Breaking Down Your Favorite Coffee Drinks

Published by
February 15, 2018
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Roasted in Brooklyn guides you through the growing list of coffee and espresso drinks that you can order at your local coffee shop. You may already have a favorite but maybe want to try something new. We’re here to help.

Ordering a coffee used to be so simple. The only complication of drink ordering used to be how many creams and sugars to add to the burnt coffee who’s roast was ambivalent, and whose single origin could’ve been from the neighbor’s garden.

Through the years coffee menus have only gotten longer, and it may be a bit too much to take. To ease some of that tension, we’re going to be your virtual friendly barista and do a quick run down of each drink. Who knows, maybe you’ll give something different a try, or at least be a bit more informed when you order your next drink.

Here’s a few rules of coffee making to keep in mind when thinking about the different types of coffee drinks:

  1. Coffee is a delicate balance between the flavors created by the roasting process and the various chemical changes that happen during it like carmalization, CO2, nitrogen, sugars, amino acids, etc. Which, most bluntly, can be piled into the categories of sour or bitter.
  2. The flavors that are created during roasting, are the essence of the bean but it’s up to the barista (or yourself) to bring out it’s best flavor.
  3. This can include how the bean is ground, the quality of water, and a lot of other things.
  4. Thankfully, coffee usually takes pretty good care of itself, so don’t be intimidated. It’s actually really fun to experience the differences, and what one person likes another person may not. There’s a lot of subjectivity to the flavor of coffee.

Drip Coffee

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Good ol’ cup of Joe. Can a great cup of regular drip coffee ever let anyone down?

Drip coffee’s flavor comes from water sitting in ground coffee, slowly absorbing the flavors, then dripping into a containing vessel through a filter.

Drip coffee is the simplest and least demanding way to make coffee. As long as you have hot water, beans, and some way to filter the coffee, you’re good to go.

Coffee was extremely popular in the past exactly because of the simplicity of making a tasty drink out in the wild – and an important part of American cultural heritage (dating back to the Boston Tea Party).

This is even seen in currently popular coffee products like the Aeropress, who’s marketing is focused on the outdoors type.

There’s several popular variations on drip coffee, one being the already mentioned Aeropress, the other one being a Pour Over.

Pour Overs are a more meticulous way of preparing drip coffee, by specifically pouring hot water by hand over ground coffee to ensure an even distribution of water over the grounds in specific timings.

Brooklyn’s own Blue Bottle Coffee is infamous for taking the extra time to rid themselves of large drip coffee makers and preparing each coffee order as a Pour Over. Extraction Lab, another Brooklyn coffee spot, brews their single cups of coffee through a vacuum semi-automatic method in their Steampunk brewer.

No matter the method, drip coffee will always be the center-piece of the American coffee world.

Roasted Coffee Recommended For Drip Coffee

Cold Brew

Even in the height of winter, people will still order cold brewed coffee.

It’s rumored that this method was developed by Dutch Sailors to brew coffee during long voyages around the Pacific Rim during the time of Western exploration to the East.

But don’t confuse Cold Brew Coffee with Iced Coffee, though, if you don’t want to bring on the ire of a barista in a bad mood. Even though some may say the terms are interchangeable, there is a difference in the process.

Iced coffee is made by taking hot coffee, then refrigerating it or cooling it down without using ice (as to not water it down). This process separates out the oils from the coffee, and it’s easily recognizable because you can actually see the oils floating around the top of your cup.

It doesn’t necessarily make it unpleasant, but it certain isn’t nearly as tasty as a Cold Brew.

The process for marking Cold Brew coffee is held within the name itself, letting cold water seep into coarsely ground coffee beans.

One of the more complicated aspects of Cold Brew coffee is that it takes a long time to create the right flavor. According to most recipes that can take anywhere from 18 to 24 hours. But it’s well worth it.

A Cold Brew that’s made right has a lip-smacking flavor that is like eating a fantastic cup of coffee ice cream. It can even be sweet and creamy, in that coffee sort of way.

It’s also important to note that many people prefer dark roasts for their cold brew, even though it’s not necessary.


I absolutely love espresso. If I drink a great shot of espresso it’s like consuming a kaleidoscope. It can activate all the different parts of your tongue, and simultaneously be sour, bitter, and sweet all at the same time.

It’s also unfortunately gone in less than a heartbeat, but totally worth it.

The first person usually given credit for the invention of the espresso machine was Angelo Moriondo of Turin, Italy in 1884. The key phrase in his patent was “new steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee.” And since then it’s been a marvel to the coffee world.

As baristas we’re most familiar with espresso machines by companies like La Marzocco, Faema, Simonelli, or a new company like Slayer (who’s machines are like works of art).

All these different machines have their own personalities and character. Each one distributes heat differently, or may have various types of heating mechanisms and boilers – the technical aspect of an espresso machine is a whole world to itself.

But, the most important thing to remember about the difference between drip coffee and espresso is that espresso machines use pressure to create delicious drinks.

The process is pretty simple, and the next time you get a drink, I’d suggest keeping an eye on your barista as they work the machine. I’m sure they’d actually be happy to explain what they’re doing if you ask nicely.

