How To Order Coffee Like A Pro At Coffee Shops

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A little bit of knowledge goes a long way in helping you to confidently order coffee like a pro outside of your usual drive-thru coffee shop.

It might be useful to know that there’s no terribly wrong way to ask for coffee. What’s the worst that can happen? Coffee by any other name is still coffee.

The primary ingredient in most coffee beverages is a shot of espresso! Not brewed coffee. Not French Pressed or Poured Over. Let’s take a look at the basics that are behind your coffee order and how to order coffee with a shot of espresso.

A Shot Of Espresso Is The Root Of Most Coffee Beverages

Please take notice of the spelling; it’s eSpresso, not eXpresso. Asking for expresso won’t get you thrown out of a coffee house, but it will mark you as a newbie with limited coffee lingo. And, we’re going for PRO here! It is the root of all lattes, cappuccinos, and more.

So, what’s espresso? Contrary to what many coffee lovers believe, it’s not the name of a coffee roast or special coffee beans. Fine-grinding any coffee bean can make espresso.

It’s typically made by grinding dark roasts for a more full-bodied consistency and flavor.

Related | Types Of Coffee Roasts​ and The Best Beans For Espresso

Hot water is pushed through the fine ground coffee with a blast of pressure. This produces a potent, concentrated coffee. It’s much stronger than a regular black coffee.

The thick layer of golden foam that looks sort of like a caramel froth that’s floating on the top is a naturally occurring and aesthetically delightful bonus called crema. That’s spelled Mmmm.

The crema actually serves a purpose, other than looking awesome. This foamy lid helps to keep the flavor and the aroma in full force in your drink.

The crema should last for the entire length of your coffee session. If it dissipates sooner, it either wasn’t made properly, or you likely lingered over it just a little too long.

Espresso Becomes Another Coffee Drink

Americano – This consists of one or more shots of espresso poured into a cup and followed by filling the cup with hot water. Ordering by the number of shots lets you control the caffeine content and the intensity of the flavor. One-shot Americano is as diluted as you can get it.

This version was concocted in Italy during WWII for the American soldiers who couldn’t adapt to espresso. They wanted ‘American’ coffee, and this was the closest they could get to it.

Latte – Instead of adding hot water to the espresso, warm milk is added. The ratio used more often is 3:1 – three parts milk to one part espresso. This provides the base for iced coffees and those made with flavored syrups. A Mocha, for instance, is basically a latte with chocolate syrup added.

Related | What Is A Flate White?

Macchiato – When you want less milk and a more intense coffee flavor, this might be your perfect cup of tea…Uhm…coffee. It’s an espresso with just a touch (marking) of steamed milk. When prepared more traditionally, a little cream. Think of it as a marked espresso to make it easier to remember. Macchiato is Italian for ‘marked.’

There are variations on this coffee beverage, depending on where you place an order. In some coffee houses, the macchiato is formed in reverse order. A splash of hot, frothy milk is put into a cup, and the espresso is added to ‘mark’ the milk!

Ordering coffee at Starbucks, the macchiato is more like a latte that has been inverted, so expect a cup of warm milk with a shot (or shots) of espresso added.

Related | What Is A Macchiato

Cappuccino – If latte (espresso with warm milk) and macchiato (espresso with a touch of steamed milk) could mate, this would be the offspring. It starts with espresso in a cup, and it’s then filled with steamed milk. Look for a distinct frothy layer floating on the top.

What’s the difference between a wet cappuccino and a dry cappuccino? It’s the foam to milk ratio.

A wet cappuccino has more milk than foam; a dry cappuccino has more foam than milk. Like most all coffee beverages, details like this are all about personal preference in taste.

However, don’t be surprised if you don’t always get what you’re expecting. In some coffee shops, ordering a dry cappuccino will result in espresso with the foam but totally sans milk, and a wet cappuccino will be served with steamed milk and absolutely zero foam!

Milk Foam And Froth

Milk Foam

The milky foam is created by aerating milk with hot steam from a steam wand. It does more than making the coffee more attractive. It adds measurable nutritional value by releasing proteins from the milk.

Related | Best Milk Frothers​

This process happens easier and faster when there’s little to no fat content in the milk. Using a steam wand on skim milk or soy milk develops a thick, rich foam on top of the milk.

And, yes, a higher fat content produces a leaner foam. Using heavy cream or whole milk will result in a very thin layer of foam.

