Coffee, coffee drinks, coffee shops, coffee, coffee, coffee. Everywhere you turn it seems to be there, and it’s certainly not diminishing in its presence. In fact, coffee is the third most consumed beverage behind only water and tea.

coffee © Zadorozhna Natalia /

Perhaps you know a bit about it and make and drink it regularly. Perhaps you make it every day but are generally confused because its ubiquity has resulted in an incredible breadth of available information. Maybe you’re simply curious about it and don’t know where to begin.

No matter what, this Cheat Sheet can help you when you’re making choices about where to buy your coffee, how to order it, and how to drink it.

Buying Coffee: Strategies to Make Your Selection Easier

You can purchase coffee beans or grounds at any of these places:

  • Grocery store: The grocery store offers the best selection because it includes many brands, and within them you have choices, such as ground or whole bean, and different roasts levels, ranging from lightest to darkest. Prices range; remember that just because a coffee is crazy pricey doesn’t mean it’s the best. Taste is key. A downside: You can’t get a sample to taste at most groceries.
  • Coffee shop or café: Whether you step into your local independent coffee shop or a major brand coffeehouse like Starbucks or Peets, the advantage in shopping at a coffee shop or café is the professional help you’re most likely to get from a knowledgeable barista. In addition, more than likely you can drink a sample to see if you like it.
  • Online: Online buying allows you to travel the farthest without leaving your home. You’re in for some extraordinary coffee experiences.

The kind of coffee you purchase is as diverse as there are people in the world. The kind you buy depends on so many of the following factors:

Whole Bean or Ground

You can buy coffee basically two ways at your grocery, at a coffeehouse, or online:

  • Whole bean: Roasted coffee that is not yet ground for brewing.
  • Ground: Roasted coffee that has been ground for brewing.

Brewing the beans soon after you grind them will give you a better taste. However, that’s not always possible because you may not have a coffee grinder as one of your at-home appliances…yet! There is no problem getting the staff at your café or coffeehouse to grind your coffee, and sometimes an online source will offer ground coffee as a selection when buy your coffee. Be leery of the grocery grinders because they’re often not calibrated correctly, and they may not be cleaned regularly, which means that some old coffee oils from past grindings may end up on your ground coffee particles.

Roast level

One of your first selection parameters will be your roast preference. Be aware that despite confusing names, the roast level is often or as easy as light, medium, or dark.

Tastes associated with those roasts are as follows:

  • Light: Sweet, tart, juicy, fruity, lemony, lighter body, and mouthfeel.
  • Medium: Sweet with hints of savory, chocolatey, nutty, richer mouthfeel, but still with some tartness and juiciness.
  • Dark: Smoky, caramelly, toasty, strong aromatics and big flavors with minimal mouthfeel and body.


Keep in mind roast will affect the tastes, but, generally, Latin and Central American beans have the most common coffee tastes, African and Arabian the most exotic, and Asia the richest, most herbal, often rich and earthy qualities.

Single origin or blend

Single origin tastes get their taste from roast and origin. With any blend, you’ll have to depend on the blender for an appropriate description so check the bag or the marketing to determine if it sounds right for you.

How to Order Coffee in a Coffee Shop or Make at Home

Not that many years ago, consumers who wanted coffee either away from home at a restaurant, or a coffee shop, or at home didn’t have many options. The exchange in a café or restaurant was often as simple as, “I’d like a coffee please.” “Okay, would you like regular or decaf, cream and sugar or black?” If the coffee was for home, grocery stores had a vast selection of strikingly similar, low-quality offerings. For brewing gear, there were percolators and a few drip or pour-over options.

The explosion of specialty coffee in the late 1960s changed all that for consumers, and in the years since, consumers have seen nothing but growth in the quantity and variety of coffees and advancements in the technology of brewing. Multitudes of options with a vast descriptive vocabulary add to the confusion.

Here are the four ways that coffee can be served, whether you order in a coffee shop or make it at home:

  • Drip brew: Perhaps the most recognizable and ubiquitous, drip brewing is simple to understand and, when done well, creates a delicious, balanced result. Water, just off the boil, and appropriately ground coffee come together in some basket or cone receptacle, and a filter, usually made of paper, holds back the liquid so that extraction occurs. You can easily achieve clean and consistent results with drip brewing if the proportion and grind are correctly measured, the equipment is maintained, and the coffee is fresh.
  • Pour over: This is an old and new brewing method, with Melitta Bentz, a Dresden housewife, credited for its invention in 1908. Pour-over is really drip, but gets its separate description because it’s hand poured, leaving the possibility for variance in flow rate and water movement in your hands if you’re home, or in your barista’s hand if you’re out.
  • Cold brew: Cold brew is a hugely popular method today because of the coffee’s clean, full flavor and perceived low acidity in the glass. It dates back to the 1600s and is attributed to the Japanese and their Kyoto brewer. An even more recent addition to this brew method category is nitrogen-infused cold brew. The nitro part is really a simple dispensing method that infuses nitrogen into the liquid at the draft moment, making it creamy and seemingly alive and dancing in the glass.
  • Espresso: Grazie, Italiani! Yes, thank the Italians for this popular brew method that was introduced in the 1930s to put a little speed into brewing. Cafés were seeing a booming growth and suffering from the five to ten minutes it took to brew, so a high-pressure, high-speed extraction was ideal. Add in a bit of steamed milk in a cappuccino, latte, or mocha, and you have a true espresso experience either in a café or at home.

