax.
I'm not going to say that her order, in and of itself, had any problems;
to me it sounds slightly pretentious, but it's not incorrect. The thing
is, Starbucks has a system for calling drink names, and, at least in English,
it works pretty well (it would fail miserably in most Romance languages,
for example). So if you ever wanted to understand how to break down your
drink name (and in my opinion far too many Starbucks customers worry about
this when they don't have to), this is a good guide. It sets out the way
Starbucks does it (or at least the way I do it ;-) ) and tries to explain
the logic behind the system.
As for the customer whose ears were rattled by the "grande Frappucino" callback, it may sound more elegant to put the modifier after the noun, but only if both words are of Italian origin. It also breaks consistency with proper English construction. And that's how that works. You may now step to the bar and order your drink. (Incidentally, to this day Maria is a well-known regular at our store.)
The Starbucks side of the story goes something like this: there are four sizes. We have short (8 oz), tall (12 oz), grande (16 oz), and venti (20 oz; it's Italian for twenty; the cold Venti is actually 24 oz). The official policy is that when you order a small, you get a tall and work your way up. If you're really truly confused, find out how big the cups are and order by the numbers. They'll know what you mean.Other coffee bars will obviously be different; the lingo they use will be up on the board.
These are not necessarily coffees I like (Kenya, in particular, I'm somewhat on the fence about) but coffees that everyone should try at least once to get an opinion. There are many great coffees that aren't particularly remarkable (Colombian is probably the worst offender in that regard); there are many remarkable coffees that aren't particularly great (for example, Brazilian arabica, with its slight iodine flavor, has traditionally been an acquired taste for everyone except the Turks and Italians). This list tries to include coffees with both attributes, both proprietary blends and single-origin standouts.
If you have anything you think I should add to the list, send me a sample, maybe a quarter to half-pound or so, roasted and sent in whole bean form. These are a few coffees that I've tasted that I like a lot.
Most of my knowledge is straight out of the standard Starbucks reference material. If you go into any Starbucks, there will be a series of binders with beige covers; they are generally meant for internal use, but any barista who knows his or her job will share the contents with you if you have the desire to know what goes into a drink.
Before I worked at Starbucks, though, I had a pretty decent knowledge of coffee drinks anyway, at least as good as any other layperson. That came mostly from Espresso: From Bean To Cup by Nick Jurich (ISBN 1-88029-00-8), which despite being grossly out of date (1991; Starbucks is much more dominant now compared to when this book was written) is still a very good reference for the coffee hacker.
Another exceptional coffee reference is The Joy of Coffee by Corby Kummer (revised 1997; ISBN 1-57630-060-9). It's more general in scope, and doesn't focus so much on the coffee bar drinks, but it's still a very interesting bit of reading.
Some of the blanks were filled in thanks to Steven E. Callihan's Seattle Lexicon, which has a decent size page (not so in depth as this, though) on Seattle coffee slang. His stuff paraphrased without permission, but I hope he doesn't mind.
If you're interested in piles and piles of coffee trivia, there is Philip Janssen's Espresso Quick Reference Guide (Eight Ball Books, 1998; ISBN 0-9643547-3-X), which has something like a thousand drink recipes for various espresso bar beverages. Interestingly, more than half the book is taken up with coffee trivia, hints, and glossaries; I don't, however, recommend the practice it suggests of steaming milks with flavor syrups. It tends to damage flavors and most likely will wind up with a lot more difficult cleaning to do. Also, organizationally it resembles a bartending book, which isn't entirely appropriate to the more concretely defined world of the coffee bar.
One last useful book is The Espresso Bartender's Guide to Espresso Bartending by "Sally Ann and Dara Diane" (Sally Slankard and daughter, according to Amazon) (Hooked On Espresso, 1994; ISBN 0-9636173-7-0). It's mainly useful for the glossaries in the beginning and the recipe for a Snickerdoodle latte (vanilla latte with whipped cream and cinnamon on top), but despite its claims to being the Bible of the industry I don't recommend it very strongly. The author's writing style is stunningly incompetent, and editing is nonexistent, but it does have a fairly well-organized list of recipes by category.
Both of the above books are reasonably useful, but they're very Seattle in scope. Nevertheless, if you want to learn about the way things are done outside of Starbucks, they're pretty good references.
Thanks to Maryann Rowsell for technical review, and to her and other fellow partners for advice in producing the first version of this page.
This document is (c)1998-2009 Brian Connors. firstname.lastname@example.org