We love coffee, but we’ll be the first to admit that it’s an acquired taste. New coffee drinkers often find it bitter, but a good cup of coffee can be as smooth and satisfying as a piece of dark chocolate.
And yet, if you try coffee for the first time at a casual diner or (heaven forbid!) in your office break room, your experience might be underwhelming. In fact, coffee for beginners can be overwhelming. Instead, we recommend getting your first cup from a local coffee shop. Head to one that’s locally owned and has plenty of hipster baristas and college kids working there. It may be cliché, but these local spots typically know their stuff, and they’re more likely to serve top-quality coffee beans than the national chains.
As for navigating that intimidating coffee shop menu, we’ve got your back. This guide to coffee for beginners will teach you all the basics. From the difference between coffee and espresso to the many brewing methods, roasts, and beans, here’s everything you need to know to order your first cup of coffee.
When you walk into that cute coffee shop around the corner, the first decision you’ll have to make is whether you want a coffee-based drink or an espresso-based drink. That’s the first step in mastering the world of coffee for beginners. Coffee and espresso start out as the same bean from the same plant, but shortly after those beans are harvested, their paths diverge.
Ultimately all the differences between coffee and espresso are caused by their different brewing methods. Coffee is brewed — kind of like (but not exactly like) tea. We’ll get into the different brewing methods for coffee below.
Espresso, on the other hand, is extracted using an aeropress or espresso machine that forces extremely hot water through the ground beans in order to produce a concentrated shot of coffee. Because it’s highly concentrated, a serving of espresso is much smaller than a serving of coffee. It’s usually served in a cup the size of a shot glass. A shot of espresso is about one ounce, while a cup of coffee is six ounces.
Because of espresso’s rapid, high-pressure extraction, the coffee beans produced for this beverage — which you’ll see labeled as “espresso beans” in your local grocery store — need to be roasted darker to get a balanced flavor and avoid too much acidity. Espresso beans also need to be ground finer to extract enough flavor during the quick brewing method.
The darker roasting technique also brings out more of the coffee beans’ oils, so espresso feels more full-bodied in the mouth than coffee. Think of it like this: Espresso is like a full-bodied red wine, while coffee is like a rosé. Or if you’re a beer drinker, you can think of espresso as a stout and coffee as a pale ale.
Coffee for Beginners
Now that you understand the essential difference between coffee and espresso, let’s get into all the little details you’ll see on a coffee shop menu. This is everything you need to know to order traditional coffee. (We’ll get into the espresso side of the menu below.)
These are the types of coffee drinks you’ll see listed on a good coffee shop menu — the differences between them come down to the coffee brewing method.
- Drip coffee: This is the kind you get from a traditional coffee maker. You place the grinds in a filter, fill the reservoir with water, and the machine heats the water and slowly sends it through the grinds to brew the coffee. It’s easy to get consistent results with a drip coffee maker, and most coffee shops have drip coffee ready to pour at a moment’s notice.
- Pour-over: Devout coffee drinkers love pour-overs. This method works similarly to the drip method, except that everything is done by hand, using a pour-over coffee dripper or a Chemex. You’ll place a filter and grinds inside the dripper, put the dripper directly over your cup or carafe, and slowly pour hot water over the grinds. This allows you to control everything from the water’s temperature to the brewing time. This technique leads to a light, smooth flavor, so it’s one of the best preparations for anyone who wants to drink black coffee.
- French press: Of all the ways to brew coffee, this method is the most similar to brewing tea. You’ll place ground coffee in the bottom of a French press, pour hot water over it, and let it steep. After 4-5 minutes, you’ll slowly press a plunger and stainless steel filter into the coffee maker to trap most of the grounds at the bottom. But, because this technique doesn’t use a paper filter, some sediment will likely sneak into your cup. The French press produces a stronger and more full-bodied flavor than pour-over or drip coffee.
- Cold brew: The brewing process is in the name. Cold brew coffee is made with coarse ground coffee beans. The grinds are covered in cold water and left to steep for 18-24 hours. Then, the grinds are filtered out, and the drink is served cold. Cold brewing produces a very smooth flavor that’s often less bitter and less acidic than hot brewed coffee. This is the best coffee for beginners who are still adjusting to that strong coffee flavor.
- Iced coffee: Not all iced coffee is cold brewed. Unless your drink specifically says cold brew, it’s a traditional iced coffee, which is made using hot brewed coffee, usually drip coffee. The coffee is brewed extra strong so it won’t lose its flavor when ice is added. After it’s brewed, it’s left to cool and then chilled in the fridge overnight.
