How to make coffeeshop drinks: Putting it together

May 25

You’ve chugged through all those loooong posts on getting your equipment, your beans, your tea, your ingredients … finally you can put it all together and actually make your drink!

The first step is to have an idea of how your drink is made. My quick guide here will cover that. Most drinks will include some combination of brewed coffee, milk, and possibly flavors of some kind.

Hot espresso drinks: The first rule of hot espresso drinks is to always heat the milk first. The second rule is to always heat the milk first. Or the water, if you’re making an Americano. Espresso shots have a very short “shelf life” — once they brew you want to throw them into a drink right away. So if you’re using an espresso machine, start by steaming your milk. (For Americanos, you just need to heat up some water. Throw the shots in and you’re good.)

Steaming milk with a steam wand takes some practice. Check online for helpful videos. As a quick rundown, you need to make sure your machine is warmed up and set to whatever turns on the steam wand. Measure out your milk using the cup you’re going to drink from, but keep in mind steamed milk expands somewhat, and some space will be taken up by foam and espresso. When I make a latte, I only fill my cup halfway with milk. Transfer this milk to a good steaming pitcher, stick the steam wand into it, and turn on the steam. You’ll want to dip the pitcher a little to bring the wand close to the surface of the milk — this will make some foam and also cut down on the noise. Make sure you have a thermometer in the pitcher — aim for 130F for kids’ drinks, 140F if you don’t want it too hot, or 160F-170F for a regular hot drink.

As a rule, the thicker the milk the louder the noise. You can observe this by sitting in a Starbucks during the holiday season, because whenever an eggnog latte is being steamed the noise is incredibly loud. In pretty much every case, though, steaming milk is not something you want to do if there’s any light sleepers trying to get some shuteye nearby.

Once the milk is steamed, brew your espresso. This gives your milk a little time for the foam to separate from the milk, and also a little time to add any flavorings you want to the bottom of your cup. Chocolate for a mocha, vanilla syrup for a vanilla latte, whatever.

The art of brewing a good espresso shot depends heavily on your brewing apparatus, the grind and tamp of your beans, the heat of your water, even the humidity can be a factor if you have a touchy machine. I’ll cover that in detail in some other post, but for now the most important part is that you’re aiming for a full shot (about an ounce) of espresso to pull in about 20 seconds. You can adjust this by packing the ground beans in tighter or more loosely. This is another area where trial and error can be your friend.

As soon as your espresso finishes brewing, put the drink together! As a general rule, unless you’re making a macchiato where the shots go in last, you’ll want this order:

  1. Flavorings, if any (chocolate, vanilla, etc)
  2. Espresso (if your flavoring is thick, like mocha syrup, swirl the hot shots around to help it dissolve)
  3. Milk
  4. Foam, if desired
  5. Toppings, if any (whipped cream, nutmeg, sprinkles, etc)

Bam! There’s your drink. There’s a lot of flexibility in how this is done (I’ll cover that in yet another post) but basically, that’s how a lot of national chain coffeeshops do it. Doing pretty stuff like designs in the foam takes more effort and practice — you’re better off hitting YouTube if you want to master that kind of coffee artistry. Personally, I just aim for a drink I can stuff in my face to wake me up.

Iced espresso drinks: If this is what you’re aiming for, you’ve got it a lot simpler. Instead of all that milk steaming nonsense, here’s what you do:

  1. Put flavorings in the cup, if any
  2. Fill the cup with ice
  3. Brew shots and pour them over the ice
  4. Fill cup with milk (or water, for an Americano) and stir
  5. Top with toppings

And that’s it. Now, a lot of thicker flavor syrups and whatnot don’t dissolve as well in cold liquids as they do in hot liquids. You may have to stir quite a bit to get it to mix together properly. Another option is to put the shots in second, swirl the cup to mix everything, then add the ice and the milk.

Tea drinks: These vary more widely. If you’re making a tea latte, you’ll want to brew some tea, steam some milk, and put them together in a cup. What ratio really depends on your taste. If you get a tea latte at a coffeeshop that you like, ask them how they make it. There will probably be some sweeteners involved.

For chai lattes, it depends on where you’re getting your flavor from. There are premade chai mixes where you just mix the syrup with milk and you have your chai. Other mixes are made to be mixed with brewed tea. There are also some powdered chai mixes made to be mixed with hot or cold water. And if you want a chai without the latte, there’s tea/spice mixes designed for you to brew the spices together with the tea.

That’s the basics! Hopefully you’ve learned how to recreate your favorite drink at home. In the future I’ll write some posts covering some drinks in more detail. If there’s something you’d like me to cover, leave a comment or @reply me on Twitter!