One of the great things about being a coffee drinker is the sheer variety of experiences that coffee can offer. There are so many different types of coffee itself, and then there’s the expansive world of specialized coffee drinks. Discovering them one by one makes for a delicious cultural education, but where do you start? We’ll walk you through the maze of coffee options so you can know exactly what to expect when you order coffee or purchase a bag of beans.

Black Coffee: A World of Variety

Plain black coffee is not as simple as it seems. A great place to start your education is to learn about the factors that affect a cup of black coffee, down to the coffee plant itself.

Coffee Beans

There are four types of coffee beans grown in the world. Of these, Arabica beans account for over half of all the world’s coffee production. Robusta coffee beans account for most of the rest, with the much less common varieties Liberica and Excelsa accounting for a very small percentage of the world’s coffee production.

Arabica beans are characterized by a bright taste, balanced acidity, and a complex layering of aromas. Popular Arabica coffee varieties include Bourbon, Typica, Catuai, and Blue Mountain. Arabica is best enjoyed hot and without milk.

Robusta coffee has a name that sounds like “robust,” and it is. The Robusta coffee plant is in fact hearty and resistant to disease. Part of what makes it so resistant is the caffeine content — nearly double that of Arabica beans. The high caffeine content in Robusta beans lends to a taste often described as bitter and too strong, so you don’t often find it in quality bags of coffee.

Understanding Single Origin Coffee Beans and Flavor Profile

Types of coffee beans

Growing regions can play a significant role in determining a coffee’s flavor profile. Coffee is grown in over 50 countries worldwide, and each origin has special characteristics. Kenyan coffee, for example, will have a different flavor profile from coffee grown in Brazil.

Whether the coffee beans are grown in Africa, Latin America, or beyond, the flavor of the coffee beans is determined by the climate, the growing altitude, processing method, bean type, and the soil.

Sumatran Coffee

Learning about Sumatran coffee and what makes it special is a good introduction to the factors that give different types of coffee their individual characteristics. The best coffee is always a matter of personal preference, and knowing as much as possible can help you select the coffee beans you want.

Sumatra, an Indonesian island that straddles the equator, offers a great growing environment. Sumatra has a lot of growing areas at high altitudes, which is great for coffee beans, giving them time to develop flavor and complexity. Sumatra coffee beans are often described as having a full body and a rich, earthy flavor.

It is not just the growing region that gives Sumatra coffee its characteristic flavor profile, but also the processing method. Sumatran coffee cherries are processed by wet hulling. The humid Indonesian climate makes this process, which is also called giling basah, a necessity.

Another factor that affects flavor profile of Sumatra coffee is the bean itself. Many Indonesian coffees are Robusta, but Sumatran beans are Arabica. Sumatran coffees are full-bodied and characterized by low acidity with pleasing notes of cocoa and tobacco.

Coffee Roasts

While the origin of the coffee bean greatly impacts the flavor, the type of coffee roast makes a big difference too. There are many different roasts and types of roasts have a strong impact on the flavor profile of brewed coffee. Coffee roasts range from light roast to medium roast to medium-dark, and finally dark roast.

You’re probably familiar with some coffee roasts by name, like French roast, Italian roast, Vienna roast, American roast, and city roast. These are all popular names for roast levels that denote a favor profile, and they correspond to a type of coffee roast.

The color of the bean is a simple way to tell the type of roast.

Light roast coffee beans have a light brown color. In light roast coffees, more of the flavor compounds remain intact, so light roasts can offer a more complex and nuanced experience. Lighter roasts are often characterized by a more pronounced acidity, and a toasted grain flavor. They have a dry surface — there is no oil the surface of the beans.

Medium roast coffee is medium brown in color, and the coffee beans generally also have a dry surface. American roast and city roasts are medium roast coffees. Within city roasts, there are also degrees of darkness, ranging from a light city roast to half city, to a full city roast.

Vienna roast coffee is an example of a medium-dark roast. It is a slightly darker shade of brown, and there may be traces of oil on the surface of the bean. Viennese coffee is slightly darker, richer, and more full-bodied than American roast or city roast.

Dark roast coffee beans, on the other hand, can have a slight oily sheen on the surface of the beans, and their color is a rich dark brown. The flavor profile has elements of bitterness and smokiness which are popular characteristics of many continental roasts. Darker roasts are popular in espresso blends. French roast coffee, Spanish roast coffee, and Italian roast coffee are examples of popular dark roasts.

Coffee Grounds

There are also many types of ground coffee, from coarse to fine. Each coffee drink has its own specific grind that’s vital to its success.

French press coffee comes out best when made with a coarse grind, because finer grounds can clog the filter and cloud the brew. A medium grind works well in many types of drip coffee makers. Espresso needs a finer ground. And Turkish coffee needs a very fine, almost powdery grind.

Even if you generally prefer coffee drinks with milk or cream, you’ll find that you learn to really get to know coffee best when it’s black.

Espresso and Its Variations

Espresso shot being pulled

This Italian coffee classic — known and loved all over the world — is the base of many classic coffee drinks. There are also several variations of espresso.

Espresso

Made with a fine espresso grind, what truly defines an espresso is its method of extraction — espresso is extracted with steam, rather than boiling water.

This is what gives espresso its characteristic thick head of crema — the mark of an expertly made shot of espresso. Crema is not cream — it’s a dense and delicious head of tan-colored foam on top of the espresso.

Ironically, people rarely say “espresso” in Italy. Since it’s the most basic type of coffee, it’s simply called a caffè.

