What Is White Coffee - & Other Confusing Coffee Terms Explained

For better or worse, the coffee world is full of peculiar (and sometimes contradictory) terms - and if that McDonalds advert is to be believed, some people would prefer it to stay that way.

But not us at the Coffee Bean Shop! We believe that everyone deserves good coffee, and we want to do everything we can to make sure that it is accessible to all. So we’ve put together a handy guide to the most common coffee questions - such as “what is white coffee” - as well as some of the more obscure terminology you might find in this weird and wonderful world.


What exactly is white coffee?

Well, it depends on who’s asking. In everyday usage, this would refer to a coffee with milk in it, especially in situations where americanos or long blacks are being discussed. Generally, if someone is asking for a white coffee, they are asking for something similar to what you’d make at home (an instant coffee) with milk. To translate this to coffee shop language, you’re looking at either an americano with milk or a filter/drip coffee with milk, usually served on the side.

There is, however, also a very short roasting level known as white coffee, though the drink obtained from it doesn't much resemble the coffee we are used to. Instead, it comes out tasting more savoury and much milder in coffee tones, albeit with a higher caffeine content. 

Around the world, white coffee can mean different things too: in Malaysia, it is a type of bean roasted in margarine, for example. Neither of these are particularly popular in the west, so if you ask for a white coffee, expect to get a black coffee with milk added.

Does decaf contain caffeine?

Technically there is no such thing as true decaffeinated coffee. While a typical cup of decaf contains 2-12mg of caffeine, the legal limit on what constitutes decaf coffee varies from country to country. This might seem like a lot, but an average espresso contains 40 mg of caffeine, and a strong cup of drip coffee can come in at 200mg per cup. Even a regular can of Coca Cola contains more caffeine, with 30mg being the average. 

When it comes to choosing decaffeinated coffee, not all beans are equal: the process that is used to remove the caffeine can play a key role in the end result and taste. At the Coffee Bean Shop, we only use the Swiss Water Method, a natural process that doesn’t rely on harsh chemicals and does not alter the taste - allowing the coffee beans to taste like coffee beans.


What are all these fancy lattes?

A latte generally refers to an espresso-based drink made with a large amount of milk. However, there has been a rise in other drinks being named lattes. While they are technically correct (the word latte comes from milk, not coffee after all), some people get confused by what they actually contain - and it is generally not coffee. 

A rose latte for example will contain rose essence instead of coffee. A turmeric latte contains turmeric (among other things) instead of coffee; a chai latte will contain chai (although they are also sold adulterated with espresso, commonly known as a dirty chai - but that’s another topic entirely!); a matcha latte will have matcha powder, and so on. That is not to say that these alternative lattes do not contain caffeine, however. Some of them use tea as an ingredient, so will still have caffeine in them, but it will be a milder form than is found in coffee-based drinks.

On the other hand there are also flavoured lattes. These are simply coffee lattes with added syrups, such as vanilla, caramel, hazelnut, and the unforgettable pumpkin spiced latte. If you’re ever in doubt, simply ask the barista if it is a coffee-based drink. They really don't mind; most love talking about the drinks they make.


Brewing terminology

There are many wonderful and peculiar ways to get your cup of joe in the morning. The most common is either the instant variety that you probably have in your cupboard, or an espresso-based drink in a coffee shop (think cappuccino, flat white, latte, americano et al). 

