You have seen it, you have heard of it, you may have even tasted it in disguise. And yet, there is still a mystery revolving around the one and only – espresso. For those who do not fancy coffee that much, all this espresso verve might even feel like an overreaction. But for the passionate ones, the topic is simply a delight to talk about over a cup.
Today’s article comes to shed some light on the matter of what makes espresso so special. We cover everything from origins, ways to make a flawless espresso, as well as some derived drinks.
What Is Espresso?
Your intuition might tell you that espresso is coffee. And it is certainly pointing you in the right direction. Being made from roasted coffee beans, espresso is, indeed, a type of coffee. What differentiates it from all the other variants of brews out there is the way you prepare it.
If we talk about drip coffee machines, gravity is key here for obtaining the brew. For Moka pots or French presses, some pressure impacts the way boiling water draws the coffee. When it comes to espresso, the hot water gets pressured through finely grounded beans at around 9 bars. That reduces the time needed for obtaining the brew from several minutes to about 30 seconds.
The result is a small, yet concentrated amount of flavorsome coffee with crema on top. Crema represents the brown foamy layer that appears at the surface of an espresso coffee. It is part of the coffee as well, being a result of air bubbles combining with the soluble oils of the fine ground. If you ever wondered what gives that intense, lingering touch in an espresso, you now know it is the crema.
So, an espresso (ess-press-oh) is a concentrated form of coffee, usually served in “shots.”
What Makes Espresso So Special?
We mentioned previously that espresso is a type of coffee. However, not any coffee can be an espresso. Several qualities make this caffeinated drink stand out from the crowd. So, if you are wondering what makes espresso so special, here is a list of reasons.
- Brewing method
Faster and stronger. That is not a description of a superhero, but of a super-coffee. Espresso is not only more concentrated in caffeine levels than a typical cup of java. But the way to obtain it is a lot more efficient in extracting the flavor from the grounded beans. Not to mention, the whole operation can take less than 30 seconds if you have an espresso machine. While a drip coffee machine involves slow filtering of hot water, the espresso maker does it in no time. Very hot water gets pressured through very finely grounded coffee beans. The result is more a matter of quality than quantity. Pulling an espresso shot may require a slight effort from your side, but the outcome is totally worth it.
Making espresso is still possible even without a dedicated machine. In this case, you will need to work a bit more to get a satisfying result though. Learning how to prepare an espresso without a machine can be challenging at first. But there are plenty of sources online to guide you through the process.
The secret behind a rich crema topping an espresso shot is pressure. More pressure means the water gets in contact with more of the grind and releases more flavor too. Too much pressure though can really make a mess to clean after. The standard espresso machine applies a pressure of about nine bars. To better grasp what this number means, think about pumping air into bicycle or car tires. The pressure applied there varies from 32 PSI (pounds per square inch) for car tires to up to 65-85 PSI for bike tires. When pulling an espresso, the nine-bar pressure is equivalent to about 130 PSI. That is four times more pressure needed than in the case of car tires. You can, of course, try to juggle with this factor, for the sake of experimenting. But most experts recommend the nine-bar pressure as ideal for an effective extraction. The combination of forces – the hot air pressure and the coffee puck resistance – is key to get the most of the grind.
- Extraction Time
Your standard drip coffee is usually ready in several minutes (depending on how much you brew). But an espresso gets pulled in under 30 seconds. This ensures you get the best soluble flavors out of the coffee. Less time can lead to under-extraction, where your cup has a rather sour taste. At the other end, too much time of exposing coffee to water equals over-extraction and a brew too bitter.
- Serving Size
You might be more used to a large mug with drip-coffee, maybe filled to the brim with some milk. It lasts well for a long chat with friends or while you read your morning newspaper. But for those on a rush, the serving size of an espresso fits like a velvet glove. The average cup of coffee has about 8 ounces, while an espresso shot consists of only one ounce of liquid verve. Most often, you will see espresso served in a demitasse (a small cup, dedicated to small, intense hot drinks).
- Grind Coarseness
The finer your grind, the more flavors you get to extract when pulling an espresso. In order for the oils and soluble components to make their way into your cup of coffee, contact with water is key. And as an espresso machine is very fast in the process, you need to ensure more surface of contact. If your grind is coarse, pressurized water will only reach a shallow level under the surface. But once you use a fine grind, that hot water will get straight to the essence in a matter of seconds.
When you get a mug of drip coffee, the aroma has a medium or low intensity in general. That is due to a longer contact time between coffee and hot water. The more water runs through the coffee, the more natural oils carrying the aroma fade away. But when you opt for a shot of espresso, you get a rich, intense taste. In the 30 seconds it takes to fill up a demitasse, the hot water helps extract those flavorsome oils just right. A well-made espresso has a balanced aroma, not too sweet, not too bitter. Depending on the type of roast you use, notes of chocolate or caramel might find their way into your shot as well.
