Coffee Drinks Explained - Part 1

Coffee Drinks Explained - Part 1

Welcome to part one of this two-part blog, where I give a rundown of drinks generally found on a menu in any given cafe. Because ordering a coffee should be easy, right? Well, it isn't. Unless, of course, you know what each drink should be. Well, it still isn't. Thanks to being a genuinely global obsession, different countries have adapted drinks to suit their audience. And as a result, many things disappear or reappear, named as something new when they're not. And then things that have already been around for decades, sometimes centuries, evolve into something new while keeping the original name. So if you read this and think, "that's not how I make it!" or "that's not how my cafe makes it!" I'm sure you're as correct as I am. 


All the drinks in part one will be straight-up coffee, as in, with no milk (part two will be all about milky coffees and is coming very soon). I will refer to ratios in quite a few of the below sections. How much ground coffee goes in compared to how much liquid coffee comes out, or coffee to milk/water ratios (1:2 or 1:3). Confused? Good, that should make this more intriguing. Read on to find out more. 



Empty cups on saucers on a wooden bench.

What is the History of Espresso?

We can start no other place. The espresso is the basic building block of nearly every drink to follow. Simply put, espresso is a short, intense coffee brewed by passing very hot water through finely ground, compacted coffee under pressure using an espresso machine. 


The first machines to do this were invented and patented in Italy in the late 1800s and were all steam-powered (steam was so hot back then!). They could produce coffee much, much quicker than any other way of brewing coffee at the time. And so, the name espresso was born. Translated loosely, it can convey both speed (express) or squeeze flavour from (expressing).

However, the coffee brewed by those first machines was closer to filter coffee than modern espresso due to the lack of pressure they could generate. It wasn't until 1947 that Gaggia invented a device with a handheld pump. This increased the pressure, which extracted and emulsified the oils and colloids present in coffee. The resulting beverage was more viscous and was topped with a golden, creamy layer we now call Crema. This was the beginning of espresso as we know it today. 


What is an Espresso?

There are no strict rules or recipes for making espresso unless that is, you live in Italy. There, The Istituto Espresso Italiano (I love the fact that this exists) defines it as 7g of coffee in and 25ml (± 2.5 ml) out in approximately 25-30 seconds. But generally speaking, the ratio of ground coffee to liquid out of 1:2-1:3 will put you in the ballpark in any cafe. In established, traditional cafes in Ireland, you will get a single shot if you order an espresso. A double shot might be referred to as a Doppio in these establishments. You are likelier to receive a double shot in more modern speciality cafes as standard. 


When done correctly, it is divine. Incorrectly, and it can be terrible for any number of reasons. And it is not so much the coffee but the barista's skill that will influence this outcome. Espresso machines don't simply work with the touch of a button. They require training in both operating and maintenance. And if you see a bag FiXX behind a counter, you can rest assured that we have provided both.



Empty cups and saucer on a wooden bench.

The History of the Americano Coffee

The Americano is very simply an espresso diluted with hot water. The story goes that American G.I.'s stationed in Italy at the end of W.W.II found espresso too intense to enjoy. And so they would request it be diluted with hot water to make it similar to what coffee was back home, more like brewed filter coffee. With a language barrier to navigate, the G.I.'s would ask for Caffè Americano and were understood to want a weak, American-style espresso. Peace and coffee flourished, and we all lived happily ever after.


It's a nice story, but unfortunately, it's probably not true. As previously mentioned, the modern espresso machine wasn't invented until the late 1940s and didn't take off fully until the early 1950s. At that point, most of those G.I.'s were long home. But the idea is correct, though. It's a way of making espresso closer in strength to brewed filter coffee. To do this usually means a coffee to water ratio of 1:3-1:5. Ideally, the water goes in the cup first, with the espresso poured on top to preserve the golden Crema. But, this is purely aesthetical and doesn't impact the drink's flavour. So pouring hot water into espresso is totally fine too. And a white Americano is probably, unsurprisingly, just an Americano with milk.  



Empty cups and saucer on a wooden bench.

What is a Ristretto?

The espresso machine allowed baristas to create so many new drinks it's obvious why it exploded in popularity. And all good baristas continue to tweak and adjust little things to get the most from any given coffee. The Ristretto was one of the first to gain favour and remains common on menus today. The name literally means restricted, and the idea is that from the same amount of ground coffee, you would get less liquid. The result is a thicker, oozier, more intense drink.