A double espresso, sometimes called a doppio, is simply two shots of espresso served in the same cup.

Espresso Ristretto

An espresso ristretto is made with half the amount of water — it’s a short, powerful, flavorful shot.

Espresso Lungo

An espresso lungo is a “long” espresso brewed with more water, which makes a drink that’s less concentrated than a standard espresso, but stronger than an americano.

Caffè Americano

A caffè americano is espresso that has been diluted with hot water to approximate what Italian baristas thought Americans would enjoy. A good caffè americano has the rich, dark flavor of espresso, plus a nice layer of crema. It can be made with a single or a double shot of espresso. A caffè americano is also sometimes called a long black.

Black Coffee

Black coffee with a Chemex and a magazine

Black coffee is deceptively simple — you’ll be amazed at the variety of coffee experiences black coffee can offer. Here are some of the most popular black coffee drinks.

Drip Coffee

Also sometimes called filtered coffee, this is what you get when you go into a coffee shop and order a cup of coffee. For years, this is what “coffee” meant in the United States. A standard cup of drip coffee can be incredible if well-made. It’s not just a matter of using the right amount of water and the right amount of coffee, but also using a top-quality of the machine and the best ground coffee.

Pour-Over Coffee

Like drip coffee, this method also involves pouring hot water over ground coffee in a filter (either paper or reusable). But, by carefully blooming the coffee grounds and controlling the flow of the water, a skillful barista or home coffee brewer can reveal subtle aromas and flavors.

French Press Coffee

French press coffee is also extracted with hot water, but it uses a coarser grind. The coffee blooms in the hot water right in the pot. Then the coffee grounds are pushed to the bottom of the pot with a metal mesh filter.

Cold Brew Coffee

With this popular method, originally from Japan, coffee grounds are steeped in cool or cold water for many hours, then filtered out. A French press can be used to make a great cold brew coffee.

There’s also the slow drip cold brew method in which water is dripped through the grounds over many hours. Both methods require patience, but the result is a smooth and rich low-acid concentrate that is then diluted with water or milk to make a variety of coffee drinks.

Turkish Coffee

This low-tech method is hundreds of years old and is still popular throughout the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean. Finely ground coffee is mixed with water and simmered in a small pot until a head of foam forms a ring around the center. The coffee grounds are not filtered out. Turkish coffee is sipped slowly from small cups, allowing the grounds to settle into a sediment at the bottom.

Coffee Drinks With Milk or Cream

Types of coffee: Latte with leaf design

These beverages are traditionally made with whole milk or heavy cream. Many can be served either hot or over ice. With a little experimentation, these drinks can be also made successfully using milk alternatives.

Espresso Drinks

Shots of espresso together with milk form the base of a variety of popular coffee drinks.

Cappuccino

The strongest of the milk and espresso coffee drinks, a cappuccino combines espresso with some steamed milk in roughly equal proportions, topped with a head of foamed milk. A double cappuccino is a cappuccino made with a double shot of espresso for a stronger coffee beverage.

Mochaccino

Adding a shot of chocolate syrup to a cappuccino and topping it with some chocolate powder makes it a mochaccino.

Caffé Latte

A caffé latte is a much milkier drink than a cappuccino (“latte” means milk). It combines a shot of espresso with three or four times as much steamed milk, topped with a small head of milk foam.

Piccolo Latte

Just as it sounds, a piccolo latte is a very small caffé latte — a ristretto with steamed milk and a little foam. It’s often served in a small glass rather than a coffee cup.

Flat White

The flat white has roughly the same proportion of espresso to milk as the cappuccino, but has a different texture. While a cappuccino is made with steamed milk and an almost dry foamed milk, a flat white is made with microfoam — a velvety, texturized steamed milk.

Affogato

A delicious hybrid of a coffee drink and dessert, an affogato is vanilla ice cream topped with a shot of espresso.

Coffee Drinks

Like espresso, black coffee is also used as a base for many popular coffee drinks with milk, cream, and other additions.

Café au Lait

A café au lait is very similar to a caffé latte except that it’s made with strong black coffee rather than espresso. Hot coffee and steamed milk are blended in roughly equal proportions, but it can be as strong or as milky as you like.

Café Viennoise

Also called a café Vienne, a Vienna coffee is a single or double shot of espresso topped with whipped cream. It can also be topped with liquid cream, poured carefully over the back of a spoon so that it floats on top.

Irish Coffee

An Irish coffee is actually more of a hot cocktail. A shot of whiskey is added to hot coffee that has been gently sweetened with sugar, and then the drink is topped carefully with whipped cream, which floats on top. You don’t mix it in — just drink the hot, boozy coffee through the cream topping.

Iced Coffee

Freshly brewed coffee that is chilled and served over ice is a great summertime coffee beverage. It also makes a great base for iced specialty drinks with the addition of milk, alternative milks, whipped cream, and flavored syrups.

Try Out a New Style of Coffee

We hope this guide to coffee drinks will help you navigate the menu in a coffee shop and make ordering more fun. With a world of options, you might just discover a new favorite.

There’s no better way to learn about the many varieties of coffee than to try them all. Our monthly coffee subscription makes it easy to tour the world of coffee options with a different bag of single-origin, specialty-grade beans delivered to your doorstep each month.

About The Author

Michael Shewmake

An entrepreneur and musician, Michael quit his full-time job in the corporate world to assemble a band of fellow storytellers, travelers, and coffee-lovers as enthusiastic as himself to share the unique stories and coffee from around the world.