espresso

What Is Espresso?

You’ve most likely heard of espresso before. In fact, there is a good chance that your favorite coffee drink is espresso-based. 

Espresso drinks are taking the coffee world by storm for a while now, thanks to the second wave coffee shops (Starbucks anyone?) which are available everywhere you go. After all, who wouldn’t enjoy a warm latte before starting a long day at the office? 

With the popularity of these coffee shops, the word “espresso” quickly became synonymous with coffee.

But what really is espresso? Let’s find out.

Origin

Espresso is a brewing method that was invented in Italy during the late 1800s, as a result of coffee becoming increasingly popular in Europe. 

The increased demand for a coffee meant that the traditional ways of brewing weren’t fast enough to keep up, which called for a mechanized approach to brew coffee. 

Although the 1800s are accepted as the time for the inception of espresso, the machines which were invented back then simply weren’t good enough. 

The first espresso machine brewed in bulk instead of individual servings and had a large boiler attached to it. As you can imagine, this machine was far from convenient, and it eventually got lost in history.

Espresso finally started having commercial success during the mid-1900s, when the first lever-driven espresso machine was invented. This is the first machine which resembles the ones we are used to seeing at coffee shops nowadays.

If you would like to take a deeper look into history with all the details included, here is a great article you can check out.

Brewing Espresso

Brewing espresso is a quick and easy process, as the standard way of doing so is mostly through the help of machines. 

To start off, coffee beans are ground finely with the help of a coffee grinder. After that, coffee grounds are placed in the filter and tamped down. Finally, the espresso machine pours pressurized hot water through the filter, which concludes the process.

It is vital to both grind the coffee as fine as possible, and to tamp it down, as this allows water to go through the filter more easily.

What Makes Espresso So Popular?

Ease

We have talked about how brewing espresso is mostly an automated process in the previous section. 

This gives it a huge surge of popularity by itself as the results are consistent, and require minimal effort. The investment of buying an espresso machine aside, the effort which requires to brew espresso at home is no more than what it takes to prepare instant coffee.

Now automated doesn’t always mean quick, but in this particular case, it does. An average home espresso maker can prepare your drink 20-30 seconds, depending on the amount of coffee you added to it.

In today’s world, these two factors are more than enough for a lot of people to prefer espresso over other methods of brewing coffee. 

Flavor

Espresso is generally much more concentrated than any other form of coffee due to the way it’s brewed, which allows for the most delicate of flavors to be captured. The bitterness which we usually associate with coffee leaves its spot to an enjoyable coffee drinking experience.

The signature of a great espresso is the crema, a layer that rests on top of a shot of espresso. The long-lasting aftertaste of espresso comes from the crema, a phenomenon that does not occur with any other brewing method.

Variety

Don’t enjoy strong coffee? No problem.

The concentrated nature of espresso allows it to serve as a base for drinks such as cappuccino, macchiato, americano, and many more. With the help of flavored syrups, the variations that you can create are practically endless. 

We will use americano as an example here, which is a drink made by adding water on top of an espresso shot. This process dilutes the coffee, making it a suitable drink for those who prefer their coffee to be less strong.

Now that we think about it, that example was a bit boring. Americano is indeed a coffee drink staple, but let’s add some excitement since we’re talking about variety.

Let’s talk about how you can replicate the famous Starbucks Caramel Macchiato.

We start by pouring vanilla syrup in the cup, (yes, caramel macchiato actually contains vanilla syrup) followed by a shot (or double shot) of espresso, and frothed milk. Finally, we top it off with some caramel sauce.

Exciting, and also very easy. 

Espresso Shots

Ever been to a coffee shop, only to be welcomed by words which you’ve never heard before? 

Or maybe words that you’ve heard way too many times now, but still have no idea about.

Tired of being completely clueless when all you wanted to do was to order a latte, and the barista asks you if you would like a ristretto shot?

What is a doppio anyway?

Fear not, we will be covering everything there is to know about the variables which define an espresso shot.

Size

The size determines the amount of ground coffee used to pull the shot. 

There are 3 standard sizes, which are solo (single), doppio (double), and triplo (triple). These sizes contain around 7g, 14g, and 21g of ground coffee respectively. 

Please note that these weights aren’t exactly set in stone. For instance, it’s not uncommon for double espresso shots to contain up to 18g of ground coffee in certain cases.

Length

The length determines the volume of the liquid coffee which is produced.

Once again, there are 3 lengths, which are ristretto (reduced), normale (normal), and lungo (long). For a single shot, ristretto would yield around 15ml, normale would yield around 30ml, and lungo would yield around 90ml of liquid. Again, please note that these volumes may differ between baristas.

Now that you know about the different sizes and lengths of an espresso shot, it’s only natural to wonder how these factors affect your beverage. While the effect of size is pretty straight forward, the effect of length is a bit more complicated.

