20 June 2008

An Introduction to Specialty Coffee

Some people are specialty coffee virgins, and while they'd love to go into Starbucks and order a Venti double-shot half-caff skinny mocha latte with extra whip, they don't know the first thing about specialty coffee, and let that intimidate them into sticking to their "cappuccino" out of the machines at the local gas station.

I urge you: STEP AWAY FROM THE GAS STATION COFFEE! Such a deliciously rich, wide world of caffeine exists for you just around the corner at your local coffee house! Life is too short to drink bad coffee!

So for those who would like to venture into this new territory, don't be afraid to try things! But before you get wild and go for the Mint Mocha Chip ("blended coffee base, Mocha syrup, Mint Chocolate Syrup and Chocolate Chips. Served with chocolate whipped cream and chocolate drizzle"), why don't we ease into things with one of these varieties.

Coffee is a good place to start at a new coffee house. Since it's a staple, it can be a good indicator of whether or not the place serves good drinks. So if you're totally new to anything other than your Sanka, go in and order a regular (or decaf) coffee. If you can, try drinking it without sugar or creamer. You'll be able to judge its flavor a little better. Coffee is made by grinding coffee beans and passing hot water through them to extract the flavor from the grinds.

A latte is the next least potent coffee drink. Outside of Italy, a latte is one-third espresso, two-thirds steamed milk, and there is a layer of foamed milk on the top. Again, it can be a good indicator of whether or not a coffee house serves good coffee. Try it without any sugar. The process of steaming milk sweetens it a bit, and many people who load their coffee with sugar find they can drink a latte without anything in it.

A mocha latte is the same as a latte, except it has a shot of chocolatey-flavored syrup in it. Some mocha lattes also have whipped cream on top.
Cappuccinos are a little more potent than lattes. Like a latte, a cappuccino is made with a shot of espresso, but uses less steamed milk than a latte. It also usually has a thicker head of foam (called froth) on the top, and many coffee houses sprinkle the top with cinnamon and/or include a cinnamon stick.
In the next installment about the basics of specialty coffee, I'll give a glossary of important terms that will help you translate what you're ordering.


  1. NP - what do you recommend for those of us who stifle a gag at the very hint of 'coffee flavor'? I can't even eat Tiramisu without getting queasy. Is there any hope for me or should I just get my caffeine from Mountain Dew?

    I used to hate beer and now we're very good friends. Can I acquire a taste for coffee?

  2. PC--If you don't like coffee, there's actually lots of options for you. You could do steamers (flavored steamed milk), chai tea, or something like that.

    I didn't used to like coffee at all, but lattes got me into it more. If you get a flavored latte, you taste less of the coffee and you can work your way to a straight shot of espresso from there. I definitely think coffee is an acquired taste.

  3. I'm intrigued about the steamers. I think I might be stopping by Starbucks on the way home from the gym tommorow.

  4. Steamers are great. And Starbucks has blended ice drinks that have no coffee in them, as well, if you want something cold.

    Let me know what you think!


Add a little caffeine to my life...