How to make coffeeshop drinks: Other ingredients

May 18

Okay, so you’ve got your coffee (or tea), now what?

If you just want to make a regular cup of joe, or a regular cup of tea, you’re set! But if you’re looking to make some of the other drinks from the menu of your favorite caffeinated beverage retailer, you’ve got a few more things to acquire. Namely:

Milk: If you want to make lattes, cappuccinos, mochas, macchiatos, or cafe au lait, you’re gonna need some milk. What kind is up to you. I use whole milk because I try to stick with minimally-processed ingredients when I can. You may prefer lowfat or nonfat, or you may go in the opposite direction and use half-and-half or heavy cream. There’s also lots of non-dairy options available. Soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, any of these can be used to make espresso drinks.

There’s a caveat here, though. If you’re using a steam wand to make foam for your drink, like if you want to make a nice big cappuccino, some of these foam better than others. Soy milk, for example, is very hard to get good lasting foam out of. Whole milk is pretty good for making nice thick foam. So if you’re dairy-free but really dig your cappuccinos and macchiatos, you may need some practice to get the kind of drink you want.

Flavorings: These are for flavored lattes (vanilla latte, hazelnut latte, etc) or chocolate-based drinks (mochas). If you have a preferred drink at your local beverage vendor, take a look at how they make it or just ask. Do they use clear syrup from a pump bottle? Thick chocolatey syrup? Flavored powder?

The clear syrups in the pump bottles are what a lot of non-chocolate drinks are made with. Most coffee places will have at least vanilla and hazelnut, with other possible flavors including mint, almond, raspberry, and even plain “classic” syrup. These are all basically flavored sugar water (or unflavored, in the case of classic). You can find them at some grocery stores, some import stores like Cost Plus, and often you can buy them at coffee shops. At Starbucks, for example, you can buy the exact same bottles they’re using behind the counter (this may surprise your barista, as few people buy them so many baristas are unaware that they’re actually for sale). Special seasonal syrups may or may not be for sale, but it’s always worth asking. They’re generally not very expensive, and one bottle makes a lot of drinks.

Chocolate is usually either powdered or in a thick syrup similar to Nestle Quik. In fact, the thick syrups used at a lot of coffee shops are often mixed from powders (if the shop suddenly smells like brownies, they may be mixing this up). They may or may not sell the exact same chocolate they use to make the drinks, but chocolate is available pretty much everywhere as hot chocolate mix, chocolate milk mix, chocolate chips, etc. Keep in mind that chocolate in larger solid forms like chips or bars will need to be put into quite hot liquid if you want it to melt properly. Be sure to stir it well!

Some drinks are made from a thickish flavoring syrup that doesn’t fit into one of those categories. These are often proprietary syrups that may not be available for purchase. If you ask and are told you can’t buy it, you’ll have to wing it. You may be able to find a similar flavor for sale elsewhere, or you may be able to approximate the taste using other ingredients. Condensed milk makes a great base for this.

Whipped cream: People love their whipped cream. This can go on top of pretty much any drink, and is the non-coffee ingredient in a caffe con panna. Many coffee shops make it from scratch with heavy whipping cream, vanilla syrup, and a nitrous oxide “charger”. If you have the equipment for this, go for it — it’s fast and easy and so delicious. If you don’t have the specialized canisters and chargers, but do have some time, you can make whipped cream by, well, whipping the hell out of some cream. Recipes for this are available online and in some books.

The other, more common option, is to buy premade whipped cream. This is available at your grocery store in spray cans or tubs, with various brands. Just choose what you like, since this is a garnish where taste is the only really important quality.

Sauce toppings: These can be either garnishes (such as a chocolate drizzle on a mocha) or a key ingredient (like the caramel on a caramel macchiato). They may be tricky to find for sale, but check your local grocery store wherever ice cream toppings are kept. The fewer artificial flavorings the better, in my experience. If you want the sauce to flavor the whole drink (again, like the caramel macchiato), you will need to mix the hell out of it, especially if you’re making a cold drink.

Sprinkles: Some people are really into these little details. Once again, check the ice cream topping section. Or you can sprinkle your drink with a spice like nutmeg. Some drinks have a special proprietary sprinkle on top — these may be tough to find.

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How to make coffeeshop drinks: Tea

May 11

Welcome to another part of an ongoing series of posts about making your own drinks at home! If you’ve been reading along so far, you may have been thinking to yourself “thanks for all the info on coffee, but I’m more of a tea drinker”. Say no more, I’ve got you covered!