First, the espresso needs to be dailed in properly. Dialing in is properly calibrating the espresso grinder to create a delicious shot.

Here’s a basic explanation of grinding for espresso. There are two different ways in which a bean can be ground, either fine or coarse. The finer the bean is ground the slower water will pass through it, the more coarse the faster. Think of water passing through sand (fine) versus pebbles (coarse).

Next comes balancing the essential flavors of the coffee bean. This is probably not the most technically perfect way of explaining espresso flavor, but think of a coffee bean as having the oil (sour) on the outside and the bitter, coffee flavor, on the inside.

As the grind gets finer then the water sits longer in the bitter, coffee essence, and picks up more of that bitter flavor. But if it’s ground too coarsely, then the water flies through, and it mainly picks up the oils, therefore making it too sour.

Phew! It sounds like a lot, but this is where a great barista earns their keep.

Portafilters by Nathan Dumlao

After the grind of the espresso bean is calibrated properly, the barista then loads their portafilter (the cool metal bowl with a handle, see image to the right) with the right portion of ground espresso, locks it into the espresso machine, and let’s the water rip through.

Things weren’t always so simple, and if you’ve ever heard the expression “pulling a shot”, it’s because classic manual machines required a person to literally use their arm strength to manually pull a shot of coffee out a machine.

But, a manual machine is the perfect place to understand what happens within an espresso machine. Even though semi-automatic machines now do the process themselves, the magic happens as hot water, that’s kept under pressure in a boiler, gets forced through the ground beans.

The pressurized hot water picks the flavors up quickly, and it’s why a shot of espresso takes about 25 seconds to make. Compare that to the 5 minutes it takes to make a Pour Over.

In recent years, the flavors of espresso have evolved from a strong, dark, bitter flavor, to now-a-days including beans that are lightly roasted, creating shots of espresso that almost have a fruity under-tone to them.

While having an espresso machine in one’s home is fairly uncommon, you can still prepare espresso at home in a stove-top Bialetti Moka Pot, to satiate your espresso needs.

If only someone could come up with an in-home solution for steaming and foaming milk.

Roasted Coffee Recommended For Espresso


Photo by Emre Gencer on Unsplash

This is my drink of choice. It stems out of my love of espresso, which when done right is the tastiest coffee flavor that I can experience, but also my desire to have a coffee drink that last for more than a few moments.

Incidentally, ordering a cafe Americano in Italy will get you a regular cup of drip coffee, and I suspect that the American version of a cafe Americano grew out of the concept that “this is what an Italian would do if they needed to make a cup of drip coffee but only had an espresso machine.”

This is also a good mid-point between the non-milk drinks and all the fun coffee shop specific drinks that are a combination of milk and espresso.

Macchiato / Cortado / Latte / Cappuccino

Some people would cringe at lumping all of these drinks together, but in reality, they’re all just variations on adding milk to espresso. Even though a classic foamy cappuccino is a special drink to itself, in the world of modern barista techniques cappuccinos and lattes are sometimes considered interchangeable terms and only refer to a difference in size.

Throughout most of coffee’s history, coffee was drank similar to the way we drink it today, with water filtered through coffee beans. That was up until the 1700s, which was the earliest historical mention of milk being added to coffee, which was called the “Kapuziner” and originated in Vienna.

A fun fact is that the word cappuccino comes from a group of monks in Vienna named the Capuchin. The monks vestments had a similar color to cappuccinos, and they’re now forever linked to the popular drink.

Cappuccinos are famously associated with the thick, foamy, steamed milk that tops a shot of espresso, and that’s served in wide brimmed coffee cups with a saucer. This was the quintessential “frou-frou” coffee drink of the 20th century. In my introduction post I spoke about how a tin of instant cappuccino coffee was the peak of coffee fanciness in my home that was broken out only for special company.

If you want to get a glimpse on just how much coffee has changed over the years, here’s a commercial from Maxwell House’s instant Cappuccino Mocha coffee from 1992:

At my first coffee job in 2003, we were taught that cappuccinos were made by foaming the milk as much as possible. I remember times where the cup would be so light that it felt like there wasn’t even a liquid inside.

Of course, it’s not as if foamy cappuccinos have gone extinct, even in my current barista job we still happily make foamy cappuccinos (and there definitely isn’t a lack of customers wanting them that way either) – technically, though, they’re now referred to as “dry cappuccinos.”

But my current job is a bit of a throwback. The modern day barista is all about microfoam. No matter the espresso drink, any milk that is lovingly foamed and poured into espresso is going to be microfoam.

As noticeable as the foamed milk that’s added to a dry cappuccino, the average coffee drinker may not realize that the milk in their latte, for example, is actually foamed as well.

Microfoam was developed in the late-80s and 90s in Seattle (of course), and it’s the key to what has become the most universally acknowledged symbol of barista skill: Latte Art.

Photo by Taylor Franz

As a barista, latte art is an incredibly frustrating, yet incredibly fun skill to learn. As a coffee professional, when applying for a job you send pictures of your latte art along with your resume. It’s what most baristas tend to post on their Instagram, since it’s now become one of the most popular coffee related images you can find on the internet.

