Coffee Shop Menus: Reading Them like a Regular

For first-time coffee shop goers, a menu can look like gibberish.

“What the heck is a cappuccino?” 

“What do they pour over my coffee?” 

“Wait, I thought espresso was spelled with an ‘x’?”

Ordering from a coffee shop menu for the first time can be terrifying. But that’s why you’re here! 

By the end of our guide, you’ll be ordering from coffee shops across the globe like a pro.

Coffee shop menus don’t have to be intimidating. All you need to know are the basics, like:

  • The difference between coffee & espresso (+ why it matters!)
  • What common beverages you’ll find in coffee shops 
  • Other terminology you might come across on your coffee shop adventures

Let’s get to it.

Coffee vs. Espresso: What’s the Difference?

The trick to reading a menu like a regular is knowing the difference between coffee and espresso. Once you understand this, the rest of the menu is a piece of cake.

When you look at a coffee shop menu and see both Coffee and Espresso drinks, this refers to how the coffee beans are brewed. 

To clear up any misconceptions, espresso is not:

  • A specific type of coffee bean
  • A roasting style
  • A predetermined level of dark roasted coffee

Espresso is a method for brewing coffee. 

By definition, espresso is a concentrated coffee brewed by forcing hot water through finely-ground coffee at 7-9 atmospheres of pressure. The result is a tiny drink with prominent flavors, a velvety body, and a beautiful crema on top.

A properly brewed espresso is jam-packed with flavors and aromas ranging from sweet vanilla to floral jasmine, offers a balanced acidity, and provides the right amount of bitterness for a rich experience.

Read: The Ultimate Guide to Espresso

Drip coffee, on the other hand, is brewed using:

  • A medium-fine grind
  • Gravity (hot water poured on top without added pressure)
  • A standard coffee-to-water ratio of 1:15, 1:16, or 1:17

In comparison to espresso, drip coffee is a larger drink and boasts a lighter mouthfeel, along with a variety of flavor characteristics.

Understanding the difference between espresso and drip or batch-brewed coffee will help you decipher coffee shop menus, no matter where you are in the world. These brewing methods are universal!

Whether you order a double espresso in Italy or Seattle, you can have confidence knowing exactly what delicious type of coffee you’re about to drink. 

Deciphering the Menu: The Common Coffee Shop Drinks

Most coffee shop menus are divided into the following sections:

Coffee Drinks

What would a coffee menu be without its staple: coffee!

The following coffee choices are often available:

  • Batch Brew: Also listed as drip or house coffee, batch brew coffee is brewed in a large carafe and served instantly. The majority of coffee shops have a light, medium, or dark roast option on tap. Decaf is also offered if you need a break from caffeine. 

  • Pour Over Coffee: Pour over coffee is brewed by the cup using a specific method such as a Kalita Wave or Chemex. Some specialty coffee shops have a full array of pour over methods to choose from including French Press, Hario V60, or siphon pot. This coffee will take about 5-10 minutes to make since this method is brewed by hand.
  • Espresso Drinks

    On a coffee shop menu, you can choose from single or double shots of espresso or a drink containing espresso and milk. There are several espresso and milk combinations to choose from, each with its own tasty characteristics:

  • Latte: A latte contains roughly 1-2 ounces of espresso and 6-15 ounces of steamed milk. Lattes are the largest of the espresso beverages, so make sure you’re thirsty when you order. This drink has a tiny layer of microfoam on top to ensure that the milk has been steamed and incorporated properly. This layer of microfoam also allows your barista to create artistic designs such as a heart!

  • Cappuccino: If you’d prefer less milk, opt for a cappuccino. In comparison to a latte, a cappuccino uses more foam resulting in a smaller beverage with a more coffee-forward taste.

  • Flat White: Originated in Australia, flat whites are essentially smaller lattes or cappuccinos without the foam—however you want to look at it! Flat whites offer the signature “stronger” taste of a cappuccino but mirror the lack of foam like a latte.

  • Mocha: A mocha is brewed with espresso, steamed milk, and delicious chocolate syrup or sauce. It’s essentially a chocolate latte!

  • Cortado/Gibraltar: An even smaller espresso and milk drink is the Cortado. This 4-5 ounce drink is served in a Gibraltar glass—hence the name in certain parts of the world—and is brewed with espresso and 2-3 ounces of steamed milk. Due to their smaller size, the flavors of the espresso are more noticeable in this drink.

