All about Espresso
Short black. Cappuccino. Macchiato. Long black. Flat white. Piccolo. These coffee drinks all have something in common: espresso. Espresso is to the art of making coffee what concrete is to building a house, or a blank canvas is to a painter: the foundation.
That 30ml shot – or 60ml in the case of a double – is what sets a quality cup of coffee apart. It’s a small amount of liquid, but a highly technical process goes into it – and the result, when done properly, is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Here’s everything you need to know about espresso.
What is Espresso?
Espresso – pronounced es-press-oh – differs from regular coffee due to the brewing method, which was invented in Venice, Italy in the early 20th century. It’s believed to have been created by a man named Luigi Bezzera, who wanted to speed up the process of brewing coffee. He discovered that involving water pressure in the process, as opposed to dripping hot water over ground coffee, not only cut the brew time in half to 30 seconds, but created a much stronger coffee drink.
A shot of espresso is a concentrated form of coffee that’s thick in texture, with a layer of “crema” on top – a foam formed when air bubbles mix with the coffee’s oils. On average a single serving of espresso contains 75 milligrams of caffeine, with up to 185 milligrams in a double shot. Espresso tastes like a magnified version of coffee, with a unique balance of bitter, acidic, sweet and toasty flavours. The exact flavour profile varies depending on the coffee beans used.
How to make Espresso
The best way to make espresso is by using an espresso machine – those beautiful hissing, steaming things you see pumping out creamy shot after shot in coffee shops. The first step is to grind the coffee beans, whether single-origin or a unique blend; approximately nine grams for a single serving and 18 for a double.
The finely ground coffee is then packed and tamped into a portafilter; the ground coffee should be as straight as possible to get the best result. Once the portafilter is placed into the espresso machine, the magic happens. Nine bars of pressure (that’s equivalent to 240 kilograms of weight) push hot water through the beans, which is called the “pull”. For a quality shot, the pull should last around 25 to 30 seconds.
Espresso machines don’t use a paper filter, which means all of the flavour-filled oils reach the cup; these oils give espresso a thick body. The high ratio of coffee-to-water means the coffee flavours are bold; espresso machines use a 1:25 coffee-to-water ratio, compared to the 1:15 ratio used for regular coffee.
Espresso can also be made at home – and you don’t need an espresso machine to do it! Three popular at-home methods involve using a portable espresso maker, a moka pot or aeropress. The moka pot is a stove-top coffee maker that brews coffee by passing boiling water, pressurised by steam, through ground coffee. It makes a very strong dark roast coffee that’s not technically espresso due to its lack of crema, but is close to it.
An aeropress is a bit like an espresso maker, drip coffee maker and French press all rolled into one. Again, the result is no match to espresso from an espresso machine, but it’s a leap above regular coffee.
How to drink Espresso
Espresso is best enjoyed plain, as it is in its home country of Italy where it’s commonly served in specially made espresso cups, called demitasse cups, either as a one-ounce shot or as a double shot, known as “doppio”. Espresso can also be made long, or “lungo”, using the same amount of coffee but double the amount of water, or “ristretto”, which uses less water. Despite being called espresso shots, espresso should be sipped slowly so all the layers of flavour can be appreciated. Some espresso lovers might choose to add sugar, or pair their specialty coffee with a sweet biscuit.
Today, espresso is the foundation of a number of popular coffee drinks bought at cafes and made in homes around the world: in lattes, iced coffees, mochas, mixed with flavoured syrup – you name it. While technicalities around milk quantities, temperatures, steaming methods and pouring all dictate how good a cup of coffee is, the foundation – the espresso – is undoubtedly the star of the show.
Typically, espresso is made with dark roast beans; beans that have been cracked twice under 230 degrees Celsius. Dark roast removed the acidity by releasing trapped gas. While light and medium roasts can be used, lighter roasts can be overpowering in espresso.
Espresso always uses finely ground coffee beans, the finest grind size of any brew method apart from Turkish coffee. This exposes more surface area for the hot water to extract flavour during the pull.