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The espresso is an icon of the coffee industry. But what is espresso, exactly? How is it made? Where did it come from?
When I first began my coffee journey, I asked all these questions as well. So today, I will compile what I’ve learned into one neat article.
If you know almost nothing about espresso, consider this the start of your coffee journey. Without a good coffee education, there’s no hope of making good coffee. So let’s get stuck in!
What Exactly Is Espresso?
To properly understand what an espresso actually is, let’s first dispel some of the myths. What isn’t espresso?
What Is Not Espresso?
Contrary to popular belief, espresso has nothing to do with the beans or the roast. If you’ve spent any amount of time at your local grocery store, you’ll know some brands like to market their coffee as ‘espresso beans’.
In truth, all beans can be espresso beans. This is a marketing technique to charge a higher premium for coffee. The word espresso conjures images of Europe and Italy in our minds, and in the US that always means luxury.
So don’t buy into the hype! This is especially important because these ‘espresso beans’ aren’t necessarily the best choice of bean for you.
Espresso also has nothing to do with the roast. Some brands label their coffee as an ‘espresso roast’. This is usually because the roast is dark, which always produces a more consistent espresso.
Don’t get me wrong, consistency is great! But there’s no need to marry ourselves to beans labeled as ‘espresso roast’. Any dark roast coffee bean will provide this much appreciated consistency.
So, What Is Espresso?
Espresso is all about the way the coffee is made. (https://www.usa.philips.com/c-e/ho/cooking/cooking-tips/what-is-espresso-coffee-and-how-do-you-drink-it.html) While all coffee is a liquid extract, espresso is extracted in a special kind of way.
Let’s put it like this. All espresso is coffee, but not all coffee is espresso. So let’s look at how espresso is extracted.
Two things are vitally important when it comes to extracting espresso. First is pressure, and second is finely ground coffee.
When we’re making coffee with a drip filter machine or a percolator, we rely on gravity to help extract it. On the flip side, espresso machines force boiling water through finely ground beans. This pressure makes the extraction process much faster, but it also does some other things too.
The pressure that a modern espresso machine can generate is around 9 bars, or 130 pounds of pressure per square inch (psi). To simplify this, that’s a lot of pressure! But this pressure generates a more complex flavor, aroma and doesn’t skimp on caffeine either.
Why is it important to use finely ground coffee? Well, it’s because this process is so much quicker than ordinary coffee making. Finely ground coffee provides a higher surface area for the boiling water to extract the coffee. But if the grind is too fine, you’ll end up clogging the espresso machine. So it’s a fine balance between small and medium ground coffee.
What Goes Into an Espresso, And What Does It Taste Like?
When you go into your local coffee shop or cafe and order an espresso, you’ll likely be served a doppio (a double shot). This espresso will have roughly 60ml (2 ounces) or espresso.
What color is espresso? You only need to do a google image search to know that an espresso is a dark liquid, topped with creamy foam and served in a tiny cup. But what exactly are these parts, and how did they get there?
The All Important Crema
The foam on top of an espresso is called ‘the crema’. This is your first visual cue that you’ve either ordered or made a well extracted espresso. Remember we talked a lot about pressure being important for extracting an espresso? This is why. No pressure means no crema, which means a bad espresso.
The pressure exerted upon the finely ground coffee beans brings about a lot of different reactions. This pressure extracts coffee oils which are very delicate, and infuses them with the hot water. It also ‘degasses’ your coffee grinds. In other words, carbon dioxide that is trapped within the beans when they’re roasted is suddenly released. But it remains within the espresso until it drips from the machine and into the cup.
When your coffee leaves the machine, it moves from a high pressure to a low pressure environment. This is where the crema magic happens. This sudden change of pressure allows the carbon dioxide to free itself from the espresso, rising to the top in the form of crema.
The combination of delicate coffee oils and the escape of locked in carbon dioxide from the espresso are what give the crema its distinctive flavor and texture.
A good crema should be relatively stable. If you like to add sugar to your espresso, it should sit on top for a few seconds before sinking. The crema should also remain stable for around 40 minutes before dissipating… But let’s face it, nobody can resist leaving it that long!