A shorter shot will provide a less bitter, more concentrated flavor, while a long shot will provide a more bitter, less concentrated flavor.

You may be wondering how adding in more water would create a more bitter coffee, since this sounds like reverse logic at first sight.

The answer is simple! As more water goes through the coffee, the components which provide the bitter flavor of coffee are dissolved, which would have remained undissolved otherwise.

Next time a barista asks if you would like a ristretto, say yes and give it a try!

Espresso Drinks

Looking for something lighter than an espresso shot? Espresso drinks are here to save the day. 

Americano

The easiest espresso drink to make.

You simply add hot water on top of an espresso shot, and you have americano. 

This is a great choice for those who simply want a less strong coffee compared to espresso.

Long Black

This one is basically americano, but upside down.

Espresso is added on top of hot water, which means the crema will be preserved in this drink. 

A long black is preferred by those who prefer a more strongly flavored coffee.

Latte

A true fan favorite. 

Steamed milk is added on top of an espresso shot, which is topped off by a thin layer of milk foam.

Latte is considered to be a breakfast drink, as the amount of milk in it makes it pretty heavy.

Cappuccino

Basically stronger latte.

Once again, you add the steamed milk on top of an espresso shot and top it off with milk foam. 

The difference is that cappuccino has more milk foam, and less steamed milk, which makes for a stronger coffee.

Macchiato

If latte had no milk, it would be a macchiato.

An espresso shot is topped off with a thin layer of milk foam, and that’s it.

Macchiato is considered to be an afternoon drink as opposed to cappuccino or latte since the milk which makes the drink heavy is removed.

Latte Macchiato

The upside-down brother of latte.

The contents remain the same in this one, with a twist in order. 

Milk is poured first, and then the espresso shot is added to the drink. Once again, it’s topped off by a thin layer of milk foam.

Flat White

Latte, but no froth.

Steamed milk is poured on top of an espresso shot.

A very thin layer of milk foam (which is called microfoam) rests on top of this drink.

Cortado

Cortado has the same ingredients as flat white but in different proportions.

Equal parts of espresso and steamed milk are used for this drink.

Once again, there is little to no milk foam.

Breve

Latte with steamed half and half instead of steamed milk.

Half and half is added on top of an espresso shot, and a thin layer of milk froth tops the drink off.

Breve is a very smooth drink compared to the rest, due to the creamy texture of the half and half. 

Mocha

This is a great one for those who have a sweet tooth.

Chocolate syrup is added to the glass before the espresso shot, followed by milk. The drink is topped off with a layer of whipped cream.

This is the sweetest drink out of the bunch, and one to try even if you don’t enjoy coffee so much.

Espresso Con Panna

Looking to add some excitement to your espresso shot?

This drink consists of whipped cream and espresso only, which is definitely an interesting one.

Depending on how it’s served, this one sometimes resembles a dessert more than a drink, due to the amount of whipped cream added to it. After all, who doesn’t love whipped cream?

Espresso Beans

We have established that espresso isn’t a type of coffee bean. 

That being said, don’t be surprised when you see espresso beans being sold in the market. These beans are labeled that way since they are considered to be more suitable for espresso by the coffee roasting companies, or sometimes just for advertising purposes.

You don’t necessarily have to use these beans to brew espresso. Feel free to use any type of coffee beans that you enjoy the flavor of.

Even though it all comes down to preference at the end of the day, there are some widely accepted criteria when it comes to choosing coffee beans for espresso. If you don’t have a clear idea of how to pick the right coffee beans, these criteria may serve as a guideline and set you on the correct path.

Type

Arabica beans are generally recommended, as they are sweeter, and contain complex flavors as opposed to the bitter taste of Robusta beans. 

Note that it is not uncommon for coffee shops to use a blend of both Arabica and Robusta, as Robusta adds a bigger volume of crema to the espresso. You can also find these blends in pre-packaged form.

That being said, too much Robusta will make your espresso taste very bitter, which is why most blends consist of mostly, or entirely Arabica beans. 

If you’re looking to make your own coffee blend, make sure not to go overboard with Robusta beans. As a rule of thumb, try not to use more than 20% Robusta in your blend.

Roast

Medium to dark roasts is usually preferred.

A medium roast will produce a more balanced flavor while going for a darker roast will increase the bitterness of your coffee.

If you are someone who enjoys milky drinks like latte or cappuccino, a darker roast may serve you better, as the strong flavor of a darker roast will bring out flavor notes such as caramel and chocolate which mix so well with milk.

If you enjoy your espresso as it is, a medium roast will help you keep the “earthy” flavor notes of the coffee without falling too flat.

Once again, there really isn’t an exact science to brewing the perfect espresso, so make sure to try new things and find out what works best.

