Going to a coffee shop can be a fun experience — that is, until you see the menu. With lots of foreign names to coffee drinks that don’t tell you what’s what, it’s hard to understand what you’re even looking at. This can be especially frustrating if you’re not familiar with coffee shop jargon and vocab like ‘tamper’ and ‘nitro cold brew’.
Instead of heading into a coffee shop blind, our guide will help you confidently order what you want and also what to avoid. Our guide breaks down flavor preferences, coffee roasts, brewing methods, and types of drinks, so you’ll be able to know if a long black will be your go-to or if that caramel macchiato is right up your alley.
Coffee is all about flavor preferences, whether you like coffee black or extra sweet, and this couldn’t be more true at a coffee shop. Many things come into play with flavor, so it’s important to think beyond cream and sugar when it comes to flavor and taste. Many coffee shops have multiple types of beans, roasts, and brewing methods.
When you order coffee at a coffee shop, you generally want it to be similar to your coffee at home or close enough to that taste. For example, even if you like sweet flavored espresso drinks that you can only get at a coffee shop, the idea of having sweetened coffee is the same. This idea applies to everyone’s flavor preferences, so going into a coffee shop knowing you prefer black coffee or ‘light and sweet’ coffee will help.
If You Like Black Coffee:
Black coffee is iconic in that some cultures only drink coffee black, whereas others are shocked that people can drink it. Black coffee is as simple as it gets: coffee with no add-ins, sugar, or dairy. However, things get more complex with black coffee when it comes to coffee beans and roasts, due to the different roasts and beans available at local coffee shops. We recommend trying more premium coffee beans, like single-origin (batch of coffee beans from one specific location) coffee or strictly high grown (coffee grown at elevation). The higher-quality coffee beans will have much better flavors than cheaper blends.
|What to Buy:||Premium Blends, Medium Roast, Blonde Roast, Single-Origin, Cold Brew, Iced Coffee|
|You Might Like:||Dark Roast, French Roast, Espresso|
|What to Avoid:||Flavor Swirls/Syrups, Lattes, Macchiatos, Flavored Coffee (except pre-flavored coffee), Espresso with Milk or Cream, Matcha Lattes, Sweetened Tea, Frappes|
If You Like Coffee with Milk or Cream Only
Taking cream or milk with coffee and no sugar is another popular preference, but it also opens up the menu more. With the addition of cream or milk, more espresso beverages are available that weren’t before with black coffee. Coffee creamer is a different category, so this is specifically if you like unsweetened coffee.
|What to Buy (Unflavored / Unsweetened):||Medium/Dark/French/Espresso Roasts, Iced Coffee, Single-Origin, Americano, Long Black, Latte, Flat White|
|You Might Like:||Blonde Roast, Cappuccinos, Macchiatos (Unsweetened), Matcha Lattes|
|What to Avoid:||Flavor Swirls/Syrups, Sweetened Cold Foam, Sweetened Tea, Frappes|
If you like Coffee with Cream and Sugar:
If you’re a fan of sweet-tasting coffee, you’ve got the most options when it comes to ordering at coffee shops. Flavored syrups and swirls are at your disposal, giving you the ability to customize your drinks the way you want. Whether you’re a caramel kind of person or you want to taste the seasonal flavors, sweet-tasting coffee drinks are big sellers at most coffee shops.
|What to Buy:||Flavored Lattes/Macchiatos, Flavored Iced Coffee, Light/Medium/Dark Roasts, Frappes, Sweet Tea|
|You Might Like:||Cappuccinos, Matcha Lattes|
|What to Avoid:||Black Coffee, Americanos/Long Blacks, Cream-only drinks, Unsweetened Tea|
Types of Roasts
Another tried and true way to buy coffee is to go by the roast, which is the darkness level of the coffee beans. When coffee beans roast in the roasters at different lengths of time, it completely changes the result in flavor, acidity, and body. Knowing this is crucial because a lot of coffee shops will have strange names for their coffee, but simply asking what type of roast will clear things up. As long as you know the roast of the coffee you’re getting, you’ll have more clues as to what the coffee will taste like.
Light roast coffee has the most acidity (often described as “bright”), little to no body or oils on the beans, and less bitter. Light roast coffee is almost fruity in smell and has a delicate flavor profile, so it’s often enjoyed hot and black. It’s not as popular as the other roasts, but many coffee enthusiasts enjoy the light, acidic taste.
Medium roast is the most popular roast in general, even compared to dark roasts. It’s the roast that most people think of when they hear coffee in the US, especially if it’s coming from a drip-brew coffee maker. With a balance of acidity, strength, and body, medium roast coffee is a great option if you’re not sure what to try.
