What is espresso? Espresso is a type of coffee that is made by forcing a small amount of nearly boiling water through finely-ground coffee at about 9 bars of pressure.
The most popular espresso drinks are the americano, cappuccino and flat white.
These three drinks might have different recipes, but what they all have in common is espresso.
In this article, we’ll discuss what an espresso is, what it tastes and looks like, and what it’s used for. Click the arrow to jump to the section you’re interested in.
What is espresso?
Espresso is made by forcing a small amount of nearly boiling water through finely-ground coffee at about 9 bars of pressure.
Espresso has a unique taste and appearance that sets it apart from other types of coffee. It’s usually served as a 1 oz. or 2 oz. drink. When served this way, it is the most concentrated type of coffee you can drink.
Espresso can be served up in many variations. In its most popular form, cappuccino, it’s served with steamed milk.
Learn how to make espresso, or if you don’t have a machine, learn how to make espresso without a machine.
Due to somewhat misleading marketing, it’s easy to believe that espresso is a type of coffee bean, or that it is a roast profile. This is not the case.
While espresso is usually made from dark-roasted coffee beans, it can be made with light or medium roasts.
Dark-roasted coffee is usually used for espresso. The reason is that when ground at a fine level, dark roasted coffee dissolves much easier.
This means that you can extract more flavour from dark roasted beans in less time than if using lighter roasts.
With regards to the coffee’s origin, espresso coffee can be made from either arabica or robusta coffee beans. In Italy, espresso is actually made with a blend of the two.
Arabica provides delicate, sweet and earthy flavour notes to the espresso. Depth is provided by the robusta’s bitterness and woody notes. Robusta coffee beans also produce more crema on top of an espresso.
So, when you see “espresso beans” on the packaging, this usually just means that the beans are good for making espresso. Although, they can be used with other coffee-making methods.
What does espresso taste like?
A well-made espresso will have an intense aroma with hints of chocolate and caramel notes. It could also have hints of toffee, caramel, nuts, pepper and vanilla.
Compared to alternative brewing methods like pour over coffee and cold brew, espresso as a much stronger taste.
Let’s look at the three flavours that give espresso its distinctive taste: bitterness, acidity and sweetness.
Bitterness is a flavour that adds complexity and depth to food and coffee. It’s also one of the first things people identify when they drink an espresso.
Bitterness might have a bad reputation, but it’s also a quintessential part of the espresso experience. For some, it even becomes the expected flavour we expect from our coffees.
The bitterness in espresso is brought out by the high concentration of coffee solids in an espresso shot. Caffeine also has a very acrid and bitter taste, and tasting it in this concentrated form accentuates that.
Acidity is what gives us that little tingle on the tongue when we eat a lemon or pineapple. In coffee, the acidity is what gives a well-made espresso its crisp and vibrant flavour.
Too much acidity would leave us puckering our mouths as if we’d just eaten a lemon. Too little acidity and the coffee would taste dull and flat.
The third element to an espresso shot is sweetness. Sweetness helps to balance out the bitterness and acidity in the espresso.
The sweetness in espresso is a result of the beans cultivation, the roasting process and the extraction of the espresso.
Getting the sweetness out of the coffee is part of the art of being a barista, and that’s why sometimes coffee enthusiasts might look down on those who add sugar to their coffee.
If you’ve ever seen an espresso being extracted, you’ll know that it’s one of the most beautiful sights in the world. I won’t get into it here, but do yourself a favour if you haven’t seen it yet and ask your local barista if you can peep behind the counter.
After the life-changing experience of watching the espresso extraction, you’ll notice that two layers were produced. They are the crema and the espresso body.
While it might be tempting to taste it, crema on its own has a very sharp bitterness. So it’s advised (and also highly debated) that you stir it in with the rest of the espresso before drinking.
Crema is the light-brown layer that sits on top of the espresso. It’s what gives our espressos their signature golden colour.
Like mayonnaise, crema is an emulsification. When an espresso is extracted, crema is created by the mixture of tiny air bubbles in the coffee beans, water-soluble parts from the ground coffee beans, and carbon dioxide gas that’s released.
The liquid part of the espresso is made up of dissolved coffee solids, gases, and insoluble coffee solids. These were extracted by the hot water from the ground coffee.
This is the part of the espresso that has most of the wonderful tastes and aromas that we’ve come to associate with a brilliant tasting espresso.
What are espressos used for?
Espresso can be drunk on its own or used as the base for many well-known types of coffee. We’ll split those up into espresso drinks and milk drinks.
Before we get into that, let’s talk about brew ratio. This refers to how much ground coffee is used and how much drinkable coffee we get out of it.