  • Macchiato: Here’s where it might get confusing. A macchiato is traditionally espresso with a dollop of milk microfoam on top. But, Starbucks used the term to describe a large, sugary latte-style drink. Be sure to clarify which type of drink you want when ordering, just to be safe! You can always order an “Espresso Macchiato” to make it abundantly clear.
  • Cold Drinks

    Cold coffee drinks always hit the spot on a sunny day, a road trip, or when you need to power through a long day at the office.

  • Iced Latte & Iced Mocha: These cold espresso drinks are just like their hot counterparts, with one main difference—the milk is cold and poured over ice. 

  • Iced Coffee: Typically, iced coffee is hot coffee either poured over ice or stored in the fridge after brewing. This cold drink often has a light mouthfeel and bright flavors. Some coffee shops may also offer “flash chilled coffee” or “Japanese Iced Coffee,” which refers to pour overs brewed over ice.

  • Cold Brew: In comparison to iced coffee, cold brew is brewed cold. The coffee is ground coarsely and steeped in cold water for 18-24 hours resulting in a rich, sweet beverage with a smooth body. Many people love cold brew for its mellow acidity and balanced flavors. 

  • Nitro Cold Brew: If you’re a fan of Guinness, you’ll love nitro cold brew. Coffee shops add nitrogen to cold brew through a pressurized valve to create a rich cold brew with the mouthfeel of a Guinness! 
  • Wait, What Does That Mean? Other Terminology You’ll Hear at a Coffee Shop

    On top of knowing what each drink is, you might also see some other phrases scattered about the menu. We’ll help you decode those terms too!

    Blends vs. Single Origin

    When building out their menu, specialty coffee shops have the option to use blends, single origin coffees, or both. 

  • Blends: Blends are coffee beans from various regions or countries, carefully combined to produce a specific tasting coffee. Blends can use any combination of coffees and some even use coffees with different roast levels.

  • Single Origin: Single origin coffees are beans from one distinct farm, region, or country. The term refers to the ability to trace those beans back to one location. Single origin coffees are used on pour over bars, as exclusive espresso shots, and as drip coffee to highlight the natural flavors.

  • 👉 Try blends and single origin coffees at home with a coffee subscription!

    Processing Methods

    When talking about a single origin coffee, you may hear a barista use the words “washed,” “dry,” or “natural.”

    These phrases are referring to the coffee’s processing method! To prepare the coffee beans for exporting, farmers use one of the following processing methods:

  • Washed Process: This process is common in coffee-producing regions with a lot of rainfall. After the coffee cherries have been depulped and fermented, the washed process uses fresh water to rinse off the beans before going through the final drying phase. Washed coffees tend to have clean, bright flavors and attributes. 

  • Dry or Natural Process: Conversely, countries with far more sunshine prefer to prepare their beans using the natural or dry process. Rather than depulping, the mucilage on coffee cherries is left intact as they are put on large drying patios to ferment and dry in the sun. As a result, natural processed coffees tend to have wild, vibrant flavors like exotic fruits. 

  • Honey Process: In the honey process, specific amounts of mucilage are left on the coffee cherry to ferment before heading into the drying phase. The more mucilage left on, the darker the color marker (Yellow, Red, Black.) Honey processed coffees tend to have sweet flavors and mild to medium acidities. 

  • Do you need to know these processing methods to order at a coffee shop? Nope. But it’ll come in handy when you venture into single origin pour over coffee!

    Tasting Notes

    When talking about a particular coffee, baristas and roasters use tasting notes to accurately describe what a customer can expect. These notes refer to the coffee’s flavors, levels of acidity, and body or mouthfeel.

    When you hear a barista say “This coffee from Colombia has a vibrant acidity and notes of sugar cane, melon, and an orange citrus acidity,” know that these are the natural flavors imparted by the coffee due to the processing and roasting methods. No extra flavors were added to your coffee!

    Bring the Coffee Shop Home to You

    With all of this knowledge in your back pocket, you’re ready to hit the town and order from every specialty coffee shop in the area!

    But, who has the time for all of that? Why not make coffee shop quality drinks at home?

    Our specialty coffee blends and single origin offerings are filled with the rich, sweet flavors you love from your morning cup of Joe. And, if you try JavaPresse coffee today, we’ll give you our #1 rated manual coffee grinder for FREE!

    Order your coffee—like a pro—now!