Dark Roast coffee is most popular for iced coffee, known for its heavy body and oils. There’s little to no acidity and much stronger in flavor than medium and light roast coffee. Dark roast has chocolate and caramel notes to it, which is due to the longer roasting times. Dark roast coffee beans should have an oily sheen on them, unlike light roast beans.
The darkest roasts are usually for iced coffee and espresso beverages. Espresso is still coffee but brewed differently and requires a very dark roast. French/Italian/Espresso blends will all have similar notes to dark roast, but more on the bolder side. The beans will also have oils on them and have a strong, almost burnt-like smell, which is due to being roasted for so long.
Types of Drinks (Coffee & Espresso)
The last way to determine the type of coffee drink you want is to look at the types of drinks available. There are a lot of different versions of the same drink, so the menu might seem more extensive due to flavor options. This is especially true during holidays and seasons, so it may get a bit crazy with the options. We recommend sticking to flavors that you know at first, like caramel or vanilla, and then branching out eventually to new options.
If you’re the type that isn’t all about the flavors or trendy drinks and you just want a hot cup of coffee, ask for regular coffee or drip-brewed medium roast coffee. Usually called a “house blend”, all coffee shops will have some medium roast ready to go. This will be the closest option to what you’d brew at home with a coffee maker. If you prefer sweetened coffee, try asking for caramel or mocha-flavored syrups.
In most coffee shops, iced coffee is simply medium or dark-roast coffee brewed extra strong. Iced coffee is extremely popular and is usually less expensive than iced espresso drinks. It can be on the bitter side, so try a flavor swirl or syrup to help cut the bitterness. Iced coffee is a tried and true staple of coffee shops, especially during hot seasons and warmer climates.
Cold-brew is a relatively new way to brew iced coffee, resulting in a deeper taste without the bitterness of drip-brewed coffee. Cold brew coffee is brewed by putting water and coarse-ground coffee in a container, then steeped for 12-24 hours. It’s smooth and less harsh on the stomach, but it’s more expensive due to the time it takes to steep. If you’re a big fan of iced coffee, making the switch to cold brew with some caramel swirl might be the way to go.
Espresso is very dark-roasted coffee and brewed with water pressure, making it taste completely different than regular coffee. It’s a huge part of the culture in Italy, as well as other countries that enjoy espresso-based drinks. The important part of espresso drinks is knowing the order of the milk, espresso, foam, or hot water.
Lattes have a double-shot of espresso at the bottom, then a layer of steamed milk and topped with milk foam on top. Lattes are the most popular espresso drink in most coffee shops, especially the caramel swirl latte. There are other latte flavors available, like mocha, pumpkin (seasonal), and vanilla.
Similar to lattes, Macchiatos are quite popular and often have flavored syrups in them. The only difference is that macchiatos don’t have the milk foam on top, and instead just have the steamed milk. Popular macchiato orders are caramel, mocha, and cinnamon macchiatos.
Frappes are sweeter than lattes and macchiatos, so they’re great for those with a strong sweet tooth. They’re smoothie-like in texture, a cold, refreshing mix of milk, water, coffee, and ice. Some frappes have no coffee in them, so make sure the one you order is caffeinated.
Cappuccinos are a delicate balance of coffee, milk, and a little sweetness from the cocoa. Cappuccinos are similar to lattes, but with more milk foam on the top and have no flavored syrups. They’re also one of the most traditional espresso drinks on the menu.
Americanos and Long Blacks are similar in that they’re both a double-shot of espresso with added near-boiling water, but the order in which they’re mixed matters. Espresso first is an Americano and water first is a Long Black. These two drinks are perfect for those who like black coffee but not the strength of espresso.
Flat Whites are simply half espresso and half steamed milk, with no milk foam on top. They’re not sweetened and are a good option for those who like a good amount of dairy in their coffee or espresso. Flat Whites aren’t as popular, but they’re a traditional coffee shop staple.
Buying coffee at a coffee shop can be challenging and make you feel out of place, leaving you feeling like you’re not sure you even know what coffee is. With all the fancy names and drink flavors, a menu at the local coffee shop can look like a foreign language. Thankfully, our guide can help give you an idea of what to order and what to avoid. If you know your coffee preferences and can weed through the endless flavors, you’ll be ordering with confidence in no time.
Featured Image Credit: Jazmin Quaynor, Unsplash
Table of Contents
- Flavor Preferences
- Types of Roasts
- Types of Drinks (Coffee & Espresso)