But there are so many other ways to make your own fresh coffee drinks at home! From V60 drip coffee to fully portable pressure methods, there’s no reason for the world of coffee brewing to be confusing (or costly). Here’s a glossary of the most common terms used in coffee making circles:

  • Aeropress - a type of coffee brewer, known for its ease of use and portability.
  • Blend - a mix of two or more single origin coffees, usually to create a house coffee for a particular shop; or a coffee for a particular result, such as espresso blend or morning blend.
  • Bloom - the initial release from coffee grounds when water is added to them especially evident when the coffee is freshly roasted.. 
  • Espresso / ristretto - The shots that are produced by an espresso machine. A ristretto is an espresso with a shorter time and thus less water in it, making it stronger.
  • Burr grinder - the preferred way to grind coffee beans, as it performs more uniformly than blade grinders and doesn’t create heat which can scorch the beans..
  • Cupping - a method that baristas and roasters use to taste and trial coffee types, by adding water to cups of coffee grounds.
  • Crema - the thick bubble head that forms at the top of an espresso shot. Essential for creating latte art.
  • Drip coffee - a brewing method that lets water slowly filter through a quantity of ground coffee beans. Very popular in America in automated machine forms. Cold brew is an extreme version of this. 
  • Pour over - a manual version of drip coffee, which allows for more control. 
  • Filter coffee - a confusing term that either relates to coffee that has been filtered for health benefits, or any coffee method that involves the use of a filter - it depends on who you are asking! We wrote a whole blog post about filter coffee to help clear things up.
  • French press - the cafetiere by another name. An easy method of making fresh coffee at home.
  • Roast - the process of roasting coffee. When seen in descriptions of beans it refers to how long they have been roasted for.


Coffee bean terminology

First of all, let’s put the biggest misconception to bed: coffee beans are not actually beans! They are in fact the seed, or pit, of the berry (commonly referred to as the cherry) of the Coffea plant. Like most misnomers from the distant (usually colonial) past, they are called beans because they look like beans - much like the red panda, which bears no relation to true panda bears.


What is single origin coffee?

Single origin coffee is a coffee that can be sourced back to a single place, plantation or grower, something which is held up as the key component of the third wave coffee movement. For the industry, this means that there is a greater focus on knowing exactly where and how your coffee is grown, and the social and economic implications of the trade. This hyper-focus is leading to better coffee for consumers and better working conditions for the growers, even if it pushes the price of the product up slightly. Excitingly for us, it means that we get a wider, more accurate range of flavours and aromas to taste and experiment with. 

Single origin coffees are then further divided into regions, each with their own unique flavour, tones and qualities. This is where a good coffee bean roaster comes in handy: they are there to share all of their coffee bean knowledge with you, to help you get the very best type and quality of coffee to match your preferred taste. 

If you’d like to learn more about the characteristics of different coffee types, we’ve got a blog post that explores this further.


Light, medium or dark roast?

The colour of the roasted coffee bean, while it may vary slightly due to its origin, will largely be down to how long it has been roasted for. The darker the bean, the longer the roast. 

Light roasts are usually the most acidic, but retain more of the natural coffee flavours and quality. They also tend to be slightly higher in caffeine. Light, or blonde, roasts are perfect for experimenting with single origin coffee beans as the characteristics of each variety are more pronounced than medium or darker roasts, light roasts are best in a pour over or filter brewing method.

Darker roasts are all about the flavours created by the roasting process, and have a fuller body to them. The beans themselves will be dark brown to black, and slightly oily to the touch. Dark roasts are most popular in continental Europe, and are usually used to make espresso-based drinks, as they work well when mixed with milk or sugar. The darker the roast, the more oils appear on the surface of the bean.  Dark roasts are bitter, up to 20% carbon and very oily which is very bad for your grinder and beans to cup machine.

Medium Roast is the preferred roast at Coffee Bean Shop.  Just into the second crack with the tiniest amount of oil just visible on one or two of the beans.  This is the very best roast, no bitter taste, it just hits the sweet spot in the roast to give the maximum flavour.

Roast type preference is massively down to personal taste, and a bit of trial and error is required before you find the perfect blend and roast to suit you.There’s also a small group of people who like to make coffee out of green, or unroasted, coffee beans, but we’ve got a whole separate blog post as to why that is generally a bad idea. Don’t let us stop you, though - it can be an interesting way to experiment with small batch roasting at home! 

Arabica or robusta?