Just like with coffee, the first thing you gotta do is choose your tea. This can be trickier than choosing a coffee, because varieties of tea vary much more widely than varieties of coffee. There’s the same scale of “shop sweepings” to “finest hand-picked drinkable gold”, but there’s also big differences in taste — black tea, green tea, yellow tea, white tea, flavored tea, tisanes, rooibos, it’s enough to make the newcomer’s head spin!

If you’re already a tea drinker, you probably know the kinds you like. You may be a “tea only, no spices or flavorings” person (like my dad). You may like your tea super dark, or super light, or heavily flavored, or herbal-only. Or you might like pretty much all kinds of tea (like me). If you’re reading this going “I can’t stand tea at all”, hang in there — I used to be in your shoes. I’ll be writing a post later on how to “learn” to like tea.

So my advice on choosing a tea is similar to my advice on choosing coffee — try things until you find something you like. Ask for recommendations. Try to home in on generalizations about what you like and what you don’t. If you try a few black teas and none of them are very good, maybe black tea isn’t for you. If you really want to be Captain Picard but Earl Grey tea makes you do the whiskey face, maybe you should try unflavored teas. Try the teas offered at Asian restaurants as well as the ones offered at European restaurants. Try some herbal teas (technically “tisanes”, as the actual tea plant is nowhere to be found).

The big divide in tea is loose-leaf vs. bagged. Loose-leaf tea is just that — tea that comes loose in a bag or a tin. You have to measure it yourself and do something with the leaves once the tea is brewed. Tea infusers are great for this, because they make it easy to remove the leaves before they steep too long and get over-bitter. Loose-leaf tea has a better flavor because the tea leaves themselves are as intact as possible, depending on the variety of tea, and the leaves have room to expand fully as they steep, letting out all the delicious tea flavor.

Bagged tea is the kind of tea that comes in tea bags. This tea is often in tinier pieces, and the bag makes it so there’s less room for everything to expand. On the other hand, a tea bag is more portable, easier to store, and can easily be removed from the cup or pot once the tea is done steeping. It’s also easier to find variety packs with bagged tea, giving you lots of options to try.

So what about the different “colors” of tea? As a general rule, the “darker” the tea the more processed it is, from delicate white teas to heavily oxidized black teas. If you want to see how dark tea can go, try some pu-erh — it’s a Chinese tea that brews up as dark as black coffee. Most tea is either black or green, and it’s just a matter of taste what kinds you prefer.

As for flavored tea, my advice here is different from my advice on flavored coffee (i.e., avoid flavored coffee beans). Instead, I suggest leaning toward teas that are flavored by having the actual flavor ingredient added to it, either with plant parts or with oils or what-have-you. Artificially flavored tea is rarely worth it, in my opinion — like with coffee, it’s better to get a non-flavored kind you like and add flavor if you want it. But naturally flavored tea? I’m a sucker for a good jasmine. There’s even tea that’s flavored by its drying process, such as lapsang souchong which is dried over smoking pine needles for a deep smoky flavor (another favorite of mine). Earl Grey is a well-known flavored tea that has bergamot oil (a kind of citrus).

And then there’s the non-tea teas, tisanes and rooibos. These are good if you just don’t like the taste of regular tea, or if you want something that’s caffeine-free. Tisanes are the proper name for herbal teas — they can include all kinds of different herbs and flavors. This means the taste can vary hugely, so make sure you like a particular tisane before you buy a lot of it. Rooibos is an African plant that is used as a substitute for real tea. It has a distinctive flavor of its own, and serves as a good base for various herb blends.

As for storage, that all depends on how the tea is packaged. The more air-tight, the longer it should last. As tea is dried rather than roasted and ground, there’s no “countdown timer” like there is with coffee. Just throw it out when it starts tasting stale to you.

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How to make coffeeshop drinks: Storing and grinding beans

May 04

So, using the guide from the last post, you’ve found some coffee beans you like. Once you’ve got your package of delicious coffee, there’s two things to worry about: storing your beans and grinding them.

The actual storage of the beans is pretty simple. Keep em in an airtight container, away from light if possible. Where it gets trickier is the shelf life of the beans. For optimal coffee deliciousness, unground beans should be used within a month and ground beans should be used within a week, or a day if possible. To the average drinker, however, if your coffee sits around longer than that (within reason) you probably won’t notice. But in any case, the fresher the better.

As for grinding — ideally you should have your own coffee grinder, and grind your beans right before you brew them. I’ll ‘fess up here, I don’t even own a grinder. I get my beans ground when I purchase them, because it’s not a huge taste difference to me and the convenience is worth it. In this, as in all things, your mileage may vary.

