Twelve and a half years ago I walked into a coffee shop for my first day as a barista. It wasn’t the kind of coffee shop with frilly names on the board, rather, there were strange names like “Americano.” Cappuccino. Latte. Who in the world knew the difference? Well, it turns out a lot of people don’t know the difference, and today we are going to clear that up. This is your cheat sheet: your guide to knowing what in the world to order when the menu looks all Italian.
Back to the Basics
Most traditional coffee shop beverages are made with espresso. That’s espresso, not expresso, no matter what anyone else says. The three main espresso beverages are americano, latte and cappuccino, and most other hot espresso drinks are a variation on these three.
Espresso Shots: Espresso shots can be consumed on their own. The difference between coffee and espresso is the manner in which it is brewed. Coffee is brewed by hot water running over and through ground up coffee beans. Espresso is made with a finer grind of coffee, which is packed into a little “puck,” and then the water is forced quickly through these condensed and finely ground beans. Espresso beans can be used to brew drip coffee as well, so don’t let that confuse you.
Americano: An americano is shots of espresso with added hot water. An americano is most akin to a cup of drip coffee, but has a different flavor profile because of its brewing method.
From here on out we have drinks with steamed milk. Some coffee shops default to two percent; others use whole milk. Breve is a drink made using steamed half and half, and a “skinny” drink typically uses nonfat or skim milk. As coffee shops become more accommodating to those with food sensitivities and preferences, more options are becoming available. You may be able to get your favorite beverage made with almond, soy, coconut or oat milk. Always feel free to ask your favorite coffee shop what they have available that meets your dietary needs or palate preferences.
Lattes and Cappuccinos: Lattes and cappuccinos are made of three parts: espresso, steamed milk, and foam. Their ratios are just different. A latte is made of mostly steamed milk, with a quarter to half inch of foam on top, while a cappuccino tends to lean toward half steamed milk and half foam. Foam is a byproduct of the milk steaming process.
Most other drinks are a variation of the latte. By adding flavors and syrups to the cup, the possibilities are endless. Mocha? Add chocolate. French vanilla? Try some hazelnut and vanilla syrup. Coffee shops often have sugar-free versions of some of these flavor syrups, so be sure to ask if you don’t see anything listed.
Of course, coffee shops offer all sorts of other beverages as well. Iced coffee, blended drinks, and teas, to name a few.
Blended: Calling all blended drinks “Frappuccinos,” is like calling tissues “Kleenex” or bandages “Band-Aids.” The Frappuccino is a branded drink, but it is, in short, a beverage blended with ice. Some of these come with coffee in them and some don’t. Many shops these days have cold, blended options, and you can turn most of your favorite hot combinations into blended ones.
Chai Tea Latte: Chai tea is a blend of black tea and spices. Some shops offer a presweetened chai tea concentrate, which is then mixed with steamed milk for the latte. Others may brew a tea bag in steamed milk to create their version of the chai tea latte. There is no one set “recipe” for chai tea, so you may find that you prefer one brand over another. If chai is your thing, be prepared for variation, and who knows, you may find a new favorite.
Cold Press vs Iced Coffee: The final group of coffee drinks we are going to talk about here is iced coffee. Believe it or not, warm weather is approaching us here on the North Shore and you may find yourself wanting something cold and caffeinated. But is there a difference between cold press and iced coffee? Yes. The difference is in the brewing method. Iced coffee is coffee that is brewed hot, often at double strength, and then cooled quickly by adding ice to bring it back to a regular dilution. Cold press coffee, however, is brewed at room temperature, often overnight.
This is by no means an exhaustive guide, but it is a place to start so that when you walk into a coffee shop for a drink, you don’t have that “deer in headlights” look I had on my first day of work. It can also help you to recreate the drink you love from one shop at another. Once you know the basic components of your favorite drink, you can explore making them at home, or tweaking the recipe with fewer pumps of syrup, more foam or alternative milk options.
The North Shore boasts many unique coffee shops, so the next time you’re out and about, consider trying one of these:
Kindness. Integrity. Sustainability. Service.
Buzzwords? Nope. The guiding values for a small, family-owned coffee shop on the North Shore of the greatest of the Great Lakes? Yep. One stop and you’ll feel how they ground this place and remind us why we’re here.
Just south of Two Harbors, nestled along Scenic Drive, sits the Mocha Moose. This local shop serves coffee, espresso drinks, fresh baked goods and quick-serve food. Brian and Kate Hanley purchased the shop last April. They intended to create a cozy, clean and comfortable space for locals and travelers alike to connect to the North Shore. They came to see that the true specialness of any endeavor is brought to life by people. This starts with an amazing staff who live those values; they are the heart of the shop. Artists, musicians, locals and visitors come—all leaving a bit of themselves behind. This energy builds for all those who follow and there is no more beautiful setting to amplify this magic than the shores of Lake Superior itself.
Sure, people come for the coffee (it is really good). But they stay for the community (the magic of connection) and the fresh-baked scones (seriously, the scones are really that good).
Log Cabin Coffee
Many small local shops don’t offer the convenience of drive through service during these cold, northern winters and unpredictable, muddy springs. Log Cabin Coffee is Ely’s only drive-through coffee shop. They are open year-round for the drop in snowmobiler or the Boundary Waters traveler who needs one last boost of caffeine before a trip to enjoy the beautiful wilderness (and maybe that first feeling of civilization on their way out). They are located in, you guessed it, a tiny log cabin right in town, and have seasonal drinks and all-the-time staples to meet every need.
Bay Village Coffee
Thunder Bay natives Gary Mack and Alan Forbes have traveled the world, lived all across Canada, and are back in Thunder Bay where they have owned the Bay Village Coffee shop since 2018. The globetrotters innocently brainstormed the idea to own a coffee shop over one weekend vacation—and the rest is history.
Over the past several years, Bay Village has established themselves in the community with a focus on sustainability through local sourcing, composting and really good food. They offer owner-baked pastries, a delicious lunch menu, and offer foods that fit many dietary needs. Perhaps most importantly, Bay Village is a place of acceptance, of support, and they are always looking to pair their dark roast with a side of joy and encouragement. Did I mention homemade donuts?