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.