However, the important thing is to use the right grind for your brewing method. If you’re using a French press, you need a very coarse grind — otherwise the coffee will clog up the press or sneak through the filter and make your coffee gritty. If you’re using an espresso machine, you need a much finer grind, or the pour will be way off. If you’re using a regular coffee machine with a paper filter, you’ll need a grind in the middle. Check the instructions on your equipment, or even the grinder itself — most grinders (especially the big ones in grocery stores) are labeled with the types of machine each grind is for. If you’re getting your coffee ground at Starbucks when you buy it, tell them what kind of machine it’s for.

But wait, what if you have a Keurig machine or other pre-measured single-cup coffee brewer? Then trying different types of coffee might be even easier — there’s a lot of “variety packs” available with different roasts, coffees with added flavor, etc. If you work in an office with one of these machines, give it a try or ask your coworkers to point you to what they like. These machines have the convenience of not worrying about grinding beans or brewing a whole pot when you just want a cup, but on the downside there’s a lot of waste and the premade cups are often more expensive than buying beans by the pound. These cups are super easy to store — in fact, they even make special display racks for them.

That’s the bean basics for you coffee drinkers. Tune in next week when I give some love to the tea-drinkers!

tl;dr summary:

  • Don’t let your beans gather dust
  • Use the right grind for your equipment
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How to make coffeeshop drinks: Coffee beans

Apr 27

Welcome to part 2 of my series of posts on making your own coffee/tea drinks at home. In case you missed it, the first post covered the equipment part of the equation. Today, I’m talking about coffee beans.

First things first: Choosing your beans. Now, people have varying levels of “snobbery” regarding coffee beans — ranging from “only the finest fairy-kissed beans roasted five seconds ago by a left-handed monk and ground with a mortar and pestle” to “anything nicer than ground dirt is a ripoff froufrou drink for little girls”. You, obviously, will fall between these two extremes. The only question is where the right balance of quality vs price and convenience lies.

Coffee beans come in two varieties — robusta and arabica. Whether you’re leaning toward the snob end of the scale or not, I recommend you don’t bother with robusta beans. They’re cheap because the plant is hardier and easier to grow, but the taste is nowhere as good as arabica. The good news is, by now even cheap supermarket coffee brands have switched to arabica so you’re probably set there.

After that, it’s just a matter of finding a brand and roast that you like. This is where trial and error comes in. My recommendation is to try coffee wherever you can — diners, coffee shops, friends’ houses, etc. If it tastes good, ask what kind it is and where you can get it. If it turns out to be out of your price range or not available in anything smaller than a 25-lb restaurant bag, keep tasting. Or, you can get the smallest package possible of whatever beans catch your fancy and give them a try. Try lighter roasts and darker ones, blends and single-origin, whatever you can find until something strikes your fancy.

My starting point for personal convenience is usually Starbucks. When I was a barista I got to sample all the different beans they sold at the time, so I quickly picked up on my favorite roast (Verona). To combat their reputation as “Charbucks” for the darkness of their roasts, they now have lighter “blonde” roasts. Your local Starbucks probably brews mostly Pike Place Blend, but they will sometimes have other roasts in the brewer and you can ask for a sample. Or if you want to taste something in damn near its ideal form, find a Starbucks with a Clover brewing machine and ask for a cup of whatever you’re interested in. And remember, you can always ask the barista for recommendations!

Look around you, and you’ll probably find lots of sources for coffee. Your local grocery store will probably have everything from Folgers to Starbucks right there on the shelf. In my little area of LA we’ve got a couple of local roasters with some great beans. Some stores like Trader Joe’s will have a pot of coffee brewing free samples all day. And of course the internet is a great place to comparison shop.

What about flavored coffee beans? To be honest, I’d avoid these unless you run across some that you really love. In a lot of cases, flavors are added to mask inferior beans. And even when that’s not the case, it’s much better to get plain beans and then add flavors yourself if you want them. Then you can control both the flavor and the bean quality a lot better.

As a quick aside here, there’s another category of coffee you might have seen around: instant coffee. Formerly the realm of crappy robusta nightmares, manufacturing techniques for instant coffee have improved a lot over the past decade or so. If you want the convenience of not needing brewing equipment, you can give this a try. In my experience, even Starbucks’s new line of instant coffees still have that “instant” taste to them.

That’s your quick guide to acquiring coffee for making your own drinks at home. Next time: What to do with your beans once you’ve got them!

tl;dr summary:

  • Don’t bother with robusta beans
  • Try coffee till you find what you like
  • Avoid flavored beans
  • Instant coffee still tastes instant
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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.

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