These beans are frequently erroneously assumed to be a variety akin to  Brazilian or Indian, whereas those are simply the name for where they are grown, and usually the metonym for coffees with those characteristics. What arabica and robusta actually are are two species of the coffee plant. 

Arabica beans are softer and sweeter, and are usually considered to be of a higher quality, although they contain less caffeine. They are much harder to grow, and therefore are usually more expensive, they are grown at higher altitude and hand picked.

Robusta beans contain more caffeine as they are hardier plants, and grow in tougher terrain and are usually mechanically harvested. Not only can they be grown at lower altitudes, they also fight off pests better. This toughness is reflected in their taste, with nutty, earthy tones coming to the fore. Most supermarket’s own brand and instant coffee will be robusta, and most coffee sold in coffee shops will be a blend of the two - although some shops like to shout about it if their coffee only contains 100% arabica.

As you can see, there are many ways for you to differentiate and select separate aspects of your coffee. This is part of the reason why so many people become passionate, or even obsessive, about finding the exact right blend, roast and brew for their own personal taste.


Is it expresso or espresso?

Any coffee lover worth their salt would wince at hearing someone use the term expresso, but those people aren’t totally incorrect. What is usually considered to be an example of a proprietary eponym (a brand name being used in place of a product type, such as Hoover instead of a vacuum cleaner) is actually down to the etymology of the word espresso.

Espresso in Italian means expressed, or forced out, which is where the confusion lies. People then rationalised it further by believing the myth that the name comes from being a quick - or express - form of coffee, which it technically is - but if you’ve ever waited in line behind someone ordering three freshly made cappuccinos (the most popular way of drinking espresso), you’ll know that it can be far from the quickest beverage to order!

Is coffee bad for you?

This is a subject that comes up time and again, and remains contentious. But the latest studies show that actually, coffee can help you live longer, all thanks to the sheer number of antioxidants it contains. Of course, you then need to factor in the milk, cream or sugar that we add to how we drink it! In general though, studies suggest that consuming coffee can help with heart, brain and digestive health, as well as helping ward off degenerative illnesses. 

When people discuss the need to cut down on coffee consumption, they are usually referring to the caffeine that it contains. This can be bad for your health when taken in excess, especially for those with high blood pressure or heart issues, and is known to exacerbate feelings of anxiety. 

Factors that confuse coffee-based drinks

  • Some of the confusion around different coffee terminology stems from the fact that coffee drinking, and coffee-based products, began life in a variety of different countries, each with their own traditions and techniques. This has led to a variety of different names for the same drinks and methods. 
  • As coffee drinking has grown and become more commercialised, especially espresso-based coffee drinks, brands have popped up everywhere, and with them new brand names for fairly generic drinks. A basic frappe from Starbucks becomes a Frappuccino, but if you ask for that anywhere else you may get blank looks. Equally, the adoption of specific terms for drinks from other countries can then go on to mean something else: check out this piece about when a macchiato isn't a macchiato. There are no hard and fast rules about what constitutes even the most popular coffee based drinks, although most of the differences lie in the ratios and types of milk used. Flat whites are traditionally small and have strategically balanced milk-to-espresso ratios; yet in some high street cafes, either due to confusion by the makers or what the customer asks for, you can get flat whites as big as your head - essentially a latte by a different name. If you’d like to try making a flat white at home, we’ve got a guide for you here.


Coffee is truly a drink for everyone, whether you want it caffeinated or decaf, with hot frothy milk, or as a hot shot of espresso. But there are also whole rabbit holes that you can disappear down if you want to experiment with  coffee drink creation. There’s a massive variety of beans, drinks and methods, and this pastime should be open to everyone who wants to explore it.

Whatever origin, roast, brewing method or latte flavour you opt for, make sure that you have the best possible start by choosing the freshest coffee beans possible, as you will always get from us at the Coffee Bean Shop.

Want to discuss coffee beans further? Contact us here.

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