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An Idiot’s Guide To Drinking Coffee

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Barista, Costa Coffee, Café Coffee Day and Gloria Jean's have already been around for some time. And now Starbucks is planning to set up shop — make that ‘shops' — in the country. But if all you do is stick to a standard cup of regular cappuccino every time you land up at a coffee shop, it might be time you started experimenting a bit. Are you holding back because you don't know your mocha from your macchiato or your latte from a cafe au lait? Though all the cafes have reasonably elaborate menus explaining the terms, it can still get a bit confusing when you want to order in a hurry. Here's a very basic guide to figure out which coffee to order the next time you head for your favourite coffee hangout...

Espresso: Unless you seriously want a caffeine jolt in a small cup, stay away from this. When you order an espresso, you will get a small, black shot of extremely concentrated coffee that is likely to keep you awake for 48 hours if you are not used to drinking it regularly. Espresso is used as the base for most of the other coffees that are served in your cafe - cappuccino, macchiato, latte or mocha. The espresso is made by pushing hot water at very high pressure through a finely-ground coffee powder. The method is supposed to have originated in Italy, and is somewhat different from coffee made by other methods such as the French Press method or the Americans' drip machine. (see ‘Brewed Just Right', BW, 18 March 2011). Of course, if you want even more caffeine, order a double shot of espresso.

Cafe Macchiato: This is for those who want their coffee strong, but not absolutely black. It essentially consists of a shot of espresso, with a wee bit of milk added. In many cafes, instead of milk, there is a bit of foamed milk put on top of the espresso. Also, though everyone agrees that a macchiato has only a bit of milk, how little is added varies from cafe to cafe.

Cappuccino: This is the staple and safest order in most coffee shops. The perfect cappuccino is supposed to follow the 1/3-1/3-1/3 formula. Or one-third of espresso, one-third of warm steamed milk, and one-third milk froth or foam on top. To add flavour, many cafes sprinkle a bit of other stuff on the foam, which could be simply espresso powder or even hazelnut or chocolate.

Latte: This one is for those who like plenty of milk. A latte is generally made of one-third espresso and two-thirds steaming milk in most of your coffee outlets. (Though in Italy, the latte is somewhat different from what you get in other countries.) Foam is generally not considered important in a latte.

Cafe au lait: This is the French version of the latte, according to some people, but it is very different in many ways. For one, an espresso is not used as a base for this — mostly black coffee made using the French Press method is used, and this has a lot less caffeine than the espresso. Then, the convention is to have half black coffee and half steamed milk.

FOAM FACTOR: Guess the species in the coffee cup

Americano: In this one, you pour hot water on a shot of espresso. According to coffee gourmets, if you pour espresso in a glass of hot water instead, you get a similar coffee, but you call it "Long Black". Adding water to the espresso shot gives a coffee that is similar in strength (caffeine-wise) to the American drip coffee, but it tastes quite different. As the name suggests, this one was probably
invented to suit American tastes.

Cafe Mocha: What is generally agreed by most people is that the mocha is a coffee with a chocolate flavour and an espresso base. Beyond that though, there are plenty of variations. In some, the mocha is made by creating a drink similar to a latte first, and then sprinkling fine cocoa powder on top. In others, you make a cappuccino first, and then sprinkle cocoa powder on top of the milk foam. In still other places, you could add other flavours — cinnamon, hazelnut along with your cocoa powder.

Irish coffee: This is actually a coffee cocktail and not a coffee per se. One common recipe is mixing a normal hot black coffee with a shot of whiskey (ideally Irish whiskey), and stirring it with brown sugar. And then serving it with a thick topping of cream.

However, there are dozens of variations of Irish coffee and the recipe largely depends on which bar or coffee shop you are patronising. In some, Irish whiskey is dispensed altogether and substituted with scotch or bourbon. In others, the base varies. Some people use the espresso as the base while others stick to regular drip coffee. Even the cream topping is a subject of many arguments. Purists hold that the original recipe stipulated cream that was not whipped. But most bars have no problems serving whipped cream in their Irish coffee.

Once you have sampled the more conventional coffee drinks mentioned above in your coffee shop, you could try out the hundreds of other variations — from the Latte Macchiato to British Islander to the Caramel Macchiato. Discuss it with your Barista — and don't stick to just the same old safe choices...

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 20-02-2012)