If you think you know espresso from the standard chain coffee shop, think again: espresso is a delightful way to brew a rich, intense coffee to enjoy alone in a small shot or various beverages.
Part of the charm of drip coffee is the slow process of water going through the coffee grounds, which gives coffee its flavor and volume. The same coffee grounds found in drip coffee presses or machines are the same you see in your favorite espresso shot. Yes, all espresso is coffee, but not all coffee is espresso. Let’s start by defining the drink we all know and love.
What is Espresso, Anyway?
Espresso is a robust and fragrant form of concentrated coffee served in various ways as a base for coffee drinks – like your morning latte–and in small, strong shots. Although espresso is made from the same beans as a standard cup of joe, espresso has a heavier viscosity, more intense taste, and a higher caffeine count.
Water is one of the critical factors in the difference between espresso and drip coffee. Espresso averages between 7 and 12% of the total percentage of the brew compared to 1.2% and 1.8% in drip coffee, making espresso about ten times stronger than drip coffee.
The Storied History of Espresso Machines
It’s important to remember that espresso is a preparation method that requires a precise and consistent balance among several factors. And like any method, espresso has experienced trial and error to bring us the incredible taste we appreciate today.
To find the beginnings of espresso, we have to travel back to the early 1800s when a German doctor named Elard Romershausen built a machine to push water through coffee grounds using steam. Considered one of the first “espresso” machines, Romershausen’s machine didn’t quite catch on. Nearly a century later, Angelo Moriondo received a patent for a device that used steam to brew coffee quickly. Unfortunately, Moriondo’s machine became lost to history, as other inventors used this design for the single-serve espresso that we know today.
Luigi Bezzerra, an Italian manufacturer, designed the single-shot machine based on Moriondo’s original patent, but Bezzerra needed some capital to bring his invention to the world. Desiderio Pavoni bought the patent in 1903, and the pair worked together to improve the machine and then introduced it at the 1906 Milan Fair, where it caught on throughout Italy and then the world.
Espresso has had an incredible history, and the first cups were a far cry from the mediocre chain espresso millions enjoy (they don’t know what they don’t know). Espresso is best brewed carefully, thoughtfully, and precisely.
Varying Variables of Espresso
Researchers have discovered we’re able to detect incredibly subtle changes in strength, so small changes in any of the variants of espresso can make a massive difference in the intensity and viscosity.
What are those variables, you ask? There are dozens, but we want to focus on three; yield, temperature, and time.
The yield of the espresso is like a see-saw, except much more difficult to balance. When we talk about yield, we mean the weight of the espresso that’s in your cup, defined by the amount of water pushed through the grinds. Higher yield means more in the cup but a much weaker version of espresso. Less yield means a more concentrated and higher-strength beverage.
The excellent yield is a matter of taste. If you want a strong brew, you’ll likely opt for a lower yield, but if you crave a larger volume drink, you may enjoy a higher yield. And yes, espresso aficionado, there is a perfect balance between the two.
Temperature changes of only a few degrees can make a massive difference in the taste of your espresso. Through the years, trial and error have taught us the best espresso extraction temperature is between 85 and 95 degrees. Higher temperatures increase the extraction rate, which changes the balance of flavors. For instance, changing your espresso machine, only a few degrees may add more fruity or sweet notes to your coffee or add bitterness or more roasted flavors. It’s hard to know what temperature variations will create your perfect cup, so you’ll have to drink lots and lots of delicious espresso to find your favorite.
When you only have to wait 40 seconds or so for pure bliss, you may not think time is of much importance, but it can make or break the taste of espresso. Generally, the faster brews have a more acidic taste, and slower espresso will have more sweetness.
The time that it takes for espresso to brew is dependent on the size of your coffee grind and the pressure and flow rate of your espresso machine. Smaller grind sizes mean a tighter packed basket and a slower flow. Conversely, larger grind size is looser and faster. An excellent coffee grinder can control this. For pressure, remember that lower pressure equals slower espresso brews. Most espresso machines have settings to allow you complete control of the pressure.
The Many Flavors of Espresso
Espresso doesn’t have a different taste profile than drip coffee. Still, it can be perceived as more intense because there are many more flavor compounds hitting your senses simultaneously, and your palate interprets them in different ways than drip coffee. And these flavors make for an endless menu of coffee delights to try.
We’ve covered variables that make for an ideal cup of espresso, and now it’s time to create some perfectly crafted espresso beverages.
Ristretto, which means ‘limited’ in Italian, is a short, strong shot of espresso with a small extraction and lower yield. Ristretto drinks use half the amount of water as the typical espresso shot and take less time, resulting in a less bitter taste.
Espresso with Milk
The most common category at your typical chain coffee shop, espresso with milk, come in several types:
- Macchiato or espresso with a dash of steamed milk spooned onto the surface
- Gibraltar, or a 1:1 ratio of espresso and steamed milk
- Flat White, or espresso with steamed milk
- Latte, or a 6:1 ratio of steamed milk to espresso
- Cafe au Lait, or a long black and americano drink with a splash of cold milk
- Cappuccinos, or a 30-ml espresso and aerated milk foam
While each of these is similar, they all end up with unique flavor profiles and a great variety of
Espresso with Water
This combination isn’t just watered-down coffee. Espresso with water, known as Americanos and Long Black, has the volume of a cup of drip coffee, but with the intense and rich flavors that come with espresso brewing. Most espresso machines have a hot water valve to make espresso with water, but a word of warning: the water coming from these machines can be extremely hot – sometimes more than 100 degrees. Check your machine to decrease the temperature or add hot water slowly.
Espresso with Ice
Creating an iced drink with espresso can be a challenge. Ice for these types of drinks has to be extra frozen. For instance, if you freeze water in an ice tray, it may be just below freezing. If you keep ice in a deep freezer before adding it to your espresso, it will be just right.
When you’re making iced espresso beverages, we think you’ll want a bit of extra sweetness, even if you’re not accustomed to adding sugar to your drink because your taste buds are less sensitive to sweetness in cold beverages. Unsweetened iced beverages may come across as too bitter.
Iced beverages will need larger cups to not only hold the extra volume but to account for melting ice – although you might drink it too quickly to let that happen! Now you can enjoy the delights of espresso in the middle of summer.
Espresso is more than a way to perk you up in the morning; it’s an art form with a beautiful and tasty history. Go forth and brew your perfect cup!