Anatomy of Espresso Drinks: A How-To Guide and History of Espresso Drinks

Anatomy of Espresso Drinks: A How-To Guide and History of Espresso Drinks

Aug 31st 2021 Written by Ragan LaTour

A small cafe perched on the edge of a busy street, Vespas are zooming by, a pleasant array of Italian conversations swirl around, meshing into a melodic hum. The warm Mediterranean breeze blows through your hair, and in front of you sits a small cup filled with the perfect shot of espresso — rich, sweet, and topped with a smooth crema.

Whether you’re actually sitting at a picturesque Italian cafe or simply visiting your local coffee shop, espresso does an extraordinary job at blending science and history to form a coffee delicacy capable of sparking a new found appreciation for the technique and art that goes into coffee, or even at times, if only for a moment, takes you to the distant land of its origins.

Espresso is more than just a method of brewing, it’s the core of some of the most popular drinks available in the world of coffee. Beyond that, the sensations that accompany a perfect shot of espresso are experienced and appreciated by people across the globe where many cultures have developed variations of delicately balanced espresso and milk drinks, each unique, each profoundly delicious.

Although espresso drinks share common ingredients, they all shine in their own way, each utilizing different ratios, methods of milk steaming, and portion sizes. These small, yet defining, details can be hard to distinguish and execute in the beginning, so we’ve put together a summary explaining the makeup and origin of each drink.

Join PCC Industry Pro Space

The Classics


shot of espresso

Shot of espresso side view

Espresso is the foundation of every drink on this list. On its own, a good shot of espresso is celebrated for its balance, body, and crema. Achieved through precise chemistry, espresso is described by Smithsonian Magazine as a “perfect balance between grind, temperature, and pressure.” Once perfection is achieved, the goal is to recreate it every time.

The first machine to use steam to brew coffee was successfully patented in the late 19th century in Italy. Although there is nothing more than a patent to prove its existence, the machine was improved upon by two men and paved the way for a name still well known — La Pavoni. Among their competitors were manufacturers still prominent in today's market such as Victoria Arduino and Gaggia.

Espresso machines have changed substantially since those days in early 20th century Europe, and today can be found in nearly every coffee shop. In recent years it's become more common to find espresso machines in people’s homes too.

Regardless of the machine used, a shot of espresso is typically made using a 1:2 ratio which produces between 32-36 grams of coffee, and requires a very fine grind, and traditionally 9-bar of pressure — which is a topic up for debate among coffee enthusiasts.


Birds eye view of cappuccino

Cappuccino side view

Ahhh, the cappuccino. A deliciously smooth, creamy, and frothy delight. Its precise, even ratio makes for a pleasant and sweet experience. Unlike a standard shot of espresso, a cappuccino requires steam and milk to create its delicate layers.

Variations of the cappuccino have been around for centuries, but the modern cappuccino didn’t make its debut until after World War II — in yes, Italy. From there it spread across Europe and finally made its way to the United States in 1980’s where it became a staple as “cafe culture” erupted across the country.

A traditional cappuccino is typically only enjoyed during the morning hours in Italy and boasts a unique ratio of 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk, and 1/3 microfoam. If you’d like to learn more about how to steam milk check out our Espresso and Milk for Beginner’s blog. It should be noted that although traditional cappuccinos are topped with a generous amount of foam, this likely will not be the case in most specialty shops. There, you will be presented with a thin layer of textured milk about 1 cm thick, as defined by the Specialty Coffee Association of America.


Latte birds eyes view

The latte is perhaps one of the United States greatest contributions to the world… Okay, that may be a bit of a stretch, but it is a delicious and beautiful drink that doesn’t originate in Italy. Rich, decadent espresso and a thin, delicate layer of glossy smooth steamed milk, often compared to wet paint, requires little aeration while steaming, and makes for a perfect medium to create latte art. Latte art has recently become an Instagram craze that has had everyone sharing their impressive latte hearts, swans, and so much more to their feed.