So, which is better? Well, ideally, small foamy bubbles in a thin layer made from low-fat milk.

Hmm. Sounds tricky? It’s a little harder to make with skim milk, but it’s definitely worth the effort. This ‘microfoam’ consists of bubbles that are too tiny to be seen! But your palate will know the difference!

The texture of microfoam has been described as silky or velvety. As a plus, this type of foam melds completely with the espresso when it’s properly poured and makes it a more enjoyable coffee experience.

And, for decorating the top of your espresso with those attractive foamy designs, it can’t be beaten!

Go ahead and experiment with the types of milk and the ratios to espresso to sample the foam and flavor results. It’s a great way to develop the recipe for a cappuccino that’s suited to your tastes on a more personal level.

How To Order Espresso

espresso order

Espresso Ristretto (literally, restricted espresso) is a very concentrated short shot (less than 1 oz.). It’s considered by most coffee aficionados to be the ‘true espresso.’

Double Espresso Ristretto will get you a short double shot (about 1.5 oz.).

Espresso Lungo is a long shot that delivers just a tad more espresso. It’s not enough to be considered a double shot (doppio) or even a short double shot, but it’s still enough to deliver an extra amount of caffeine.

You get the idea. Just be aware that ordering espressos this way will probably result in a confused look from the staff in most American coffee houses. If you’re in the mood to sound like an espresso expert, go for it!

If your main objective is to enjoy a fresh cup of java your way, keep it simple using ‘short’ or ‘long’ when you want a little less or more of the ordered size.

Simply asking for an espresso in most restaurants or coffee shops will get you nearly double the intended one-ounce shot automatically, by default.

Why? Most commercial machines are designed to only process double shots. The pouring can be split to create two single-shot espressos at the same time.

But, if the pour isn’t split, the double goes into one serving. Of course, not all machines are made alike. However, there’s a better than fair chance that you’ll get at least 1.25 oz. and closer to 1.75 oz. of espresso in most places that serve it.

At some coffee houses, like Starbucks, the pour is much more precise. It’s more likely that you’ll get what you ask for.

In these coffee shops, order your espresso by the number of shots (1-4) or by the equivalent tag (Single/Solo – Double/Doppio – Triple – Quad).

What Does Skinny Mean?​ Adding this word when ordering a coffee beverage will get you a coffee made with skim milk. In Starbucks, it will also result in sugar-free syrups being used!

Try a new temperature​. Steaming the milk releases the simple sugars from the carbs and produces a sweeter taste. If the milk is overheated, the sweetness factor actually drops off.

If you typically order your cappuccino ‘extra hot,’ try it a little cooler the next time and experience the difference.

Ordering Coffee Is Not The Same In Every Coffee Shop

Even learning how to order coffee like a pro leaves the door open for surprises. Coffee lingo is constantly evolving. Don’t let it throw you if your request doesn’t seem to fit into a particular location or coffee shop.

It’s okay. The coffee menu and language can differ greatly even in your own local vicinity. For some coffee shops, it’s all tied in with branding. The same order that you place at Dunkin’ Donuts might seem out of touch at Starbucks.

Similarly, placing an order in Oshkosh might not be on a par with placing an order in Miami – or across the pond! Ordering a cup of latte in some countries will get you nothing more than a cup of steamed milk. Yes, steamed milk… no coffee!

Place Your Coffee Order

Now that you have some of the basics, the rest is mostly a matter of paying attention to the in-house coffee menu and noting the current promotions, limited-time brews, or house specialties.

You can also see the coffee house’s usual terms for the various serving sizes. Although, ordering a small, medium, large or extra-large will still do the job, too!

Keep in mind that baristas are considered coffee experts, and they’re usually happy to share what they’ve learned. Plan a visit during off-peak hours if you want in-depth answers. Learn about the brewing methods they have available and how each delivers a unique coffee experience.

Remember that you’re placing a coffee order. It’s not a life or death moment.

Confidence builds with repetitive use of the terms as you get to know them. The most frequent visitor to any coffee house had to learn the same basic coffee terms at the start, just like you!

Learning has never been so tasty. A latte here… a mocha there… and you’ll soon be giving your order like a pro.

Written By Tara Williams

Tara is a food writer that has been editing and authoring articles for KitchenSanity since its founding. Her writing offers personal experience from experimentation with food and recipe creation. If you’re looking for simple tips, she will make your journey in the kitchen straightforward with a dash of fun.