You’ve got a busy day ahead.
The baristas at your local coffee joint do, too.
They’re running around grinding beans, steeping tea, taking orders, cleaning counters…
Neither of you really have time to play charades for every item on their menu.
If you want your drink quick—and made the way you like it—you’ll need to master ordering coffee in Chinese.
Coffee-loving expats in big cities like Shanghai are pretty spoiled in terms of how little Chinese they need to get by. China’s coffee culture has been booming recently, and at just about every corner you’re bound to find a Western coffee chain staffed with locals who understand generic orders such as a latte or an americano.
But what happens when you walk into a busy Starbucks branch and the only person available to take your order is a barista-in-training who looks at you funny when you ask for a grande cold brew? You can’t expect that each Starbucks you come across will have English-speaking staff. You’re the foreigner in China, after all!
Well, don’t fear! We’ll walk you through the formula for making your perfect coffee or drink order, from sizes to add-ons to ordering to-go and more.
Plus, if you master this lingo, you’re tricking everybody into thinking that you’ve mastered the language! It’s also another way of incorporating Mandarin into your lifestyle, living your life and learning the language at the same time.
But at the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to get through your order (and get that caffeine fix) in as little time as possible!
How to Order Coffee in Chinese Like a Local
The Basic Ordering Formula
Baristas are under an immense amount of pressure to perfect every single order in a timely manner. They probably don’t have time to explain everything on the menu if it’s all in Mandarin.
The best thing that you can do is to not freak out when you see that the menu is Chinese. You want to show that you respect your barista’s time and hard work. You can do this by starting with a greeting, rather than going straight into your order.
If you think about it, you almost sound like you’re demanding a cup of coffee instead of asking when you simply say the following:
我要一杯咖啡。 (wǒ yào yī bēi kā fēi.) — I would like a cup of coffee.
So be polite and start off with a greeting! The basic formula of a coffee order with a greeting (and minus cup sizes, add-ons and customizations, which we’ll cover later) is as follows:
你好! 我要一杯咖啡。 (nǐ hǎo! wǒ yào yī bēi kā fēi.) — Hello! I would like a cup of coffee.
Obviously, a statement like such isn’t sufficient, but for all intents and purposes, use this as the foundation in building your order. We’ll use this formula as a jumping off point throughout the rest of this post.
Types of Coffee and Drinks
If a regular coffee isn’t where you get your usual caffeine fix, here are the translations of other standard beverages commonly served across coffee chains, cafes and restaurants:
拿铁 (ná tiě) — Latte
浓缩咖啡 (nóng suō kā fēi) — Espresso
卡布奇诺 (kǎ bù jī nuò) — Cappuccino
摩卡 (mó kǎ) — Mocha
美式咖啡 (měi shì kā fēi) — Americano
玛奇朵 (mǎ qí duǒ) — Macchiato
星冰乐 (xīng bīng lè) — Frappuccino
冷萃 (lěng cuì) — Cold brew
茶 (chá) — Tea
Depending on the coffee chain, they may offer other types of teas. If you want the iced version of any of the above, just add the word “iced,” which is 冰 (bīng), in front of the drink name.
Here are a couple of examples of iced drinks:
冰拿铁 (bīng ná tiě) — Iced latte
冰红茶 (bīng hóng chá) — Iced black tea
Choosing a Size
As we’ve already established, the simple sentence “I would like a cup of coffee,” or whatever drink you’re ordering, doesn’t specify everything you might want. The next detail you’ll need to provide is the size of your drink. The size should be inserted before your actual drink of choice.
Thus, the formula would look like this: Greeting + I would like a + cup size + drink.
In sentence form, that would look like this:
你好! 我要一杯大杯咖啡。(nǐ hǎo! wǒ yào yī bēi kā fēi.) — Hello! I would like a large coffee.
Most coffee places will follow the standardized sizing, which are small (小, pronounced “xiǎo”), medium (中, pronounced “zhōng”) and large (大, pronounced “dà”). This is actually easier than a lot of coffee shops with English menus, where sizes like “regular” can vary between small and medium, depending on the establishment.
Of course, Starbucks has its own system for cup sizes, so let’s take a look at what each cup translates to in Chinese.
