How to make coffeeshop drinks: Equipment

Sep 28

One thing people ask me frequently is how to make their favorite coffee shop drinks at home. A lot of drinks are surprisingly easy to make, especially if you have the right things on hand. In this part of what will hopefully be an ongoing series of posts, I’ll give a quick introduction to the equipment you’d need to create most of these delicious concoctions in the comfort of your own kitchen.

Note: The items linked below are for example purposes only and do not consitute an endorsement or advertisement. Even the machine I have at home is a matter of personal preference.
Note 2: I’m going out of my way to avoid mentioning any trademarked drink names from any particular establishment. I don’t really want to be seen as encouraging people not to shop anywhere. Hopefully the generic, public-domain drink descriptions will suffice.

What you need will depend on what drink you’re trying to make. I’ll break it down by drink type.

Brewed coffee/cafe au lait: The proper brewing of regular coffee will be the subject of a whole ‘nother post. Suffice to say that for these, all you’ll need is a way to make plain old coffee. Options range from inexpensive French presses and regular coffee machines to more expensive brewing methods like Chemex, Keurig K-cups, and expensive machines that even grind the beans for you. If you just want a cup of joe, that’s all you need. If you’re making a cafe au lait, you’ll want a way to heat up the milk, so check the “Hot Espresso Drinks” section below.

Espresso drinks: This includes lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, mochas, con pannas, affogatos, Americanos, and plain espresso shots. For these you’ll need something that makes espresso, which is not the same as regular brewed coffee. Espresso is more concentrated, and requires forcing hot water through finely-ground coffee beans.

Like with regular brewed coffee, there’s a wide price range of espresso brewers available. You can get something as simple and inexpensive as a stovetop espresso maker, something a little handier like a low- to mid-range countertop espresso machine (this is what I use), or something with all the bells and whistles like a super-automatic espresso machine. All of these will be significantly smaller and simpler than the machines the baristas use at your local coffee shop – after all, the average person making drinks at home is going to be serving at most a house full of guests, whereas a coffee shop needs to be able to quickly serve drinks to a constant stream of customers. Your machine will not need to be hooked up to your plumbing, nor will it need its own circuit breaker, and you’re not likely to have to call a specialized technician to come fix it if it breaks.

Which espresso maker is right for you will depend on a few things: How often you plan to use it, how much espresso you want to make at once, how much space you have in your kitchen, what your budget is, and whether you want steamed milk for your drinks. If you’re making cold drinks (“on the rocks” i.e. on ice), if you’re planning to put the espresso over ice cream (affogato) or whipped cream (con panna), or if you’re making plain espresso or Americanos, all you need is something that makes espresso. If you want, say, a nice hot latte, then the next section is relevant to your interests …

Hot espresso drinks: Lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, mochas. If you want to make one of these, and you want it toasty hot, you will need a way to heat up the milk of your choice.

To get closest to what you get at a coffee shop, you’ll want an espresso machine with a milk steaming wand. This heats the milk by forcing hot steam through it, and is also how you make that nice foam for the top of the drinks. Using a steam wand is a little loud, and can take a bit of practice to perfect, but the results are worth it in my opinion. This is how I make lattes at home.

Not everyone has the budget, room, or desire for an espresso machine with a steam wand, however, so there’s a couple other options. You can heat the milk in a pan on the stove, or in the microwave. Or, I suppose, in a slow cooker, rice maker, or any other device made to safely heat up liquid for human consumption.

This will get you the hot milk, but not the foam. If you want foam (which is an integral part of cappuccinos, for example), there are inexpensive “milk frothers” available at most kitchen supply stores, or even Ikea. These basically whisk the top of your milk into a froth that is similar to the foam created by the espresso machine. I haven’t done a head-to-head test of the two methods, but a cheap frother is probably good enough for most people.

Blended drinks: Any beverage that looks like a milk shake. I’ll be honest with you, your results may vary on these. Most commercial blended beverages include some kind of thickening agent that gives the drink its thick, shake-like consistency. On the equipment side of things, however, all you really need is a blender and a source of ice. Whatever plain ol’ stand blender fits your kitchen and your budget is probably fine.

Shaken drinks: These are shaken like an alcoholic drink, so any drink shaker will do. These are available at kitchen supply stores and anywhere that sells booze supplies.

Tea drinks: Anything that’s not made from a premixed tea base (some green tea lattes and sweetened chai are usually made from mixes) is usually brewed with tea bags, so no special brewing equipment is needed. However, if you want a better tea experience, look into brewing with loose tea leaves – either with an infuser or a machine.

And there you have a quick rundown on the kind of equipment you’ll need to make your favorite coffee shop drinks at home. Tune in next time when I cover the “ingredients” part of the equation.