Espresso is a beautiful and complex beverage. For many coffee lovers, the essence of great coffee is best captured in the creamy, sweet syrup of a perfectly pulled shot of espresso.
The popularity of espresso in most parts of the world, though, has dwindled under the onslaught of giant, super-sweet, milky drinks.
A big part of the decline in espresso’s popularity is due to some fundamental misconceptions about this coffee preparation method. Mainstream coffee culture has painted the espresso as a bitter, noxious potion with no purpose other than to deliver large amounts of caffeine quickly. When people are brave enough to order one in a coffee shop or restaurant, they often get a poorly made shot that reinforces this negative image.
A well-prepared espresso should be sweet, smooth, and creamy, with just a hint of pleasant bitterness.
To gain a better understanding of this much-maligned coffee drink, let’s take a look at some of the most common questions people ask about espresso.
What is Espresso?
The most common misconceptions about espresso are that it’s made from a specific type of coffee bean or that it’s a label for a particular style of roasting.
The definition of espresso has nothing to do with the origin or type of coffee bean, and it’s not a roasting style either (we’ll talk more about this in a second).
In reality, what makes espresso different from any other coffee is how it’s prepared. The official Specialty Coffee Association’s definition of espresso goes like this:
“Espresso is a 25–35ml (. 85–1.2 ounce [×2 for double]) beverage prepared from 7–9 grams (14–18 grams for a double) of coffee through which clean water of 195–205F (90.5–96.1C) has been forced at 9–10 atmospheres of pressure, and where the grind of the coffee is such that the brew time is 20–30 seconds.”
While that’s great for professionals in a lab setting or a high-end cafe, all you need to know is that espresso is a tiny, highly concentrated coffee beverage that’s brewed under high pressure in a short amount of time.
The most important thing to notice about the SCA definition of espresso is that it doesn’t mention the kind of coffee used, the roast, or any requirements other than how the drink is prepared.
What’s the Difference Between an Espresso Roast and a Drip Roast?
Coffee roasting is a diverse and complicated process. The number of different roasting styles and methods is limited only by the number of different people who roast coffee.
Most coffee consumers associate roasting with terms like dark, light, or bold. The problem is that none of these terms have any objective meaning.
There is no accepted definition of what counts as a “dark” roast or a “French” roast.
Even more meaningless is the commonly-used espresso roast” applied to coffee that is roasted very dark.
Espresso is a preparation method, not a roast, so this term is utterly meaningless. Worse, it has sown confusion among the coffee-drinking public and caused people to associate espresso with dark roasting.
The darker a coffee is roasted the more bitter it will taste. When coffee is roasted extremely dark, as with most so-called espresso roasts,” it will taste just like what it is: charred wood fibers.
In reality, the best espresso is made using medium-roasted, or even lightly roasted beans. At lighter roast levels, more of the oils and sugars are preserved in the coffee and this leads to a sweeter and more balanced espresso with a pleasing syrupy body.
What Are the Steps to Making Espresso?
The first step to making espresso is to purchase an espresso machine. Unless you have serious engineering skills and access to specialized materials, there’s no way around it.
A good home espresso machine can run you more than $3,000, but there are a number of good options on the market these days.
Of course, owning an espresso machine will not make you an expert barista. Pulling great shots takes time, patience, and perseverance. Some people spend decades perfecting the craft of espresso extraction.
To get you started on your path to espresso mastery, let’s take a look at the basic steps to pulling a shot of espresso.
Espresso is made using a very fine grind, but there’s more to it than just fineness.
Commercial espresso grinders (and some high-end home grinders) use infinitely adjustable grind settings. This allows the barista to dial in an extremely fine-tuned grind coarseness that’s necessary to make espresso extract properly.
If your ground coffee particles are too big, the water will flow through quickly and you’ll get thin, over-extracted brown water in your cup.
If your coffee particles are too small, the water will be blocked entirely or you’ll get just a few drops of black oil with a taste like the floor of a coal-fired furnace.
The amount of coffee you use is just as important as the quality of your grind.
A standard shot of espresso according to the Specialty Coffee Association is made using 7-9 grams of ground coffee. Of course, these days almost everyone pulls double shots, so you’ll usually put 14-18 grams of coffee in your basket.
Using more coffee makes the resulting espresso stronger, and less coffee makes the brew weaker. A stronger double shot espresso is referred to as doppio, while a a lighter espresso is called a ristretto.
Where things get tricky is that the grind and dose are closely tied. If you change your dose even a tiny bit, you’ll also have to change the grind to maintain the same results.
Tamping is the process of compressing the coffee grounds into the portafilter basket (the removable filter on the espresso machine). It’s important to make sure that the water flows through the coffee bed evenly to extract all the coffee to the same level. Tamping is crucial because it levels out the coffee and presses it into a uniform “puck” to help even out the flow.
The tamp is one of the hardest things to learn as a barista. Even some high-profile professional baristas have not mastered proper tamping.
Even tamping is such a challenge that a few companies have invented automatic tamping machines to help baristas get an even extraction. These machines are great for consistency, but they take some of the art and individuality out of the espresso-making process.
Espresso extraction is beautiful and complicated.
When it goes right, the coffee should fall from the tips of the spouts on the portafilter in a smooth, even stream about the consistency of warm honey.
Brewing a shot of espresso takes about 30 seconds and during that time there’s a lot to pay attention to. At the beginning of the extraction, the streams will be dark and oily. A few seconds in, the streams change to a nut-brown or golden-brown, creamy-looking flow. As the extraction completes (the good part anyway), the streams will begin to change to a lighter almost yellow color.
Stopping your extraction at just the right instant makes the difference between a perfectly sweet, balanced shot and a bitter, over-extracted, watery mess.
The exact colors and consistencies will be different for every coffee bean, but a good espresso generally will have the following visual characteristics in the cup:
- A thick, golden-brown or red-brown layer foam called crema.
- Flecks of darker oils on top of the crema.
- A viscous consistency that sticks to the sides of the cup when swirled.
If you see little spots of white or very light brown in the middle of your cup, it probably means that you’ve gone too far. The white spots are a sign of over-extraction and usually indicate that your espresso will taste bitter.