Talk Coffee to Me

Customer service is hard. Communication is hard. Not eating an entire carton of Ben & Jerry’s in one sitting is hard.

…Just me? Ahem.

It’s the plight of those who work in the service industry to always give the customer what they want, even when the customer doesn’t entirely know what they want. I encounter a lot of confusion behind the coffee counter, mostly because of a lot of the coffee misinformation that’s floating around out there. I’m not going to claim that my definitions below are the end-all, be-all… but in the course of my coffee career I’ve seen all of these play out to be mostly accurate definitions. Write me via Carrier Pigeon if they’re not.

Before we begin, let me say that every coffee shop does things a little differently and if you have a question at the counter, ask your barista. I am never annoyed when someone wants me to explain in detail what is a Chemex or what the difference is between a latte and a cappuccino. It’s my delight to share with and educate the coffee community and I know I’m not the only barista who feels this way. Please just talk to us. I promise that we don’t bite… Well not most of us, at least.

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Americano – Espresso poured over hot water. It was given its name back in the World War II days when American G.I.’s in Italy would dilute espresso with hot water to taste more like the coffees they drank back home. (Can you just imagine the salty Italian baristas back then?!) There’s no universal consensus on the size of this drink. I try to steer folks in the direction of an Americano when they tell me they prefer cream and/or sugar in their coffee- I think that the bold flavor of an Americano holds its own very well against added condiments.

Cappuccino – An area of contention in some circles. Everyone agrees that it’s a beverage with espresso, steamed milk, and a layer of milk foam, usually in equal ratios. Not everyone agrees what size it should be. And while I’ve seen some places sell 20-ounce cappuccinos (something I find strange), most specialty shops define cappuccino by the size of the cup: a 6-ounce beverage with approximately two ounces of espresso, two ounces of steamed milk, and two ounces of creamy foam.

Chemex – A type of pour-over method, the Chemex is an hourglass-shaped contraption made of glass. They use filters that are 20-30% thicker than average, preventing a majority of the oils and sediment in the coffee grinds from actually getting into the cup. This creates a very bright, clean coffee.

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Cold Brew – Coarsely-ground coffee that is steeped in room temperature water for anywhere between 8-12 hours and is then strained. Because the coffee never comes in contact with hot water, the volatile aromatics (think: fruity, floral, bright notes) never really have a chance to release from the grinds in a cold-brewed coffee. This is why cold brew tends to have a very mellow, kind of flat taste. If you’re interested in reading a little more about the science behind why cold brew tastes the way it does (and why Japanese iced drip coffee is waaaay better), check this out.

Cortado – A beverage comprised of equal parts espresso and steamed milk, often served in a Gibraltar glass. It’s been a pretty trendy drink for the past couple of years, and has even garnered its own hashtag on Instagram.

Espresso – “Espresso” refers to the method by which a coffee is brewed: through an espresso machine. Contrary to popular belief it’s neither a variety of coffee bean or a style of roast. You can use a light, medium or darkly-roasted coffee for espresso, though I prefer a lighter-roasted, single-origin espresso myself. Espressos are usually served in double shots, an approximately two-ounce coffee concentrate. Espresso gets a bad rap for “tasting bitter”, but it’s important to know that a properly-extracted espresso will taste sweet and complex, not at all bitter or sour. Don’t give up on espresso, y’all. It’s amazing.

Flat White – Holy crap, please don’t make me get into this. Just read the Sprudge piece about flat whites if you’re really that curious.

Latte – A beverage made with espresso and steamed milk, typically larger/milkier than a cappuccino. If you like to add lots of cream to your coffee, you might actually enjoy a latte. Give it a try. It’s also worth noting that, while lattes contain coffee (in the form of espresso), they are NOT “a coffee” and when you order “a vanilla coffee” at a coffee shop you’ll be receiving a cup of black coffee with vanilla in it. Think about it like this: yes, pizza sauce has tomatoes in it. But I don’t ask for “a tomato” when I really want a can of pizza sauce. Ya heard?

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Macchiato – So this is a tricky one, since it varies from shop to shop. Most specialty coffee shops serve macchiatos in the traditional Italian style, something that is a far cry from its Starbucks counterpart. The traditional macchiato is a double shot of espresso with just a teeny, tiny little bit of steamed milk. The Starbucks macchiato is essentially a vanilla latte with caramel drizzle on top. Be sure to check which kind the shop serves before ordering, otherwise you’re in for a weird surprise at the pick-up counter.

Pour Over – The umbrella term for a drip coffee that is brewed manually by a human person pouring a stream of hot water over coffee grounds. Pour overs were developed in Japan and they’re probably my favorite method of consuming coffee. If you’re interested in stepping up your home pour-over game, check out the “Brew School” section.

Single Origin – Coffee grown within a single geographic area. Sometimes this means that it comes from a single farm or that it comes from a specific collection from a single country. Single-origin coffees are usually named after the the place that the coffee was grown and/or processed.

“Strong Coffee” – The strength of a coffee is determined by the amount of soluble material that has dissolved from the coffee into the water during brewing. Pro Tip: If you want your coffee to have a lot of caffeine, ask for a lighter roast. If you want a coffee with a bolder, roastier flavor, ask for a darker roast. If a darker roast is unavailable you might want to try a South American coffee, a region whose coffees usually has those nutty, chocolatey flavors folks associate with dark roasts. Or you can try an Americano, a drink that will have a bolder, fuller mouthfeel.

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Cover photo by Joshua Vasko, local barista and photography whiz kid.
Story photos by Raymond Grubb, a real sweet man who visited The Daily Press back when we first opened over a year ago. Looking at these photos is a blast from the past for me right now, it’s crazy to think how much has changed in one year!

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I'm an SCA-certified Instructor & Examiner, the Director of Coffee at Undercurrent Coffee and a huge nerd. Other interests include cuddling with my cats, exploring the Carolinas with my husband, binge-watching Netflix and binge-eating Nutella.

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