The secret to microfoam and latte art is being able to find the sweet spot of not too much or too little while foaming milk. This is no easy task, and something that personally took me about 3 months to do with any sort of consistency.

The process is all about developing the instinct of restraint. Foaming milk too aggressively leaves it overly foamy, and makes latte art impossible because the milk leaves fat, thick foam that sit on-top of the espresso. On the other hand, being too passive creates milk lines that are flat and don’t create that crisp and beautiful brown and white contrast that makes latte art so amazing.

After worrying about foaming, espresso drinks boil down to how much milk is added to the espresso that determines the drink – essentially how much of a depth of coffee flavor you want:

Note: I’m adding my interpretations of these drinks. Italian standards would disagree with me, and each coffee shop I’ve worked in has different interpretations, as well. These are not hard definitions, just the ones that I usually apply myself. If you have a different way of making these drinks, then let us know in the comments section.

Macchiato: double shot of espresso, with just a touch of milk, in some cases thickly foamed.

Cortado: (originating from “to cut” in Spanish, as in cutting a shot of espresso with milk) double shot of espresso, with equal parts milk. Meaning 2oz of espresso, and 2oz of milk. The most talented latte artists can do latte art with this tiny amount of milk; absolutely amazing when seen in person.

Cappuccino/Latte: This is where things get tricky. Starting with a base of a double shot of espresso, 2oz, a cappuccino or a latte would most likely be served in two different sizes, either 8oz (meaning 6oz of milk), and 12oz (meaning 10oz of milk).

Other Drinks

Flat White

Even though the exact origins of the term flat white are in dispute, there is no doubt that this drink that originated in either Australia or New Zealand has taken the coffee world by storm in recent years.

A “flat white” comes with a specific set of complications only because I don’t think there’s been a consensus on exactly how to prepare one. It ranges from a single shot of espresso with absolutely no foam served in a small cup, to being another name for a cortado.

It’ll be fun to see exactly how a flat white gets defined in the coming years.

Cuban Coffee

Being a Miami native, I couldn’t leave off Cuban coffee. I have yet to see another area in the United States that is so deeply connected with a specific type of coffee as Miami is to Cuban coffee – especially because Miami has the largest population of Cuban-American’s in the country, and second place isn’t even close.

Cuban coffee, or café Cubano, is similar to Turkish coffee in the process of mixing a shot of ultra dark espresso with a massive amount of sugar. The mixing process creates a thick crema, that’s made of the broken down sugar and espresso.

The sugar and coffee creates a hyper-sweetened shot that balances with the ultra-bitter of the dark espresso that is a confusingly incredible bittersweet flavor.

At 3pm, in most offices in Miami, some staff member will invariably walk around with a cortado sized styrofoam cup filled with Cuban coffee, called a colada, passing out tiny plastic thimbles to pour cafecitos for anyone needing an energy boost.

Cuban coffee also comes as a cortadito, which is the Cuban coffee version of a cortado, or café con leche, a Cuban latte.

Cuban coffee isn’t typically served in traditional coffee shops, but at small windows peering into bodegas and gas stations. This meeting area is where Miamians get together, it’s a true Latino hangout spot. It’s a stark difference from other parts of the country, where people rush into coffee shops, order their coffee, and quickly run off.

Cuban coffee takes time, and no one is complaining.

Chai Latte

At Roasted in Brooklyn we’re proud to offer one of the Brooklyn’s premier chai’s, Dona Chai.

A Chai Latte is usually prepared by combining a prepared chai powder or concentrate and milk. Chai is typically made from a variety of natural flavors like cane sugar, ginger, and black tea, creating a sweet, yet spiced flavor. It’s creamy and sweet, and depending on the brand it can be extremely spicy.

Chai is found in various cultures, and each of those cultures have their own flavors associated with their chais. It’s fun to compare them all. Chai lattes are found in most modern coffee shops, and are served in various sizes along with coffees.

Matcha Latte

Hopefully this won’t give make us look too hipster-y, but there was a point where matcha was taking over Brooklyn.

Even one of our favorite coffee shops, Brooklyn Roasting Company in DUMBO, has an area dedicated to matcha called Matchaful. There was even an all matcha restaurant in Williamsburg at one point called MatchaBar (which is unfortunately closed).

Matcha is a powder created from green tea leaves. If you’ve ever had green tea ice cream, that’s basically the flavor of a matcha. They’re also easy to recognize because of their striking green color.

Depending on the preparation method, a matcha latte usually uses a very small amount of powder and mixed with a larger amount of milk. It’s a pretty regular pairing with milk alternates like soy, almond, and the newest milk trend oat.

Have more coffee drink suggestions or recipes? Leave a comment below, and we may just do an article on it.

About Roasted in Brooklyn

Roasted in Brooklyn is a website dedicated to the amazing coffee roasters, coffee shops, and coffee professionals of Brooklyn, NY. Our mission is to connect the coffee found in this borough of New York City with others, so they can discover and enjoy all the wonderful coffee produced here.

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