The simple way to do this as a barista is to cut the shot short and limit the amount of water. The better way to do this is to grind finer than usual, so the flow is restricted, but you still extract the full dose of coffee. However, if you are a barista, you'll know that adjusting your grinder mid-service to make one drink ain't a great idea. When done right, it should be a coffee to water ratio of 1:1 and be rich and scrumptious. If you're familiar with your cafe and enjoy their espresso, I recommend you try it at least once. If you're not sure, it could be risky. 


What is a Lungo?

The Lungo is the flipside to the coin of the Ristretto. The name means long  and is brewed by passing more water through the same amount of coffee (1:3-1:6). The result is a full-flavoured, short coffee less intense than an espresso. Like the Ristretto, the best way to brew this is to adjust your grinder, but this time making your coffee more coarse. But again, if you're a barista, it's not advisable to go changing your grinder mid-service! 



Empty cups and saucer on a wooden bench.

What is a Long Black?

This drink has its roots in the Oceanic region of Australia and New Zealand. But unlike the Flat White, there is no fuss about who claims ownership. As speciality coffee took off in this region, one of the things that defined how baristas brewed espresso there was the amount of coffee in the basket. Traditionally, at least according to the Italians, a double shot of espresso would use 14g of coffee. In N.Z. and Aus, however, doses of 20g plus are commonplace. And the result is an espresso not too dissimilar to a Ristretto. Thick and rich, and packed full of flavour.

A Long Black was one of these espressos' on top of hot water. It is similar to an Americano but different because it has more body and texture due to the espresso style and less water. About a 1:4 ratio. In reality, though, if you see one on a menu here, it's gonna be hard to tell it apart from an Americano. 



Empty cups and saucer on a wooden bench.

The History of Filter Coffee

And I'll leave it with a simple one. Can I presume that we all know what filter coffee is? When you think of filter coffee in cafes, it is easy to visualise those glass, orb-like carafes stewing away for hours. This type of brewer began appearing in diners across America in the mid-1960s. The first was produced by the BUNN corporation of Illinois, or as they were known at the time, Bunn-O-Matic, which is just wonderful, and they should have never changed it! Prior to that, most cafes and restaurants brewed coffee using coffee pots (percolators). The problem with percolators, however, is that it's easy to over-extract the coffee. With the automatic drip filter machine, the results were consistent, smooth and sweet coffee. And so, its popularity spread. But, its invention wouldn't have been possible without a paper filter. And that had been invented a good 60 years earlier. 


Who Invented the Filter Paper?

In the early 1900s, brewing coffee at home was tiresome and inconsistent. The most common way to brew was simply to boil your ground coffee in a pot of water and filter it using a linen cloth. Not ideal for a few reasons. Firstly, it was incredibly easy to over-extract the coffee, and cleaning the fabric afterwards was a pain in the arse. On top of that, it was common to end up with gritty coffee grinds in your cup. Not a pleasant coffee experience all round. Eventually, a German entrepreneur named Melitta Bentz had enough and decided something needed to change (because giving up coffee clearly wasn't an option).

Enough is Enough!

She took a brass pot and pierced some small holes into it using a hammer and nail. Melitta then took blotting paper from one of her son's school bags and lined the pot with it. Coffee went in. Water went on top. And the resulting cup was smooth, sweet, and much less bitter than any coffee she'd had before. After testing it further on her friends and family, she decided to go into business. In June 1908, she was granted a patent for her paper filter design, and in December of the same year, she registered the Melitta company. The company is still synonymous with coffee today and employs nearly 4000 people worldwide. 


Not all cafes will offer coffee brewed this way. And the quality of the coffee in those that do will vary wildly. Many speciality cafes will offer small batch filter coffee, usually brewed using a V60, to order. And if you've not tried something like this before, I highly encourage it. Many traditional cafes still have large batch filter coffee in the glass jugs. And, if it's freshly brewed can be perfectly delicious too. However, if it has been sitting there a long time, maybe try a different option. 



In Conclusion

So there you go. That was part one of this blog. I hope it answers some questions for you. And it probably goes without saying, this is not a complete list. Perhaps the best way to discover how a cafe serves its version of any given drink is to visit as many places as possible. And you can rest assured that if you see a friendly orange bag of FiXX behind the counter, at the very least, your coffee will be delicious. 


Thanks for reading.








  • Kevin Acheson

Kevin has worked in and around the coffee industry for over 20 years in Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, and Australia.