It all began at Caffe Mediterranuem, better known as Caffe Med, in Berkeley, California in 1956, but didn’t become widely acknowledged until the 1980’s in Seattle. Today, the latte is both a cafe staple and form of art.


Macchiato birds eye view

The macchiato is a drink that varies from cafe to cafe. Originally, it was meant to serve as an afternoon pick-me-up in Italy — as cappuccinos are only to be enjoyed in the mornings. It first entered the scene in the 80’s and was served as a small, sippable drink — a vast difference from the macchiatos people have come to know at Starbucks.

Macchiato literally means marked. It’s traditionally served in a small cup or demitasse and includes a double shot of espresso that has a dollop or “mark” of microfoam placed on top.

Flat White

Flat White birds eye view

The flat white has been the cause of great debate among Australians and Kiwis, both of which wish to lay claim to the delicious beverage. Although it possesses many qualities similar to a latte, it differs in that it contains less milk in order to let the espresso really shine through. A proper flat white typically has a microfoam layer no more than ½ a centimeter thick and is served in a cappuccino cup.

Regardless of where it originated Down Under, the flat white is a great addition to a cafe menu.


Cortado birds side view

Originating in Spain, the cortado is just another example of how espresso has influenced the pallets of coffee drinkers across the globe. The term cortado can be translated to the Spanish word for cut, and that is precisely what is being done in a cortado — milk cuts into the espresso.

Traditionally made using equal parts espresso and steamed milk, it is important that the milk in a cortado is not foamy, but rather warm and steamed, presenting a smooth, sweet taste. Unlike most of the other drinks on the list, the cortado is served in a small glass called a Gibraltar, and can be found at coffee shops by the same name.


Americano side view

Lastly is the Americano. It is said that the Americano originated during WWII when many American soldiers stationed in Italy found espresso to be too bitter. To resolve this, Italian baristas would top it off with hot water to make it more closely resemble, in both appearance and taste, traditional drip coffee.

The espresso is what sets the Americano apart from standard drip coffee, providing a more robust flavor, but thanks to the 8 oz of hot water an Americano is easy to sip and is usually served in a large cup or mug.

Join PCC Industry Pro Space


Apart from the classic drinks that grace the menu across the globe, there are many espresso based drinks that almost fall closer into the category of dessert than beverage. Below we have developed a list of a few of the most popular.


One of the most popular drinks out there is the mocha. Found in coffee shops ranging from chains like Starbucks to specialty coffee shops, this drink dates back to 18th century Italy, where it was known as the bavaresia. During that time it was served as separate parts, allowing the consumer to mix them together as they wished.

The modern mocha can be found served in a variety of ways using chocolate sauces or powders, topped in whipped cream, or donning a trendy latte heart.


The affogato by all accounts is wholly a dessert. Affogato literally translates to “drowned.” You drown 2 scoops of gelato with a shot of espresso….can you say YUM?!

Cafe con Miel

The miel is a favorite at the Prima office. It's smooth, sweet, and creamy like a latte, but includes a generous combination of honey and cinnamon to add a little something more.

Flavored Lattes

Mocha, vanilla, caramel, oh my! Flavored lattes are a hit with consumers across the coffee drinking spectrum. With a large variety of flavor options available, any latte can be taken to the next level with some added flavor.

Iced Lattes

When the warm, summer months arrive, sometimes an iced latte is the perfect way to get through the day. Ice cold and refreshing, the combination of espresso, the customers choice of milk, and ice prove to be a hit among coffee drinkers.

The world of coffee continues to grow and expand rapidly. New cafes are opening every day, each bringing something new and unique to the coffee industry. While developing a menu, in addition to offering the espresso classics, keep in mind that incorporating alternative milks provides inclusivity for those with specific dietary needs or lifestyle choices, so take a moment to check out our blog comparing different alternative milks.

If you'd like further assistance in planning your coffee shop, we'd love to help! Feel free to reach out to our commerical services team, and be sure to join the Prima Coffee Community Industry Pro Space for additional resources and join the conversation with other industry professionals.

Join PCC Industry Pro Space
Aug 31st 2021 Ragan LaTour

Recent Posts