Whichever coffee preparation you choose, you can drink it black or adjust the coffee’s taste to your liking with your favorite type of milk and sweetener. For cold brew and iced coffee, a liquid sweetener, like simple syrup, will more easily mix into your drink.
During coffee production, beans are harvested, dried, and then sent to a roaster. Roasting the beans for different amounts of time brings out different flavors, so light-roasted and dark-roasted coffee taste different. The only way to know which one you like best is to try them. To get you started, here’s what to expect from each roast.
- Light roast: With the shortest roasting time, light roast coffee doesn’t get as caramelized, which brings out less of the natural sugars. Expect this roast to be less sweet with higher acidity and a lighter, more fruity flavor.
- Medium roast: A crowd pleaser, medium roasts have a richer, sweeter flavor. This coffee is well-balanced with some of the natural fruit flavors still shining through.
- Dark roast: This long roasting time brings out rich, nutty notes, but can sometimes come with a burnt flavor. Dark roasts have low acidity with very little fruitiness. The longer roast also brings out more of the beans’ oils for a fuller bodied texture.
There are four types of coffee beans, but only two of them are widely available. Because this is a beginner’s guide, we’ll focus on those two.
- Arabica coffee beans: Considered the highest-quality coffee, arabica beans come from a variety of the coffee plant that grows at higher altitudes, which produces smoother and sweeter tasting coffee with lighter notes of chocolate, sugar, and fruit. These beans are sweet and complex enough for black coffee.
- Robusta coffee beans: With stronger and more bitter flavors, robusta beans come from a different variety of the coffee plant and tend to have much earthier notes. They’re best when served with added milk and sugar.
Most quality coffee shops have a coffee grinder on site and will grind the beans fresh when you order. Many coffee connoisseurs also keep a grinder in their kitchen because fresh ground coffee is more flavorful than pre-ground coffee.
The grind will affect how well the coffee flavor is extracted during the brewing process, and different grinds are better for different brewing methods. If you use the wrong grind for your brewing method, your coffee could end up bitter or sour tasting. Here’s how the grinds affect your beverage.
- Find-ground: Primarily used for espresso, fine-ground coffee can get over extracted and end up tasting bitter if it’s used with other brewing methods.
- Medium ground: This grind is best for pour-overs and drip coffee machines. It’s the right grind to ensure your coffee won’t end up over- or under-extracted.
- Coarse ground: Coarse and extra-coarse grinds are best for French press and cold brew coffee. If you use a coarse grind with other brewing techniques, your coffee could come out weak or sour tasting.
Espresso for Beginners
You already know how espresso is different from coffee. And that baristas typically make it with fine-ground, dark-roast coffee beans. Now you need to decode the different types of espresso drinks you’ll see on a coffee shop menu.
All espresso drinks start with a shot or two of espresso, topped with different amounts of milk or water. Here are the different ways to prepare espresso drinks.
- Shot: Served as straight-up espresso with no added milk or sugar, you can also get a double or triple shot. We don’t recommend trying this on your first time drinking coffee because it’s very strong in terms of both flavor and caffeine.
- Macchiato: This is a shot of espresso with a spot of steamed milk on top. It’s still a small amount of liquid, about two ounces, with just enough milk to smooth out the espresso flavor.
- Cappuccino: A shot of espresso topped with steamed milk and milk foam, this drink contains about 5-6 ounces of liquid. The milk will mellow out the espresso flavor and add a hint of sweetness, even without additional sweetener.
- Latte: This drink has the largest amount of milk, coming out to at least eight ounces of liquid. Lattes larger than eight ounces often have a second or even third shot of espresso. Lattes are popular both hot and iced, and they often have added flavor syrups like caramel or mocha, which will make it taste like a combination of coffee and hot chocolate. Flavored lattes are a good choice for beginner coffee drinkers with a sweet tooth.
- Americano: Meant to imitate a cup of brewed coffee, you can make an Americano by topping a shot of espresso with hot water. Then, you can add cream and sugar like you would with a cup of coffee, or you can drink it black.
With this guide to coffee for beginners, you’re well on your way to enjoying the world of java. We hope your first sip of coffee leads to a life-long obsession.
Beyond the many types of coffee, this drink offers so much more to explore. Coffee from different regions can have completely different flavor profiles, and in different parts of the world, there are different cultural traditions surrounding this beverage. So, this humble little drink can serve as a passport to the world.
Now that you understand the basics of coffee for beginners, dive a little deeper and learn about coffee from Brazil, Costa Rica, or Bali. Take the next step in your coffee journey with more in-depth guides from Cup & Bean.