Anatomy of a Starbucks drink: A Primer (US Edition)

I love Starbucks. Music complaints aside (see earlier article on Music in cafes and such), it is my default place to go read a book, do some work, or hang out with a friend or two. I guess it helps that my habit formed at one of the most awesome Starbucks places ever and that I worked there. BARISTAS UNITE. I digress.

Do you love being at Starbucks and wanted to learn a bit more about what goes into some of our drinks and how you can customize them? Been confused about the difference between breve and skim? Ristretto versus lungo espresso? Dry versus wet cappuccino? Well, look no further, because here is the guide that I was never able to find on the internet!


Real basic: Short is 8 oz, tall is 12 oz, grande is 16 oz, and venti is 20 oz. Makes sense if you speak Italian because “venti” is “twenty”. In some places, there is also a trenta size, which is 30 oz. This size is only available for iced coffee and iced tea.

Easy, right? Generally, we will understand what you mean by small, medium, or large…or if you point. But in case you ever wondered what the size differences were, here they are.

Skinny or Light

For any drinks with milk that aren’t frozen, ordering it “skinny” means you want it with sugar-free syrup, non-fat milk, and no whipped cream. If you want to change any of those things, tell us!

For frappuccinos, if you order it “light”, we use non-fat milk, sugar-free syrup, no whip, and sugar-free frappuccino bases.


The default for hot drinks is 2% milk (in the US). The default for frozen drinks is whole milk. You may request that your drink be made with something else if you would like. Whole milk and skim/non-fat cost nothing extra, while soy milk and breve (which is half cream and half milk) cost extra unless you are a Starbucks Gold member. Generally, we will ask you if you still want whipped cream if you order something non-fat or soy. Ordering something skinny automatically means no whipped cream.

Drinks that get whipped cream: all fraps except coffee frap and smoothies, hot chocolate, mocha, caramel apple spice.

Espresso Shots

If you order something that gets espresso shots in there, with the exception of Americanos, you get this many shots:

Short or tall: 1 shot
Grande and venti (hot): 2 shots
Venti (iced): 3 shots

For Americanos, hot or iced, short gets 1, tall gets 2, grande gets 3, venti gets 4.

Also, did you know that you can ask for shots of espresso in your coffee (for a little extra of course)? Add a shot and it’s called a red-eye. 2 shots is a black-eye. 3…I think is a purple-eye? No one really orders more than 2 in their coffee…not when I work anyway.

If you prefer straight espresso shots, you can just order solo, doppio, triple, or quad shots. We can pull them for you normal, ristretto (which is a shorter pull and is stronger, less bitter, and darker), or lungo (which is a longer pull, a little lighter and more pleasant). It’s your choice.


Ah yes. The stuff that gives your drinks that flavor you crave. This is where it gets a little complicated, so I’m just going to keep it simple just so you get a rough idea of what you’re getting and what you can change.

Hot drinks: Short = 2 pumps, tall = 3 pumps, grande = 4 pumps, venti = 5 pumps
Iced drinks: Same as hot except venti = 6 pumps, trenta = 7 pumps
Frozen drinks: No short drinks for frozen, number of pumps per size is hot drinks minus 1

So, what this boils down to is to what degree you think your drink is too sweet or not sweet enough. You can ask for half the pumps, 1 less pump, or an extra pump. When you order a grande vanilla latte, you get 4 pumps of vanilla in your latte with your milk. I personally like French vanilla, which is 2 vanilla and 2 hazelnut. Since the number of pumps does not exceed what they would have given me anyway, it doesn’t cost anything! And of course, asking for less syrup doesn’t cost you anything. Asking for more syrup gets a little trickier…it depends on the barista/manager and how much extra you’re asking for.

Tea and Coffee

A little more straightforward. All teas get 1 teabag except for venti, which gets 2, meaning you can mix and match tea combinations if you’d like. Coffee is… Iced coffee is brewed double strength to compensate for the ice, so if you get no-ice iced coffee, you’re getting real bang for your buck.


1.) Caramel macchiatos get one pump less of vanilla in its base according to size (tall gets 2, grande gets 3, etc.). Yes, vanilla. Weird right? Anyway, the caramel drizzle on top ought to offset your sugary tooth.

2.) A dry cappuccino means you want less milk and more foam in it. Usually, cappuccinos are 2/3 foam and 1/3 milk in addition to the shots. A wet cappuccino borders on a latte with extra foam. I personally like cappuccinos with a little bit of cinnamon mixed in. In the same vein, you can ask for no foam in your lattes, chais, or macchiattos.

3.) You can ask for sugar to be put on the bottom of your cup before the espresso and milk goes in so it mixes more evenly.

4.) Air and humidity are an espresso shot’s worst nightmare. If it’s been exposed to air for too long, it goes dark and bitter and you can taste it in your drink. I don’t usually make a huge deal out of it because there’s always a huge line, but in case you’re wondering why your drink is so bitter and you can’t handle it, just talk to the barista at the counter and they may make you another one depending on store policy.

5.) If you order a chai tea latte, if you want it stronger and spicier, ask for no water. Otherwise, you get chai tea with half hot water and half steamed milk.

6.) Temperature-wise: You can get it extra-hot (about 160 degrees Farenheit) if you want or “kid temperature” (about 110-120 deg. F). For reference, normal is about 140-150.

7.) Hot chocolate gets vanilla in it in addition to the mocha/chocolate sauce. Mmmmm vanilla. Also, a mocha is basically a hot chocolate without the vanilla in it and with espresso.


I’ll edit this as I remember anything, but for now, here are the basics. If you want to know how we mark some things, brokensecrets (where I also got the image) has a pretty good rudimentary guide for how we do many things. This is by no means an extensive list, but it gives you an idea. Ordering…is a different story. We like it when people order the correct way, but unless you’re a real Starbucks aficionado or barista, we are surprised when you know how to order the correct way.

At any rate, check out the related articles below. Any questions or comments, post them here! Other baristas welcome, of course, in case I neglected anything 🙂

2 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Starbucks drink: A Primer (US Edition)

  1. Pingback: 10 irregular Starbucks drinks you should try « The Wondrous World of Guang Yi's Mind

  2. So this guide is absolutely amazing. I finally understand the whole Starbucks rigmarole. Thank you for clarifying this for us Starbucks neophytes! Now I want to try pretty much every combination.

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