The Rich Espresso
If you or the barista has brewed the espresso right, the dark liquid beneath the crema should have a distinctly rich flavor, with a velvety mouthful. You should also expect an aromatic scent that is more complex than any other type of coffee.
This complexity comes from how quick espresso is brewed. Because the water touches the coffee grounds for a brief amount of time, it draws less acidity into the finished espresso. The delicate, volatile coffee oils that naturally exist in all beans are also preserved.
So, less acidity and more coffee oils mean a more balanced, complex flavor. As you explore the world of coffee, you’ll notice that barista’s and coffee lovers will talk about coffee flavor profiles. It’s a little bit like wine tasting, in a way.
These coffee oils are different depending on the bean, how it’s roasted and where it’s grown. One type of bean might have coffee oils that lend themselves to a crisp, fruity flavor. Others might be more rich, nutty or earthy. Nevertheless, if coffee is brewed with a different method, such as drip coffee, these oils are either lost or drowned out by excessive acidity.
Now you see why espresso is the king of coffee, and why it’s so highly sought after.
History Of The Espresso
The espresso has a long and storied history.
Prior to the turn of the 20th century, coffee was always brewed in a style we associate with percolators, drip coffee machines and french presses (cafetiere).
But in 1906, at the World’s Fair in Milan, Luigi Bezzerra and Desiderio Pavoni unveiled the world’s first single shot espresso maker. It was powered by steam, and a refined version of a batch brewer that entered the market roughly 30 years prior in 1884.
Unfortunately for Luigi and Desiderio, their revolutionary machine could only exert a 5th of the pressure that modern espresso machines can generate. If you remember how important pressure is for a good espresso, you’ll know this isn’t good at all.
It produced an espresso that was watery, quite bitter and generally unpleasant. Nobody was impressed.
The Mid Century Espresso
In the decades that followed Luigi and Desiderio’s revolutionary invention, espresso struggled to gain any traction. It became a niche brewing method. Until the 1950s, you would have been hard pressed to find it outside Italian coffee bars.
But sometimes in the 1950’s, the latte was born and quickly became a popular drink in the US. With it brought an increasing interest in the espresso, the all-important ingredient for any good latte.
On the outset, espresso drinkers were generally working class italian immigrants. Because of this, the espresso boom in the states began in cities like Boston, New York and San Francisco. But the love of this rich coffee would soon spill out across all American demographics.
Today, the espresso is now an upmarket beverage that sells for a premium. Gone are the days of it’s working class origins. Since the 90s espresso has exploded into a billion dollar industry in its own right.
Despite it’s posh, luxurious appeal, it’s simultaneously never been so accessible. Espresso machines were once huge, complicated pieces of tech that only a trained barista could make sense of. But now we can have espresso machines in our homes, that give us an excellent shot with just a touch of a button.
How To Drink Espresso
Whether you’re at your local cafe or in the comfort of your own home, there’s a few things you should keep in mind when drinking espresso.
Water First, Then Espresso
If you spend time in Italy, you’ll notice that you’ll be given a glass of water with your espresso. This is to cleanse your palate before savoring the delicious flavors of your double shot.
While this might seem silly, it goes back to detecting those subtle, volatile coffee oils we talked about in earlier sections of this article.
If your mouth is dry or still has the lingering aftertaste of your morning cereal, you may miss some of the delicate flavor profiles of your coffee.
If you’re somewhere really traditional, they may also give you a piece of lemon peel. Coffee historians still can’t decide what this is all about, but the general consensus is that you rub it around the rim of your espresso cup for good luck… If you’re at home, I’d probably skip this step.
To Stir, or Not To Stir?
There are two schools of thought here. Some people like to take their crema on a spoon, almost like it’s an ice cream. While this is fine if you love the distinctive flavor of crema. But if not, you can happily stir the crema back into the espresso.
Even if you do like to take your crema and your espresso separately, many coffee experts would still recommend giving the espresso a quick stir before drinking.
The espresso is a mixture of both soluble solids and gases, but also insoluble solids. These insoluble solids tend to fall to the bottom of your cup. This is annoying because the dark espresso beneath should always be enjoyed as a whole.