Making Espresso at Home

Making espresso at home is fairly simple, thanks to machines that do almost all of the work for you. 

Most machines nowadays will serve you a shot of espresso with a single press of a button. 

All you have to do is to add coffee grounds to the portafilter, tamp it down, and connect it to the machine.

Coffee beans vs coffee grounds

We recommend buying coffee beans and grinding them separately for each cup instead of buying coffee grounds. Freshly ground beans will always smell better, and taste better. If you value the quality of your drink more than anything else, coffee beans are definitely the way to go. 

Note that you will require a coffee grinder for this option unless you own an espresso machine that automatically grinds the beans for you.

For those who prefer convenience over taste, coffee grounds could prove to be the better choice. If you buy coffee grounds, you’ll never need to own a coffee grinder or put the effort into grinding coffee every time you’d like to enjoy espresso.

Frothing milk

If you enjoy drinks that contain milk foam such as latte or cappuccino, then you will have to froth milk. 

While there are ways to froth milk without a milk frother, we highly recommend investing in one. 

A milk frother will simplify the process, and ensure that you get consistent results. If you would like your coffee experience to be similar to the one you get at your favorite coffee shop, a milk frother will be a fine addition to your kitchen.

Some espresso machines also contain a wand to froth milk with, so you won’t need to buy a separate milk frother if your machine already has one.

Adding flavor

If you’re looking to add some sweetness to your coffee, flavored syrups are great for this. You can find a wide range of flavored syrups that will completely change how your drink tastes.

Add the syrup to the bottom of your glass before you pull the shot, as this is the best way for the syrup to mix with the rest of the drink.

Espresso Pods

Espresso pods are basically small bags that contain blended espresso in them. These pods are made in a way that allows them to be inserted into the filter without any hassle. 

Pod goes in, coffee comes out. No chance of spilling coffee, and no cleaning required.

Sounds great, right?

We hate to bring bad news to you, but unfortunately, it’s not as great as it sounds. 

Let’s go through some of the drawbacks which come with using these pods.

  • They are very expensive.
  • The choice of coffee is very limited.
  • It’s not fresh coffee.
  • Some pods require special machines that only work with these pods.

As you can see, a lot of things are sacrificed in the name of convenience when it comes to using pods. With so many downsides attached to it, you would think brewing regular espresso is a very hard task when it really isn’t.

That being said, if you already own an espresso machine and you would like to give pods a try just to see what the rave is all about, your luck may not be completely out. Most machines nowadays are compatible with a standard called Easy Serving Espresso (ESE), which allows you to use ESE pods in addition to coffee grounds.

If you’re looking to just start your espresso journey and you have your eyes set on pods, we really recommend not locking yourself into a pod-only machine, as it’s almost certain that you’ll want to move on from pods eventually. 

Benefits of Drinking Espresso

An espresso a day keeps the doctor away, and gives you the boost you need to go through with your day!

Energy

Coffee is the cornerstone of long workdays, especially during the morning. This is because the caffeine in coffee provides a quick boost of energy when it’s consumed. 

An espresso shot contains around 63 mg[2] of caffeine and is a great way to consume caffeine without feeling bloated. 

Please note that the upper limit of caffeine consumption for a healthy adult is considered to be 400[1] mg, which means that you shouldn’t drink more than 5 shots of espresso in a day, as the caffeine content of your espresso shot may vary and take you over the limit if you drink more.

Long-term health benefits

Sometimes you’ll hear about how drinking coffee is harmful to you because of the caffeine content. However, the situation is actually completely the opposite.

There are numerous studies on how coffee consumption can make you healthier in the long-term. We won’t be delving deep into the health benefits of coffee in this article as we aren’t health experts, but here is a great source on this matter if you would like to learn more.

Caffeine in Espresso

We would like to touch upon the misconception about the caffeine content of espresso being high compared to drip or instant coffee. While it’s true that espresso contains more caffeine per ounce due to its concentrated nature, it doesn’t exactly work that way in daily life.

In reality, espresso actually contains the least amount of caffeine per cup. This is mainly because when you drink drip or instant coffee, you consume more coffee in terms of volume. Nobody really drinks an entire cup of espresso, and nobody really drinks just one shot of instant coffee either.

As an example, if you had 2 cups of americano (single shot), and your friend had 2 cups of drip coffee, your friend will have consumed way more caffeine than you did. 

Conclusion

We hope we managed to shed some light on what espresso really is, and how you can enjoy it.

There are a lot of variables you can change to create the perfect espresso or espresso drink for yourself, so keep a clear mind about new options and flavors, and try new things.

Enjoy an espresso, and enjoy it responsibly.

References

1. Caffeine: How much is too much? – Mayo Clinic

2. USDA Nutrient Data for Espresso