小杯 (xiǎo bēi) — Short
中杯 (zhōng bēi) — Tall
大杯 (dà bēi) — Grande
超大杯 (chāo dà bēi) — Venti
Customizing Your Order
Like a bit of sweetness with your coffee? Need an extra shot of espresso to kickstart your morning? Or maybe you need soy milk because you’re lactose intolerant or are a vegan. (Unlike in other countries where you may be judged for this milk substitute, soy milk is very popular in China. So if that’s the how you want to customize your order, by all means, go for it!)
Flavors, add-ons and customizations are perhaps the most important part of the formula for those that have specific orders in mind, whether it be due to taste or some sort of food allergy.
Building onto the formula we currently have, the flavor would be inserted in between the size and the drink name, while the add-on would follow, making the sentence structure more or less like so: Greeting + I would like a + cup size + flavor + drink + with/without + add-on(s).
Note: “With/without” in this context would be translated as 要 (yào)/不要 (bù yào).
Each coffee shop will have its own flavors of coffee drinks and syrups, but let’s discuss some of the common ones:
香草 (xiāng cǎo) — Vanilla
榛子 (zhēn zi) — Hazelnut
薄荷 (bò hé) — Peppermint
巧克力 (qiǎo kè lì) — Chocolate
焦糖 (jiāo táng) — Caramel
草莓 (cǎo méi) — Strawberry
拉茶 (lā chá) — Chai tea
绿茶 (lǜ chá) — Green tea
抹茶 (mǒ chá) — Matcha
As for add-ons and custom orders, here are some phrases that may be of use to you:
鲜奶油 (bù yào xiān nǎi yóu) — Whipped cream
双份浓缩 (shuāng fèn nóngsuō) — Double shot of espresso
牛奶 (niú nǎi) — Milk
低脂牛奶 (dī zhī niú nǎi) — Low fat milk
豆浆 (dòu jiāng) — Soy milk
糖 (táng) — Sugar
奶精 (nǎi jīng) — Creamer
低咖啡因 (dī kāfēi yīn) — Decaf
For Here or To Go?
Most cashiers will assume that you’re having your coffee at their establishment unless you specify that you’re on the run.
To indicate whether it’s for here or to go, here’s how you would form your sentence: Greeting + I would like a + cup size + flavor + drink + with/without + add-on(s) + for here/to go.
So after you’ve given your order, you can say either:
在这里用 (zài zhè lǐ yòng) — For here
打包 (dǎ bāo) — To go
There are a couple of Chinese translations for “to go” and “takeaway,” and different cities in China will often use one more than the other.
The translation above is used commonly in the mainland, but shouldn’t be used in Hong Kong since it means, “to wrap a dead body.”
Thanking Your Barista
Last but not least, when all is said and done, don’t forget to end with 谢谢 (xiè xiè), which means, “Thank you!”
Example Drink Orders
Let’s take a look at a few possible drink orders, shall we?
你好! 我要一杯中杯冷萃, 要豆浆打包。谢谢! (Nǐ hǎo! Wǒ yào yī bēi zhōng bēi lěng cuì, yào dòu jiāng dǎ bāo. Xiè xiè!)
Hello! I would like a tall/medium cold brew with soy milk to go. Thank you!
你好! 我要一杯大杯咖啡, 要低脂牛奶在这里用。谢谢! (Nǐ hǎo! Wǒ yào yī bēi dà bēi kā fēi, yào dī zhī niú nǎi zài zhè lǐ yòng. Xiè xiè!)
Hello! I would like a grande/large coffee with low-fat milk for here. Thank you!
你好! 我要一杯超大杯焦糖玛奇朵打包。谢谢! (Nǐ hǎo! Wǒ yào yī bēi chāo dà bēi jiāo táng mǎ qí duǒ dǎ bāo. Xiè xiè!)
I would like a venti/extra-large iced caramel macchiato to go. Thank you!
你好! 我要一杯小杯拉茶拿铁在这里用。谢谢! (Nǐ hǎo! Wǒ yào yī bēi xiǎo bēi lā chá ná tiě zài zhè lǐ yòng. Xiè xiè!)
Hello! I would like a short/small chai tea latte for here. Thank you!
And that’s how you order coffee in Chinese like a local!
Once you’ve got your usual order down, put yourself to the test and take a group order.
It’s challenges like these that’ll really immerse you in the language and culture.
Of course, it may be a while before you can perfect all your different beverage orders, but remember that one of the keys to speaking better Mandarin is to not be too hard on yourself. Just keep practicing, and you’ll get there eventually.
And One More Thing…
Want more conversational Chinese to go with that cup of coffee?
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