The Home Guide to Espresso 101: What is Espresso?

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So, you've finally heard about (or tried) it. What actually is espresso? It's time to begin a fun journey in learning all about this mystery coffee.

Espresso? That small, bitter drink? Something from Italy? What is espresso and how is it different from coffee? Many coffee aficionados themselves aren’t quite sure – and when asked, start to sprout technical terms to hide behind. By the end of this article, you’ll have a clear understanding of this beloved coffee. Let’s dive right into it!

Table Of Contents

What is Espresso?

You can brew coffee through many ways. A French Press, a Moka pot, a drip coffee maker, etc.. Espresso, also called a “short black”, is a type of coffee brewed in a specific way. How?

“Espresso, simply put, is finely-ground coffee that is extracted under high pressure and hot water.”

Let’s break it down a bit more into the keywords we’ve used. 

Espresso vs Coffee: What’s the Difference?

As mentioned, espresso is a type of coffee. All espresso is coffee, but not all coffee is espresso. What differentiates espresso from regular coffee?

Grind Size

You can grind whole coffee beans to different sizes. For example, if you’re brewing using a French Press, you’d go for a large grind size. If it’s a pour-over, you’d use a medium-sized grind. For espresso, the grind size is usually much smaller or finer. Why is that, you ask? That leads us into our next point.

Grind size of french press vs pour-over vs espresso

Pressure

When you pour hot water into a coffee maker, it takes several minutes for the water to seep into the ground-up coffee. The water takes its time, absorbing all the lovely flavours, before dripping into your cup. 

Espresso, on the other-hand, requires near-boiling water to blast through the ground coffee at an incredibly high pressure. It typically takes 30 seconds to brew. 

The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCA) sets that water pressure at 9 bars. That’s about 130psi, or the water pressure of 300 feet below the sea!

Because the pressure is so high, water is forced through the coffee grounds very quickly. That’s why the grind size has to be fine enough, so the water can still absorb the flavours. Otherwise, the water will just pass through it.  

a diagram illustrating what is espresso

Espresso from Home

Professional espresso machines are a necessity for brewing espresso. Don’t confuse them with normal coffee makers. Inside espresso machines are boilers to heat the water, as well as powerful pumps to force the water out at high pressure. Some cafe machines can brew 8 cups of espresso at once.

If you’re looking to make proper espresso at home, you’ll need to invest in a home-sized espresso machine. These also come with the essential boilers and pumps needed to brew your coffee. They’re just smaller and more compact for the kitchen. 

In the next article of our home espresso guide, I’ll teach you the secrets you need to know on how to brew amazing espresso right from home. It will be linked below, but if you want to jump ahead to it, click here: The Home Guide to Espresso Part 2.

Parts of an Espresso

One portion of espresso that comes out from the espresso machine is called a “shot”, which is about 1 oz, or 30ml. Just like the shots you’re already no doubt familiar with (wink, wink), espresso shots come in small, tiny cups. They’re called “demitasse”. 

The anatomy of an espresso shot in a demitasse cup

When properly brewed, espresso will have a beautiful, layered look. Each coloured part plays a vital role in bringing out the best taste of this coffee.

Crema

This is the “crown jewel” of an espresso shot. It is a beautiful, golden layer of foam that rests atop the shot. It is the symbol of perfectly brewed espresso. This is something unique to espresso – no other coffee brewing methods will get you this. It’s formed by the coffee oils interacting under the high pressure. We’re not going to go into the detailed science, but if you’re interested, here’s an amazing animated explainer video.

Good crema gives a lovely aroma to the shot. When mixed with the rest of the espresso, it balances the delicate flavours. On its own, though, depending on the roast of the beans, it can taste quite acidic. Which is why some people opt not to drink it. We’ll talk more about this later.

Body

This is the main part that gives taste and flavour to an espresso. The richness, sweetness and any fruity notes will be brought out here.

Heart

The bottommost layer hides the strongest notes. The bitterness and acidity needed to round off the espresso sink into this darkest part.

How Do I Drink Espresso?

Espresso has a reputation for being extremely bitter or sour. Is it though? Well, compared to a regular mug of drip coffee, one shot of espresso is far stronger. You’ve essentially compressed one entire mug of coffee into a teeny tiny demitasse cup. For the uninitiated, this will be an overload of flavours on their palette. So, it isn’t their fault they can’t taste anything but the bitterness. 

Garrett Oden from Javapresse sums it up perfectly:

“Well brewed espresso is ripe with clear flavours. The acidity is strong, yet balanced. A slight bitterness rounds out the acidity and creates low notes. Rich aromas rise from the shot into your nostrils and retronasal passages in the back of your throat. If brewed particularly well, a satisfying sweetness pulls the whole shot together.”

Too many people give up after taking one shot of espresso. Truth is, it takes time to develop and refine your palate to be able to taste the complex flavours of espresso. 

So what is the best way to drink it? Do not gulp it like you would a shot of alcohol. Espresso is a drink you should savour slowly.