A brief stir before drinking should resolve this issue, and give you a more consistent flavor from your first sip all the way to your last.
Savor It, But Don’t Take Too Long
While it’s called a ‘shot’ of espresso, it’s important not to treat it like a shot of alcohol. It a steaming cup of coffee. You’ll burn your mouth and miss out on all the flavor you’re paying a premium for.
Enjoy the flavors. Take the time to appreciate the aroma. Sit back, relax and appreciate the amazing coffee you’re currently experiencing.
But, and it’s a big but, don’t take too long. Espresso is supposed to be a quick drink. After all, it is called ‘espresso’. It’s the fine balance between taking enough time to enjoy it, but not lingering with it.
This is especially important in Italy. Italy’s coffee culture doesn’t include spending long periods of time in espresso bars or coffee shops. It’s just a pit stop to enjoy good coffee and maybe an Italian pastry.
Become And Espresso Expert
So you know the difference between espresso and drip coffee. But how do you become an espresso connoisseur?
The first step is to try making it yourself and see how you get on. It’s more than likely you’ll produce something drinkable. Whether it’ll be good or not is another issue.
Once you’ve taken your first steps, it’s time to talk to the professionals. Speak to the baristas at your local espresso bar, coffee shop or cafe. They’ll help you set the bar of what is and isn’t good.
There are also loads of resources to get stuck into, on and offline. There are barista courses that are aimed at the consumer. They’ll teach you how to brew great coffee and espresso at home, where you need it most.
It’s also important to widen your knowledge about coffee more generally. Don’t just be an expert on espresso, become an authority on all things coffee!
Good coffee knowledge is the basis for excellent espresso brewing. You might know how to brew a great espresso. Knowing where to find the best micro-batch, single origin coffee on the market might take your espresso brewing skills to the next level.
The Best Beans For The Perfect Espresso
How To Buy Good Beans
I could talk for days about how to buy the best coffee beans. It’s a huge topic. But I’ll cover the most important aspects here.
First and foremost, only buy whole beans. While it sounds like a chore to grind your own coffee, your tongue will thank you. As soon as beans are ground they begin to lose their flavor. So grind your own for the more vibrant, tasty cups of espresso.
Next, be sure the beans you’re buying are fresh. Sometimes the beans at your local grocery store will have been sitting around for ages. Try buying from your local coffee shop or specialty coffee grocers for the freshest beans.
In that same vein, avoid coffee beans that have been stored in large, non airtight tubes. You know, the ones that you can fill up plastic bags with? Beans need to be stored properly to retain their freshness. But we’ll come onto that.
You’ll also find that the baristas or coffee experts in these sorts of stores have a much better coffee knowledge. They’ll have solid coffee education and their customer service is usually amazing.
Lastly, it’s important to find a coffee bean that makes an espresso you think tastes great. What’s right for one person may not be a good fit for you. The only way to do this is to try as much coffee as you can! Be adventurous and discover your favorites.
How To Store Your Beans Properly
Storing your beans properly is essential. If beans are left out in the open air, they quickly diminish in flavor. What’s the point in spending your time searching for beautiful, fresh, whole coffee beans if you let them go stale in your pantry?
If the bag you bought them in is thick, opaque and has a vent you can safely keep them in that. If you don’t use a whole bag in one go, they’re often resealable. If it’s not, use a sturdy clip to keep the bag airtight.
If you don’t have this luxury you can store them in any airtight, opaque container. You can get away with a good quality Tupperware, providing it’s not translucent plastic.
Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to store your beans in the fridge-freezer. The refrigerator will draw moisture from anything you put inside it. While this might not be a problem for a carton of milk or last night’s meatloaf, it’ll ruin your precious coffee beans.
A cool, dry, dark place is all you need to store your airtight bag of tasty coffee beans.
The espresso might seem daunting, but I hope I have demystified it for you in today’s post.
Espresso is such a magic coffee. Its flavor is amazing, its origins are fascinating and the process of making it isn’t all that difficult to get your head around.
There’s no reason why you can’t become an espresso connoisseur. Today is the day you took your first steps into this exciting world!