7 Popular Coffee Drinks: How To Understand The Coffee Bar Menu

What are the most popular coffee drinks in the world?

If you have ever stepped up to the barista then stared at the menu in utter confusion before throwing up your hands in defeat and ordering the same old drip brew, you are not alone! The differences may seem subtle to a coffee novice, but the tastes and techniques are distinctly different. 

Here is a guide to seven of the most popular drinks on the menu and what's in them to help make your next trip to the coffee bar more enjoyable!

1. Cappuccino

The cappuccino, one of the popular coffee drinks
A cappuccino.

The cappuccino is an Italian breakfast drink popularized in Europe in the 1930s. It did not make its way to the United States until the 1980s, when its popularity exploded. It is now the fourth most popular coffee drink in the world. 

The cappuccino consists of equal parts espresso, steamed milk and milk froth. Variations of the cappuccino include the dry (or dark) cappuccino with slightly less milk and the wet (or light) cappuccino with slightly more milk. 

A cappuccino is served in a 6-ounce elliptical cup with a thick dome of froth. When rendered correctly, the cappuccino is a well-balanced experience of flavors and textures that delight the taste buds. 

2. Flat White

A flat white, a popular coffee drink
A flat white

While the flat white and cappuccino contain the same ingredients (espresso, steamed milk and milk froth) they do not taste the same. The difference is in the milk. 

When milk is steamed, it separates into three layers: the milky steamed liquid, small dense bubbles called microfoam, and large bubbles called froth.

The difference lies in the skilled use of these layers and specific quantities used. The flat white highlights the espresso flavor by using a thin layer of steamed milk and dense, velvety microfoam over an espresso base. This method allows the drinker to savor the less diluted boldness of the espresso while still enjoying the velvety texture of the creamy foam on the tongue.

3. Latte

A cup of Latte on a table.
A latte

Like the cappuccino and flat white, the latte is built upon a well-extracted espresso base, steamed milk and milk froth. However, the latte is the milkiest of these three coffee drinks. To create a latte, the espresso base is mixed with 6-to-8-ounces of steamed milk then topped with milk froth (the large bubbles). It is often served in a glass as opposed to a cup due to its larger size. 

The latte features considerably more steamed milk and less froth than its cappuccino cousin and oftentimes includes flavored simple syrups. Due to its high milk to espresso ratio, the latte is creamier and tastes sweeter and more mellow than the cappuccino. 

4. Café Au Lait

A cup of coffee sitting on top of a wooden table, with milk.
A café au lait

The café au lait is a coffee drink of French origin which means simply “coffee with milk.” This drink does not use an espresso base. Instead, it is made by adding hot milk and hot, strong brewed coffee simultaneity to a cup. As milk foam is not desirable for this particular drink, carefully scalding whole milk to avoid the froth is a popular preparation method. 

The most traditional cup follows the ratio of one part milk to one part coffee, though the amounts do not have to be exact and can be adjusted to personal taste. For a fully French effect, the café au lait is served in a small bowl.

5. Café Americano

A cup of espresso coffee sitting on top of a wooden table.
A Café Americano

The Café Americano is a coffee drink made by adding hot water to a base of espresso. Rumor has it that the history of the drink can be traced back to World War II, when American soldiers serving in Italy diluted espresso to simulate the coffee from back home. The Café Americano offers a strength similar to traditionally brewed coffee but a different flavor. 

The Café Americano begins with filling a cup about two-thirds full of hot water. Top that with a single shot of espresso, which is thicker and slightly more acidic and bitter than brewed coffee. Because the drink is not stirred, the crema remains on top for a pleasurable drinking experience. 

6. Long Black

A cup of espresso coffee.
A long black

The long black is similar to the Café Americano. The ingredients are espresso and hot water, but it contains none of the milk products used in other coffee drinks. This beverage, common to Australia and New Zealand, is made by pouring a double shot of espresso over approximately 100 mL of boiling hot water. 

The smaller volume of water and double shot of espresso used in the long black versus the Café Americano accounts for a stronger drink. Like the Café Americano, not stirring lets this coffee drink retain the crema.

7. Ristretto

A glass cup on a table, with Espresso coffee.
A ristretto

Ristretto is the French word for “restrict.” The ristretto is a very short (or highly concentrated) shot of espresso served in an espresso cup. It is extracted using the same amount of ground coffee as the espresso, but comes from a  finer grind and about half the water. 

The final drink is approximately 20 mL, though this can vary from 15 to 25 mL, depending on the barista's preferences. Due to a more concentrated or restricted pour, the ristretto is slightly sweeter than a traditional espresso and is without the familiar bitterness. 

Final Word on the Most Popular Coffee Drinks 

A visit to the coffee bar does not have to be an exercise in anxiety or futility. You no longer have to be stuck drinking the same old tired coffee every day because the menu is simply too daunting. 

Next time you step up to the barista, this list will help you understand the most popular coffee drinks on the menu so you can order with confidence. The world is yours to taste!