How To Navigating Coffee Menus

Remember when it was popular to joke about wine snobs and their pretensions? When the language of wine seemed foreign? Whoever thought that the same thing would apply to the good old American staple, coffee? Did you ever imagine that you’d need a guide to help you order coffee? If you’ve hit the local specialty coffee shop, though, you may just find yourself blinking at the depth and breadth of the menu and wondering how to order a decent cup of coffee that you’ll like.


How To Navigating Coffee Menus -type of coffee and coffee varieties
Chocolate and dog metabolism don’t mix – image copyright Eric.Parker via

“Maybe Fritalian”

Dunkin Donuts, the little upstart East Coast coffee shop (if you can call a 45 year old company an upstart), even made fun of the rarefied language of coffee connoisseurs – and in particular, rival Starbucks – with their Fritalian ad a few years ago. That one featured stupefied customers staring at a menu while chanting “Mojo HafKaf Latte Chino Mocha Duet Avec Moi”. Is it French or is it Italian? It’s neither – and it’s not Fritalian either. As much amusement as I’ve derived from Dunkins poking fun at the pretentiousness of other specialty coffee shops, the fact is that specialty coffees do have their own language and understanding the different terms will help you make your way through the coffee menu jungle and find coffee that you love. (Or, if you frequent a friendly coffee shop with knowledgeable baristas, just ask. Most are thrilled to share their knowledge and turn customers on to the excellence of their favorite coffees.)

Basically, there are four keys to understanding the different coffee offerings, and once you understand the basics, you’ll be able to decide whether or not you’ll enjoy an unfamiliar coffee or coffee drink by simply ‘translating’ the menu.

Arabica vs. Robusta

There are two different kinds of coffee beans – Arabica and Robusta. In general, Arabica beans are considered to be the cream of the crop. They are grown at higher altitudes within 100 miles of the equator. Mot specialty coffees are varieties of Arabica beans. You’ll seldom find Robusto beans at a gourmet coffee shop – they’re considerd ‘common’ and generally used to make instant coffees and blended with Arabica beans to make commercial coffee blends.

Coffee Origin

Another key to knowing your coffees is knowing where your favorite coffees come from. Wine afficianados know whether they prefer wines from Bordeaux country or from the sunny slopes of Italy. Coffee beans are every bit as affected by the weather and other factors as grapes for wine. Thus, the conditions under which coffee is grown has a profound effect on the flavor of the finished product – the brewed coffee. Arabica beans are grown in four distinct regions in the world – Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa and Arabia, and Indonesia and the Pacific. Coffee from each of those regions has a distinct flavor that is characteristic of that region. If you like one coffee from the region, chances are good that you’ll also enjoy other coffees grown in the same region.

While coffees are often blended together to combine individual tastes into a new and different taste. The origin of the coffee can be one of the most important factors in helping you decide which coffees you’ll enjoy.

Coffee Characteristics: Flavor, Acidity and Body – FAB Coffee!

The three basic characteristics that coffee connoisseurs use to describe coffee are FAB – Flavor, acidity and body. According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the definitions of these characteristics are:

Flavor – the overall experience of drinking a coffee, including both flavor and aroma

Acidity – refreshing, mouth-cleansing quality, a sparkling lively taste

Body – the sensation that coffee elicits from your tongue, whether it feels heavy, thick or oily

In general, coffee from Central and South America has mild flavor, light body and high acidity, African and Arabian coffee has intense flavor, bright acidity and full body, and Pacific coffees have smooth, rich flavors and low acidity. Often, Central and South American coffees are “breakfast blends” and Pacific coffees are ‘after dinner coffees’, while African coffees are mid-day pick-me-ups with high caffeine content.

Latte Mocha Chino and All that Jazz

Espresso and coffee bars have brought a whole new language to American coffee lovers. Coffee used to be black or white, with milk or cream, one lump or two. Now there’s mocha, macchiato, Americano, cappucino and latte – and that’s just for starters. If you’ve never quite figured out how Caffe Americano is different from a plain old cup of java, read on for some definitions.

Espresso is coffee that is brewed by forcing hot water through tightly packed coffee grounds under high pressure. The espresso process uses very finely ground coffee, and extracts more of the volatile coffee oils than most other types of brewing. It results in a thick, concentrated “shot” of coffee that is richer in coffee taste than typical drip coffee.

Caffe Americano is a shot of espresso that has been cut with an equal amount of hot water to ‘lighten’ it for American palates. While the brew is less concentrated, it is still usually more flavorful than drip coffee because it starts with richer flavor.

Cappuccino – equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk, often dusted with cinnamon or nutmeg

Caff?? Latte – espresso and steamed milk, with little or no foam

Espresso Macchiato – espresso “marked” with a dollop of milk foam

Flavored coffees are popular in many shops. There are a number of different ways of making flavored coffees. Many shops use flavoring syrups to add another flavor to the coffee. The most popular flavors are vanilla, hazelnut and chocolate.

Now that you understand a little about the different flavors and types of coffee drinks available, you should find it easy to make sense of even the most complex coffee menu. Be brave and experiment – you never know what you might find you like.


  1. Thanks for your insightful introduction to coffee. Have just got an expresso home machine and making what I call “Flat Whites”. I make them with as much of that ‘crema’ (caramalised brown thick stuff with the blow-me-away bitter flavour) as possible and maybe just a dollop of froth for looks. Awewsome. So, my question is, what is a “Flat White”? (I always order double shot f/white), esp. how does it differ from a latte and cappuciano?

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