Your Definitive Guide to Espresso

Last Updated: January 21, 2023

Date Published: October 7, 2020
What exactly is an espresso? How do you drink it? Can you make it at home – and how? Discover the answers to these questions and more.
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A lot of people tend to be confused about what an espresso is, and are not exactly sure about the best way to drink it. Most people describe it as stronger than regular coffee, served in tiny cups, and has its origins from Italy.

But, what exactly is an espresso? How do you drink it? Can you make it at home – and how? Keep on reading and discover everything you need to know about this powerful drink.

What Is Espresso?

An espresso is a concentrated, full-flavored form of coffee that is served in ‘shots’. It is made by forcing pressurized hot water through finely ground coffee beans using an espresso machine.

The result is a liquid that’s stronger than coffee, topped with a crema – a brown foam that forms when air bubbles mix with the soluble oils of finely ground coffee and sits on top of a correctly pulled espresso shot. The crema adds to the rich flavor and lingering aftertaste of espresso. 

Espresso is made using the same plant as coffee. It is also grown, processed, and roasted in the same way. Any roast and origin coffee can be used to make espresso.

The only difference between coffee and espresso is in the treatment and the grind of the beans. In an espresso, the beans are ground to a finer consistency than coffee and is firmly packed before hot water is forced through using an espresso machine.

This results in a shot of espresso which can be enjoyed as-is, or it can be used to make different drinks, such as an Americano or cappuccino. 

Characteristics of Espresso

When you have a properly pulled espresso shot, you will notice that it is quite strong and very flavorful, with a thick consistency and robust taste due to the high concentration of coffee. 

Proper pulling of espresso includes using the right brewing temperature and pressure – this forces hot water through tamped coffee grounds. Also important is the fineness of the coffee grind, as well as the type of coffee grinder utilized. 

Another important factor is the freshness of the coffee beans, as well as their proper roasting and storing. The coffee beans are best ground just before pulling the espresso.

What color is espresso? There are three main parts to an espresso shot and these are the heart, body, and crema. The heart is at the bottom, while the body is in the middle and the crema floats delicately on top.

The heart should be deep brown – it holds the shot’s bitterness and provides a nice balance to the sweetness of the crema. The color of the body should be caramel brown.

Lastly, the crema is a brown foam that forms when air bubbles mix with the soluble oils of finely ground coffee and sits on top of a correctly pulled espresso shot. The crema adds to the rich flavor and lingering aftertaste of espresso. 

How to Drink Espresso

While a serving of espresso is called a ‘shot’, it is not meant to be taken in a single gulp. Instead, an espresso is meant to be sipped slowly so you can take in its rich, full flavor.

Most people enjoy a shot or double shot of espresso as-is, but others choose to add sugar or other sweeteners to it. It is sometimes served with sweet treats, like a biscotti. 

There are espresso-only drinks available, but espresso is also used to make a variety of popular coffee drinks. 

  • Espresso Only Drinks.
    There are various sizes of espresso shots, the most popular include what is known as a doppio, lungo, and ristretto. 
  • Doppio.
    An espresso doppio is a double shot of espresso. It is just as strong as a regular single shot of espresso, the only difference between a single shot and a doppio is their volumes. 
  • Ristretto.
    An espresso ristretto is around half the size of a regular espresso shot, but it has double the strength. Ristrettos are made using the same amount of coffee grounds, but half the amount of water – this creates a thicker, richer, and stronger espresso shot. 
  • Lungo.
    An espresso lungo is the opposite of a ristretto. It is made with the same amount of coffee grounds, but double the amount of water – this results in a weaker shot with double the volume of a regular espresso shot. 
  • Espresso-Based Drinks.
    In addition to a straight shot of black espresso, there are also numerous espresso drinks which include add-ins like sugar, milk, and syrups on top of regular espresso. Also, many coffee shop menus are built off of these espresso drink variations. Listed below are some popular espresso-based drinks. 
  • Cappucino.
    A cappuccino contains equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk. 
  • Caffe Latte.
    A Caffe Latte is made using the same ingredients as a cappuccino, but with a different ratio. Typically, a latte is made using 2 ounces espresso, 10 ounces steamed milk, and around 2 milliliters foamed milk. 
  • Caffe Americano.
    A Caffe Americano is made using 2 ounces espresso and 3 ounces hot water, making them somewhat similar to regular drip coffee. 
  • Caffe Mocha.
    A Caffe Mocha is a great option for people who like sweets. In addition to 2 ounces espresso and 1 ounce steamed milk, it also contains almost 2 ounces liquid chocolate. 
  • Flat White.
    A Flat White is an excellent choice for people who don’t like strong coffees. They are made using 2 ounces espresso and 4 ounces steamed milk. 