  1. Lift the cup and take in the aroma. Let your imagination and memories run. What does the aroma remind you of? Any particular fruit or nut? 
  2. Decide what you want to do with the crema. Some people scoop it out. Others stir it in. I recommend you give the whole espresso – crema, body and all – a good swirl in the cup. 
  3. Sip it. Take small, slow sips. Let the liquid run across the whole of your mouth. This is where the flavour shines through. Again, what does it remind you of?
  4. Pause. Well-brewed espresso has a delectable aftertaste. It can be different from the flavour itself. It usually lingers for a bit at the back of your mouth. This is called the “finish”. 

Remember, this is my personal guide. Everyone has a preference. If you find yourself enjoying it, hey, you’ve done it!

Is Espresso Healthy?

Caffeine in Espresso vs Coffee

If you are comparing espresso to coffee directly, with the exact same volume, then yes. Espresso has a higher caffeine content at 60-80mg of caffeine per ounce. Regular drip coffee has 10-20mg of caffeine per ounce. 

But, remember those tiny demitasse cups that espresso shots come in? That’s all you’re drinking. When it comes to regular filter or drip coffee, people drink them in mugs. So a 12 oz coffee from the coffee maker is going to contain much more caffeine, at around 180mg. 

In a nutshell, compared with the same volume, espresso has more caffeine. In a regular, everyday drinking size, coffee has a higher caffeine level. 

An espresso in a demitasse versus a regular mug of filter coffee

Health Benefits of Espresso

As long as you consume in moderation, there are an abundance of health benefits that come from drinking espresso. Reports from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada recommend 400mg of caffeine a day or less. Let’s take a look at some of them:

  1. Drinking espresso helps reduce your daily caffeine intake. If you’re trying to cut down on caffeine in your daily diet, switching from regular coffee to espresso can help. Espresso does have a lower caffeine level in a typical serving. Or, you could try espresso-based drinks such as an americano or a cappuccino. 
  1. It helps increase one’s attention span. In your brain, dopamine is a type of chemical that is produced to help with memory, mood and motivation. Espresso stimulates the brain to produce more dopamine, so you get a more alert mindset. But be careful, if you drink too much, your brain could be over-stimulated. This brings about the opposite side effects: drowsiness and delayed reactions. Not quite the original goal of your morning coffee.
  1. Espresso is great for weight loss. 3 calories. That’s it! Compared to other types of syrup-based or milk coffees, one shot of espresso is basically negligible in your calorie count. Just don’t add sugar. 
  1. Acts as a vitamin supplement. Magnesium and potassium are important vitamins in an adult’s diet. Yet, most people fall just shy of the recommended daily dose. Coffee has small amounts of these vital vitamins. Now, it won’t stand as a substitute for fruits and vegetables, but a shot or two will help close that gap a bit. 

Cautions

Unfortunately, espresso is not all sunshine and rainbows. Here are a few downsides to it:

  1. Insomnia. You might be able to down a mug of coffee before bed and still doze off. But espresso is far stronger and more concentrated. This could keep you up all night. So try to avoid drinking it right before bed.
  1. Pregnant ladies have to sacrifice a lot, including espresso. Especially during the first trimester, avoid drinking this stimulant, as it can pass into the baby’s bloodstream. Babies have a far harder time getting caffeine out from their system than adults. 

As a general guide, consume in moderation. Don’t go overboard with espresso!

Types of Espresso Drinks

Espresso can be served in quite a few different ways. Let’s look at them, along with an illustrative diagram. Bear in mind these are strictly espresso only. For espresso-based coffees with added water, milk or cream, have a look at Part 3 of this guide series, where you’ll be introduced to the full range of espresso coffees served in cafes.

Types of espresso drinks, such as ristretto, lungo and doppio

Espresso

This is basically what we’ve covered in this article. It’s a small, 1 oz (30ml) drink brewed in around 30 seconds, from about 8-10g of ground coffee. Bear these parameters in mind, because you’ll need them to understand the other espresso variants.

Ristretto

From the word “restricted” in Italian, a Ristretto is basically a smaller version of an espresso. It is usually brewed for around 20 seconds, and produces around 20ml of liquid in the cup. The dosage of coffee remains the same (8-10g). But, less water flows through it, resulting in a smaller shot. 

When brewing regular espresso, the darker, more bitter notes are extracted last. Because a ristretto is stopped short, these flavours are not extracted. So, ristrettos will generally taste sweeter than an espresso. 

Lungo

A lungo (a.k.a. “A long shot”) is the opposite of a ristretto. It uses the same dosage of coffee as an espresso, but with more water flowing through the grinds this time round. It takes longer to brew, and as a result, you get more liquid and a more diluted taste.

Doppio

Double the coffee dosage, double the espresso extracted. A doppio is a double shot of espresso, at around 2 oz (60ml) of liquid, from 16-20g of ground coffee. 

Most cafes will serve double shots in their coffees, especially if it is a latte or a cappuccino. This helps prevent the flavour of the coffee from being drowned out when combined with milk. 

Wrapping it up!

Congratulations – you now know all about espresso! It’s just a different type of coffee. Let’s take a look at our definition one last time:

“Espresso, simply put, is finely-ground coffee that is extracted under high pressure and hot water.”

Ready to give an espresso a try?

This is the first article in our Home Guide to Espresso series. Ready to move on to the practical session? It’s time to learn how to pull your first espresso shot in The Home Guide to Espresso Part 2: How to Make Espresso.

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