Most people outside of Italy view espresso as something to be tolerated rather than enjoyed.
The typical espresso served in mainstream cafes – or prepared at home in consumer-grade coffee makers – resembles a small, poorly brewed coffee more than it does an actual espresso.
When brewed correctly, espresso is a thick, creamy beverage that’s sweet, bright, and complex in flavor.
In Italy, where espresso was invented and where coffee lovers still consume it in its original form, there are three main style categories of espresso served in cafes:
- Espresso Normale uses about 8 grams of coffee and brews in about 30 seconds to make 1 ounce of coffee.
- Espresso Lungo is made using the same amount of coffee but brewing for about 1 minute to produce a beverage that can be as large as 5 ounces.
- Espresso Ristretto is brewed using the same amount of ground coffee as a normale but produces a beverage that’s half the size: about half an ounce.
The difference in flavor between these three traditional espresso methods depends a lot on the coffee that’s used, the barista’s skill level, and the machine. However, some general characteristics correspond to each of the different styles.
Normale espresso produces a drink that’s balanced between bright, sweet, and bitter flavors and has a silky texture. Lungo is lighter-bodied and tends toward the bitter end of the flavor spectrum due to its longer brewing time.
Ristretto espresso is a highly concentrated, heavy-bodied, oily shot of intense flavors. Some view the intensity of flavor in a ristretto as the best presentation of everything good in coffee. Others believe that the intensity washes out nuance and ruins the complexity of an otherwise great coffee.
Whatever your thoughts on its intensity, the ristretto has played a significant role in the development of third wave coffee culture. Nevertheless, most coffee drinkers are in the dark as to what makes a ristretto a ristretto and how it’s different from a standard espresso.
What is Ristretto?
Espresso ristretto has been around for a long time in Italy but it was made fashionable in the U.S. in the late 1980s by David Schomer, owner of the legendary Espresso Vivace on Broadway in Seattle.
Schomer’s work helped to bring the art and science of espresso preparation into the conversation among specialty coffee professionals and led to an explosion of innovation. Though parts of it are a bit outdated, his book on espresso techniques is still a fixture in roasteries, specialty cafes, and SCA training campuses around the world to this day.
Things have changed a bit in the coffee world since the ’80s. As a result, the ristretto has fallen out of the limelight since it’s heyday at Schomer’s Vivace. A major study published in January 2020 suggests that the idea of brewing espresso strong is not a good way to get the best flavors from it.
The problem with studies like this is they ignore the fundamental truth of coffee quality: it’s all about preference. To suggest that we’ve been brewing coffee incorrectly all this time implies that there is some ideal “correct” way for coffee to taste.
The reality is that if you like the taste of your espresso, then you’re doing it right. No one can tell you what style or method of coffee brewing is “correct” because individual tastes define coffee’s quality.
So what does ristretto espresso taste like?
What Does Ristretto Espresso Taste Like?
Ristretto in Italian coffee lingo means “restricted.” This is a reference to the amount of water allowed to flow through the coffee grounds.
Restricting the water but keeping the brewing time the same as a regular espresso changes the way the coffee is extracted and shifts the flavor balance toward sweet, acidic, and syrupy flavors.
While the intensity of certain flavors is higher in ristretto, the overall extraction of the coffee is lower. This means that the more difficult-to-extract flavoring compounds in coffee (heavily caramelized sugars and bitter alkaloids) are not as concentrated in a ristretto as they might be in a regular shot of espresso.
The result is a sweet, bright, syrupy espresso shot with very little bitterness. The downside is that a reducing bitterness also takes away some complexity, meaning a ristretto may taste somewhat one-dimensional compared to a regular shot.
Why Cafes Rarely Serve a True Ristretto
Except for a very few high-end shops, almost no cafes outside of Italy serve authentic ristretto espresso. Instead, when you order a ristretto, you’ll likely be served a regular shot that’s been over-dosed, poorly tamped, or under-extracted.
There are two closely-related reasons for the absence of ristretto on cafe menus.
The Popularity of Milk Drinks
A side-effect of shifting the balance toward the sweet and bright end of the flavor spectrum is that ristretto espresso contains less total coffee solids. This means that, though the perceived flavor in a straight ristretto is more intense, the total amount of flavoring compounds in the cup is less than in a regular shot.
Almost no one drinks straight shots of espresso these days. Most mainstream coffee drinkers prefer lattes, cappuccinos, cortados, or other milk-based espresso drinks. Because of this, cafes set up their machines and service routines to pull espresso shots that are ideal for making milk drinks.
Since a ristretto contains less coffee material than a standard espresso, its flavor will be lost when added to a big drink like a latte.
Practical Challenges of Grinding for Ristretto
You might think, “why don’t they just pull ristrettos for straight shots and regular espresso for milk drinks?” It’s a logical solution, but the practical challenges are significant.The barista needs to grind the coffee differently to achieve the reduced shot volume of a ristretto.
Unless the cafe has two separate grinders, one for regular espresso and one for ristretto, they’ll need to adjust the grind setting every time a customer orders a ristretto. Each adjustment can take as long as a minute or two, during which the barista has to stop making drinks. Imagine how problematic this would be in a busy cafe.