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An Overview of Espresso Drinks - What are the differences between espresso drinks?

Updated: Nov 18, 2023

Looking at your local cafe’s espresso drink offerings can be overwhelming. Macchiato? Americano? Latte? Flat White? What are those?

They all have one thing in common. Espresso!

What is espresso you may ask? It’s the base for a variety of drinks. It’s a strong, concentrated, coffee made by using pressure to push hot water through a bed of coffee. It’s generally 1 part water to approximately 2 parts coffee. An espresso can be served by itself or be part of an equation of espresso, milk, and milk foam.

Many people think of a macchiato as a large latte with mostly milk due to some larger corporate coffee chains improperly using that term. However, a traditional macchiato is far from that. A Macchiato is a standard shot of espresso with a drop of steamed milk and a dollop of milk foam. This small amount of milk adds a touch of sweetness to the espresso. Do not be surprised if your specialty coffee barista will clarify they serve the drink in the traditional manner as over recent years the term macchiato has been associated with a latte marked with caramel.

Continuing with the smaller size, not to be interpreted as less caffeinated, espresso drinks is the cortado. A Cortado has equal amounts of espresso and steamed milk. This is still a reasonably small drink size by volume, coming in at 4oz, as opposed to a relatively standard 8oz cup size.

For those who want a larger coffee, they may choose a cappuccino, a caffe latte (latte), or a flat white. These drinks vary with the amount of milk and milk foam added to the espresso. All of these drinks soften the strong flavor of espresso and add varying sweetness to the cup. A cappuccino has the most milk foam in comparison to the latte and flat white, whereas a latte consists of the most milk.

Cappuccino drinks are nearly equal parts of espresso, milk, and foam.

A Caffe Latte has a small amount of milk foam added to the large amount of milk.

Coming in with the smallest amount of foam is a Flat White.

There are variations to the standard shot of espresso which exclude milk altogether and are served as standalone drinks for the purpose of sipping.

A Ristretto, for the ease of explanation, is a short shot of espresso. This espresso is even more concentrated where about half the amount of water is used with the same amount of coffee, a 1:1 - 1:1.5 coffee to water ratio. A Lungo on the other hand is a long shot of espresso which has more water pulled through the coffee for a 1:2.5 - 1:4+ ratio.

Lastly, an Americano resembles a coffee which has been brewed with a drip coffee maker, but is ultimately espresso diluted with water. The origin of an Americano came from the World War II era where Americans who were stationed in Italy found the espresso shots too strong for their taste and added extra water to better resemble the drip style coffee they were used to at home. A barista does not add milk and milk foam to this drink.

It is easy to find an espresso drink you like and stick with the order, but now that you have an understanding of the different drinks, give them each a shot!


Maine Cup is Maine's coffee subscription company featuring only Maine coffee.

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