How to Make Espresso at Home

Making espresso at home isn’t as hard as you think – it takes a bit of practice, but it’s definitely worth it! Here’s a quick step-by-step guide to help you pull perfect espresso shots at home.

  1. Grind the beans for making espresso.
    If you want to pull the perfect espresso shot, you have to use fresh coffee beans and grind the beans immediately before brewing. One of the most important factors of getting the perfect shot is the grind texture. If the grind is too coarse, you’ll have an under-extracted shot that tastes sour, watery, and weak. If the grind is too fine, it will over-extract that aroma and flavors, leaving you with a shot that tastes burnt and bitter. What you’re going for is a grind texture that’s similar to granulated sugar. 
  2. Prepare the proper dose.
    Dose refers to how much ground coffee you need to put in the portafilter to pull the perfect shot of espresso. For a double shot, you need somewhere between 18-21 grams of ground coffee. Note that the intensity of your shot increases as you add more coffee. You’ll have to experiment with this amount to get it just right – based on the beans you’re using, your machine, and of course, your personal taste. 
  3. Tamp and level the coffee.
    Tamping is a crucial step in pulling the perfect shot of espresso. It ensures even extraction by leveling the grounds and packing them so that water makes contact and is consistently forced through the grounds. Level the grinds in the portafilter by gently tapping the side, then tamp. 
  4. Use the right water temperature.
    Some espresso machines allow you to adjust the temperature, while others are preset. If yours allow you to make adjustments, experiment with it to see how the temperature affects the flavor of your shots. Note that higher heat emphasizes the ‘roasty’ flavor of the coffee, while lower heat draws out more brightness. If you don’t want to experiment with the setting, it’s okay to stick with the manufacturer’s settings. 
  5. Brewing your espresso shot.
    Now, it’s time to brew your espresso shot. Engage the portafilter into the machine’s brew head as directed by the manufacturer. Then, place your cup underneath it. If your machine doesn’t have a built-in timer, get your timer ready so that you can perfectly time your shot. 

Bonus Tip: Timing

Getting the timing just right is highly important in making espresso at home. Timing is the most critical step in making espresso at home. Here’s how you can get it just right.

Start your espresso machine and observe. When you have your grind, dose, and tamp just right, the first part of your brew will look dark.

Then, it will turn to a golden brown with a foamy mixture. It should flow into the cup in an even, thin stream that doesn’t break. Each shot should use 1 ounce water, so if you’re brewing a double shot, stop the machine at 2 ounces and check your time. 

When everything is ideal, your time should be somewhere between 25-30 seconds. If it was too slow or too fast, you will have to make some adjustments to your grind, dose, and tamp – and try again.

Or, if you notice that your espresso shots are coming out of the spouts unevenly, then your tamping isn’t even. What you’re looking for is a fine, golden crema that floats delicately above a rich, dark brew. 

With all that said, there are a lot of factors that go into pulling the perfect espresso shot, not the least of which is your personal taste.

If you make espresso at home and it tastes good to you, don’t worry if you aren’t making it the same way someone else says it should be done. 

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