For example, a normal espresso uses a 1:2 ratio. Meaning that if we use 18 grams of ground coffee, we’re getting 32 grams (about 1 oz.) of espresso.
This ratio affects how the espresso tastes. If we use more water, more coffee solids are dissolved. This usually results in a more bitter and diluted espresso.
If we use less water, it results in a more concentrated, and sometimes sweeter espresso.
There are four main espresso drinks. They are the ristretto, the espresso, the lungo and the americano.
Ristretto is to espresso what espresso is to coffee; super contracted. In other words, ristretto is a concentrated espresso.
The brew ratio for ristretto is usually 1:1 – 1:1.5, meaning that less water is used. So the ristretto is more concentrated and should also be a lot sweeter than a normal espresso.
The brew ratio for espresso is usually 1:2. It has the perfect balance between bitterness, acidity and sweetness.
Lungo is pretty much the opposite of ristretto and the brew ratio ranges from 1:2.5 – 1:4.
With lungo, the extraction uses more water.
When coffee is extracted, the sweeter coffee solids are dissolved first. Lungo coffee is usually stronger in taste and more bitter than a regular espresso.
An americano is simply an espresso that’s added to a cup of hot water.
This gives a more diluted espresso for those that find espresso too concentrated. I prefer an americano simply because it lasts longer.
For all the upcoming drinks, espresso is used as the base and either steamed or foamed milk is added.
Cappuccinos are made by putting frothed milk into an espresso. It usually consists of one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk and one-third froth.
There are many variations for this drink, which include adding chocolate, vanilla or cinnamon flavourings to the espresso.
It’s made by steaming a small amount of milk and adding that to espresso. The ratio is about one-quarter espresso, three quarters steamed milk.
According to Starbucks, this drink was created in Australia during the 80s but has become increasingly popular around Europe over the years.
This drink contains five parts steamed milk to one part espresso. This is perfect for those wanting a cappuccino or flat white but would prefer it to be diluted a bit.
A macchiato is an espresso with foam on top. The ratio is usually 1:1, which means that the same amount of espresso as milk goes into it. Macchiatos are served in espresso cups.
A cortado is a drink that uses espresso shots as the base. Then, it is mixed with what is usually an equal amount of steamed milk. The ratios are usually 1:1 or 1 to 2.
How do you make espresso?
To make an espresso, baristas need an espresso machine and the perfect balance between dosage, grind size and brew time.
These three are interdependent. If we change one, it will affect the others.
Usually, what makes a good espresso is a very fine grind size, 17-18 grams of ground coffee and 25 to 35-second extraction. This is all very dependent on the coffee, grinder and machine though.
This is the time from pushing the start button on the espresso machine until we push stop.
For a regular espresso, the brew time should be 25-35 seconds.
The time it takes to push a fixed amount of water through coffee tells you how much resistance there is. This time is affected by the grind size and dosage.
When trying to get the perfect espresso extraction, baristas look at the brew time to see how effectively they’ve made a change to the dosage and/or grind size.
This is the amount of ground coffee used for the espresso. The part of the espresso machine that you put the coffee into is called the basket.
The basket tells you the maximum dosage, and you should never go above that. Usually, one gram less is a good starting point as that gives a bit of wiggle-room.
When extracting espresso, the dosage impacts the brew time. If there is less ground coffee in the basket, the water will pass through quickly. If there is too much ground coffee, the water will pass through slowly.
Finding the right balance is difficult. The rule of thumb is to keep the dosage consistent, and rather experiment with the grind size.
The grind size refers to how big or small we grind the roasted coffee beans.
If the pieces are big, they’re referred to as coarse. If they are small, they’re referred to as fine.
For espresso, the grind size should be very fine. This lets the water extract more coffee solubles in 25-30 seconds than if they were coarse.
Picture sand in one glass and marbles in another glass. Then picture water being poured over the top of both. In which glass will the water travel faster? That’s right, the glass with the marbles.
Because there is more space between the marbles, the water can flow through faster. This is the same that happens with ground coffee.
If the coffee is too fine, our brew time will increase. This means that the water spends more time in contact with the coffee grounds and extracts more coffee solids. This coffee will be very unbalanced and bitter.
If the coffee is too coarse, the brew time decreases. This decreased contact time with the coffee grounds means that the water can’t extract enough coffee solids. The resulting espresso will be very sharp and acidic.
Espresso is what we all need to power through the day. It’s what keeps us all going and what fuels our most creative thinkers. And, it tastes amazing, too.
Before you go, read our article on the differences between arabica and robusta coffee. Or read how to make cold brew coffee.