Today in “drink comparisons I find in the list of search term referrals”, I’m gonna talk about a couple of the simpler drinks on the menu: Americano vs latte.

I’ll start with the latte — it’s the drink that forms the basis of most of the espresso drinks on the Starbucks menu. It’s made with espresso shots, steamed milk, and a little bit of milk foam on top. It’s not sweet on its own, but many people add sugar or some kind of flavoring syrup to it. It can be made iced (espresso, cold milk, ice), decaf, pretty much any customization available can be done to it. It’s a very flexible drink and a good test of a coffeeshop’s quality.

The Americano on the other hand is unusual among the espresso drink lineup in that it has no milk in it at all. It’s just espresso shots and water — hot water if you’re ordering it hot, cold water and ice if you’re ordering it iced. Essentially it’s espresso watered down to roughly the strength of regular brewed coffee. You may wonder what the point of that is; why water down espresso when you can just get coffee? One reason is that because of the espresso brewing process, an Americano doesn’t have the same taste as a regular coffee. It retains some of its deep espresso-ness. Another reason is that it’s a way you can brew a quick coffee on an espresso machine, if you don’t have a regular coffee machine handy.

People often make snide remarks about going to Starbucks and finding they’re out of coffee, but it’s true that sometimes the baristas can’t immediately pour a cup of coffee for a customer who wants one. Since the coffee is thrown out and rebrewed on a regular basis, there is often a delay while a new pot is brewed. You don’t just pour a cup of coffee while it’s still brewing, because the strength of the coffee is different between the beginning and end of the brewing process and pulling a cup early throws that balance off. Some stores will stop brewing a type of coffee, like decaf, at a certain time of the day due to low sales. Sometimes the coffee machine just breaks down, or (as happened once at my store) is the winner of a game of “where’s that electrical burning smell coming from?”

When something like this happens, and a customer wants a cup of coffee, the baristas will nearly always offer to make them an Americano instead. For most people this is an acceptable replacement, and it’s quicker than brewing up a French Press or a Clover cup of coffee instead.

Which one should you pick? If you want something dairy-based (or soy-based) and easily customized, especially if you’re not big on the taste of coffee and want something sweeter, get the latte. If you avoid milk, or prefer your drinks more on the coffee-flavored side of the spectrum, or if you just want something as close to a regular coffee as possible, get an Americano.