- Coffee Beans
Espresso is not made of a specific type of coffee beans. You can use the beans you enjoy most, to make espresso as well as drip coffee. The quality of the beans however, does influence the final result. So when you make your decision, consider all the traits of your chosen roast. From origin to roast intensity, each processing stage can leave a mark on the delivered brew. Experienced baristas recommend using a darker roast, to obtain the ultimate espresso blend.
The more roasted the beans, the less water remains and the more intense the flavor. Thermal and chemical processes associated with roasting are both your friend and foe. A dark roast is one where the oils and soluble flavors get better extracted. If you have your own roaster at home, beware of burning the beans. While a slightly bitter espresso is delightful, a burnt one is not so appealing.
A Quick Sip Of Espresso History
The history of espresso begins, as you may expect, in Italy. The creation of a bar machine controlling the steam and water was a first step. The way they produced and served coffee changed with Angelo Moriondo‘s creation. While at the end of the 19th century, this machine could only brew in bulks, the 20th century made way for an upgrade. In 1901, the Milanese Luigi Bezzera brought some improvements and patented them. Two years later, in 1903, Desiderio Pavoni bought this patent. He also founded the La Pavoni company, manufacturing the machine at an industrial level.
Urbanization along with the tourism industry development contributed to the growth in popularity. Espresso became more than just a caffeinated drink enjoyed by Italians. It became more and more known and appreciated worldwide.
How To Make An Espresso?
Perhaps you want to develop your barista skills for a new job. Or you may do it for your own delight. Either way, knowing how to make an espresso is useful.
Having an espresso machine at home makes things a lot easier. That is because you get to control pressure and temperature better. But there are some important factors in ensuring you get the best results. For those looking to learn how to make espresso without a dedicated machine, we already have a guide. But today, let’s check the parameters and steps for making a shot of espresso like a professional.
You will need:
- about 8-10 grams of finely grounded coffee (for a single dose)
- a small porcelain/glass cup (demitasse)
- a clean and dry portafilter & basket
- a bit of patience.
You should start by heating up the cup, to reduce the risk of sudden temperature drop when you start brewing. You can rinse your demitasse with hot water.
If you have access to a grinder, preparing fresh ground coffee is preferable. This way, you will enjoy the full flavor of your favorite beans. To get the intensity and aroma desired, pick your coffee beans carefully. Once you finish grinding, measure the necessary amount for your shot. Remember to go for a fine grind size, to avoid over-extracting or under-extracting. Feel free to use a scale to determine the right amount of coffee.
Place the coffee in the portafilter and try to distribute it as evenly as possible. Creating a well-distributed coffee cake (or puck) helps you to get an even extraction. Any air pockets in the puck can lead to water channeling. Having coffee only partially exposed to hot water will impact the taste of your final shot.
Tamp well to create a straight and well-compressed coffee puck. This step is essential to avoid inconsistent extraction.
Also, remember to clean and dry the portafilter and basket before preparing the puck. A wet basket increases the coffee’s humidity level, unbalancing the brew. A portafilter that still has traces of old coffee will taint your fresh cup of java.
Once your cake is well-compressed and polished, clean excess coffee from the edges. Your portafilter should not have coffee ground on the ears, spout or top. Otherwise, these residues might end up in your cup after brewing. You should also rinse or brush the shower head, to remove any stuck left-over coffee.
Pull your espresso shot by inserting the portafilter in the group head and start brewing. Avoid delaying, as the heat can burn the surface of the coffee and lead to a less appealing flavor. Once the machine stops (or you stop it after 25 seconds), you can remove the cup.
You can serve the espresso as it is or use it as a base for other caffeinated drinks. You can serve the espresso as it is or use it as a base for other caffeinated drinks. You can have a single shot (30 ml), a doppio (double shot – 60 ml) or a ristretto (concentrated shot – 22 ml). If you want something less strong, go for a lungo (less concentrated – 60 ml) or an Americano (60 ml espresso, 90 ml hot water).
Remember to discard the coffee puck after brewing and clean the components. Rinse the basket, portafilter and shower head well. Dry them to have your espresso machine ready for another shot.
Coffeelicious Drinks Based On Espresso
The story of an espresso continues, through various mixes of it with frothed or steamed milk. Some of the most common caffeinated drinks derived from espresso are:
- Macchiato – 60 ml of brewed espresso and a dash of foamed milk
- Café Noisette – a double shot of espresso and an ounce of steamed milk.
- Mocha – a blend of 60 ml espresso, 50 ml chocolate and 30 ml steamed milk
- Latte – a double shot of espresso, 300 ml steamed milk topped with 2 ml foamed milk
- Cappuccino – equal parts (60 ml) espresso, steamed milk, foamed milk
- Affogato – a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a double shot of espresso
- Breve – 60 ml espresso with 90 ml half and half.
If you want to know more about these coffeelicious drinks, stay tuned for our next articles!