What Is Espresso And How Is It Made? – The Ultimate Guide

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what is espresso

Espresso is one of the most popular ways to drink coffee in its own right and a vital part of many other coffee drinks. To truly know your coffee, you must know your espresso. But what is espresso?

While in its basic essence, that is an easy question to answer (espresso is a shot of coffee, right?), there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding the tiny drink with a big punch. Throughout this article, we’ll aim to demystify this tricky but fundamental concept.

So, What Exactly Is Espresso?

Espresso is a short shot of coffee extracted at a pressure of at least 9 BARs. It’s enjoyed alone or mixed with milk or water to create a longer drink.

Pulling the perfect espresso shot is an essential skill for the barista. Depending on your brew ratio, your shots should come out at a yield of around 30g to 40g.

Due to espresso’s pressurized nature, every element must be controlled precisely. This may seem anal, but just a second’s difference in extraction time could lead to your espresso being over-extracted and bitter. In practice, this means weighing your coffee dose, timing the extraction, and weighing the yield at the other end.

What Drinks Are Made With Espresso?

Some of the most popular coffee drinks in the world start with an espresso. Cappuccino, Latte, Flat White, the list goes on, and none would be possible without the humble espresso. These are known as “espresso-based” drinks, as opposed to those made with pour-over or immersion techniques.

The first three drinks mentioned are made with steamed milk and microfoam in varying proportions. You could add macchiatos and cortados to these. At the same time, another popular long option is the Americano or the long black, which is now referred to at many third-wave coffee establishments.

Are There Any Other Types of Espresso Shots?

There are two other types of espresso shots worth mentioning. The ristretto, which has become fairly popular in the specialty coffee world, and the lungo, which remains relatively unused. What we would traditionally refer to as an espresso could, if we’re being very specific, be referred to as an espresso normale. 

The difference lies mainly in dose and yield. The ristretto has a high dose of coffee compared to a lower yield, typically around 20g for the finished product. On the other hand, a lungo has a lower dose and a higher yield than would be normal (or normale) for espresso.

Since a ristretto ends up even more concentrated than espresso, it can be a good option in drinks with a smaller cup volume, such as a flat white.

What Is Crema?

espresso crema

Crema is the foam on top of the espresso shot that looks like the head on a pint of beer. It is formed as the water can hold more carbon dioxide when pressurized than when it hits the cup at normal atmospheric pressure. So when the coffee leaves the portafilter, the CO2 released during brewing immediately bubbles out, forming the crema.

It is a good indicator of the freshness of the coffee, as roasted coffee loses its CO2 content over time. But while its absence usually indicates a bad cup, its presence doesn’t necessarily mean a good one. 

Can You Make Espresso at Home?

While you certainly can make good espresso at home, the equipment doesn’t come cheap. There are many purported solutions, including making espresso in an AeroPress, French Press, or Moka pot, but unfortunately, these will not give you a true espresso. 

Indeed, until relatively recently, a lot of machines made for the domestic market and sold as espresso machines still failed to achieve the required pressure to make good espresso. If you are shopping for a home espresso machine, it is vital that you find one capable of pressures exceeding 9 BARs, and the closer to 15 BARs you can find in your budget, the better.

What Is the Difference Between Espresso and Filter Coffee?

We’ve already established that espresso is an intense shot of coffee brewed at high pressure. Filter coffee, on the other hand, is brewed by filtering water through the coffee. It can be split broadly into two categories; immersion techniques like French Press and pour-over ones like the Hario V60.

Each method brings out the flavor notes of the beans differently. Filter methods tend not to bring as much acidity into the cup and are usually preferred for revealing the subtler nuances of a single-origin light roast’s flavor profile. However, because of its fuller body, Espresso mixes much more evenly in milk drinks.

Which Is Stronger? Filter Coffee or Espresso?

The answer to which is stronger depends on what you mean by strength. Contrary to most people’s assumptions, there is far more caffeine in filter coffee than espresso. 

Although espresso has more caffeine per fluid ounce, a shot tends to contain around a third as much caffeine as a cup of filter coffee.

As nobody in their right mind drinks a full 7oz (200ml) cup of undiluted espresso, filter wins the strength battle on these terms.

However, if by strength you mean the intensity of flavor, then espresso would usually be considered the victor here.

What Kind of Coffee Should I Use for Espresso?

espresso beans

When considering what kind of coffee to use for espresso, there are many factors to consider. Blend or single-origin? Fine or coarse grind? Light or dark roast? These are just a few of the questions you might be asking. Ultimately a lot of it comes down to personal preference, but some absolutes should be followed to achieve a good espresso.

Probably the most important factor is the grind size. Espresso needs a very fine grind to ensure that the water doesn’t just gush through the basket and that enough extraction can occur from the larger surface area of the ground coffee. 

What Is the Best Roast Profile for Espresso?

This is very much a matter of preference, although traditionally, a darker roast has been used for espresso. Perhaps because the more you roast coffee, the less acidity ends up in your cup. It can be easier to get a balanced shot, particularly for less experienced baristas. However, this does not mean to say that you can’t create some extremely fruity and delicious shots with a light roast.

Bottom Line

So then, what is espresso? Much like the flavors that end up in the cup, the world of espresso is very complex. Hopefully, you feel a little better enlightened now than when you started reading. If you have enjoyed this post, check out our other tips and guides to learn more about coffee.

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Aidan is a former barista and coffee industry professional, turned writer and passionate home brewer. He never travels anywhere without his emergency coffee kit (hand grinder, scales, and v60).