Java Jargon: Coffee Drinks in the Espresso Group

Of all the confusing elements that the burgeoning coffee culture presents to its consumers perhaps none is as dense as the vocabulary of espresso drinks. It was certainly way easier for the Italians in the 1930s when espresso came on the scene because many of the names come from Italian. People in the United States probably have Starbucks to thank or blame as their early days in the 1970s featured the real start to espresso as a category in specialty coffee at the time. Starbucks added to the confusion by romanticizing the medium to tall and the large to grande. Add in their 1995 launch of an iced coffee beverage named Frappuccino, with the name directly derived from the Italian cappuccino, and you’re faced with a big dose of potential disorientation.

  • Approach espresso by thinking of the building blocks or ingredients of a recipe and the correlation to be made to crafting an espresso beverage:
    • Start with a perfectly pulled shot or shots that are the base. Those drinks include a solo or doppio.
    • Add some perfectly steamed milk. Then you have a latte, cappuccino, and flat white.
    • Add some chocolate to get a mocha.

This list can help you translate some of the most popular (and more basic) of the espresso drinks:

  • Espresso: The coffee industry’s definition of espresso is a 25 to 35ml (.85 to 1.2 ounce) beverage prepared from 7 to 9 grams of coffee through which clean water of 195 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit (90.5 to 96.1 Celsius) has been forced at 9 to 10 atmospheres of pressure, and where the grind of the coffee is such that the brew time is 20 to 30 seconds. A single shot is a solo espresso.
  • Doppio: Double the coffee and output from above to 50 to 70ml (1.7 to 2.4 ounces) prepared from 14 to 18 grams with the same pressure and same brew time as a single, and you have a doppio, or double espresso.
  • Lungo: Long in Italian, this beverage extends the usual 20 to 30 seconds to 45 to 60 seconds, creating a beverage that is less strong but a bit more bitter.
  • Ristretto: A restricted shot is a shot made with about half of the output creating a slightly sweeter, more concentrated flavor with no bitterness. A doppio ristretto is two separate restricted shots combined.
  • Americano: Double short (8 ounce at Starbucks, probably smaller elsewhere). American soldiers stationed in Italy during WWII can be credited for this simple drink made with espresso diluted with hot water. Its strength is determined by the number of shots and the final drink size.
  • Latte: Espresso and steamed milk go into this drink, which is a top seller around the world. You can make it with any number of shots of espresso. It’s often customized with syrup to create vanilla or hazelnut variations. Differs from a cappuccino because it has more milk to coffee.
  • Flat white: Either Australia or New Zealand originated this drink. If you order one, you get a drink similar to a latte in its ingredients — espresso and steamed milk. It’s usually served as a smaller drink, and the consistency of the steamed milk is considered crucial, as is the almost absent micro foam top surface — hence flat white.
  • Cappuccino: A traditional cappuccino is a small beverage, 150 to 180ml (5 or 6 ounces). It’s made by combining one or two shots of espresso with steamed milk and a thin layer of micro foam on top.
  • Macchiato: Macchiato means “stained” or “marked” and that’s just what the milk is intended to do in this drink. One or two shots with a dollop of steamed milk foam is a macchiato.
  • Mocha: Add some chocolate to a latte and you’ve created a mocha. Add whipped cream if you’re feeling it.

Here are translations of the not-so-basic espresso drink:

  • Café crème: This drink is a bit confusing in that it can be two things. Crème or cream coffee was an early name for espresso that fell out of favor. So, more likely, if you see it on a menu, it’s describing an Americano-like drink with a rather complex change made to the grind and extraction time. This creates a unique, weaker, but still flavorful result.
  • Café Noisette: A espresso with a dash of hot milk that has a hazelnut color.
  • Cortado: Spanish for “cut,” if you order a cortado, expect a small drink (5-7 ounces), like a flat white but one in which the milk is smoother, less textured.
  • Affogato: Drowned in Italian, if you take some freshly pulled espresso and pour it over gelato or ice cream, you have an Affogato
  • Breve: Use half and half for the dairy component of a latte and you have a breve.
  • Mocha breve: If you quickly thought, hmmm, “add some chocolate to the last drink,” you are getting it!
  • Café con hielo: Spanish coffee with ice, this iced coffee order will get you espresso and sugar over ice cubes.
  • Con panna: Espresso with cream in Italian, this drink recipe starts with a shot or two of espresso and is finished with some whipped cream.
  • Black eye: Add a shot of espresso to a cup of iced or hot drip brewed coffee and you have a black eye. Add two shots and it’s a red eye. This one has quite a few variations, so be sure to confirm what you are getting any time you order this.

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