The espresso is known for being the ultimate caffeine quick-fix: strong, dark, and complex, usually favored only by the most cultured of coffee connoisseurs. We imagine the other coffees cowering in the presence of the espresso because, despite its small size, it sure does pack a punch.
But well, what makes espresso different from a regular cup of joe? Is it the small serving? The coffee beans? The method of preparation?
If you’re asking yourself any of the above questions, you’ve come to the right place. Today we’re talking all things espresso: its origins, how it’s made, and what makes an espresso, well, an espresso.
Where it all began
Back in 1884, Angelo Moriondo, from Turin, patented an early version of an “instantaneous” coffee maker which controlled the supply of steam and water separately through the coffee and is known to be one of the first examples of what later became the espresso machine.
However, it wasn’t until several decades later, in 1901, that Luigi Bezzera, from Milan, devised and patented several improvements which would then see the design bought by Desiderio Pavoni, who eventually began to produce the machine industrially.
In Italy, the emergence of the espresso and the many bars that began to serve it was largely associated with urbanization, and these bars became a place where people would socialize in a "stand at a bar" culture.
Espresso soon became popular in the English-speaking world too, amongst the working-class Italian diaspora, as well as in the form of cappuccino and latte in the US (later popularized by Starbucks), and soon among the British youth, who felt more welcome in coffee shops than in pubs.
As coffee culture began to spread like wildfire, specialty coffee, developed in the 1980s, saw the espresso increasingly marketed as an upmarket beverage.
What makes espresso different from regular coffee?
The preparation of espresso is what sets it apart from regular coffee. Other methods of brewing take time, and rely on slowly filtering the water through coffee grounds, which of course is pretty bizarre when we think about how used we are to ordering a coffee and receiving it pretty much instantaneously.
It is therefore the preparation of the espresso which makes it different. Espresso machines work by pressurizing and shooting near-boiling water through finely-ground coffee beans which are packed into cakes.
Whereas filtered coffee relies on gravity to seep the water through the grounds, espresso is driven downwards by pressure, which exponentially speeds up the process.
The result is a short coffee drink that is complex, rich, and aromatic - and is complete and ready to drink in under 30 seconds.
Pressure comes first in espresso 101, however, the size of the grounds is also a factor. Fresh, medium grounds generally work well for espresso, particularly when using a drip filter or percolator. The size of the grounds influences how well the espresso is extracted, as a smaller grind exposes more surface area of the beans to the water when they are packed into the coffee cake - or bed, as it’s also known. The finely ground beans - along with the pressure that is applied - is what makes the process so efficient.
The espresso itself has a very unique, distinctive taste. If prepared properly, it should be thicker than normal coffee, with a velvety crema on top. The taste should be rich and balanced and the ideal espresso will hit the sweet spot of naturally sweet but not too bitter. It should also draw out the complexity of the flavors and should have a layered taste with the inherent flavors being more defined.
Espresso can fall into one of three categories: under-extraction, over-extraction, or ideal extraction, and this influences the flavor and whether or not it’s balanced.
- Under-extraction takes place when too little coffee is dissolved in the water, and this is common when the grounds are too coarse or aren’t brewed for long enough. The resulting flavor is sour, intense, and aggressive.
- Over-extraction is when too much coffee is dissolved in the water, usually the result of the grounds being too fine or the brew time too long. This will cause the espresso to taste bitter, weak, and flat.
- Ideal extraction is the sweet spot in between these two.
Espresso is dark in color and is traditionally served in a very small - roughly 1.6 oz - cup which looks a bit like a shot glass. On the surface of the espresso should be a thick layer of crema - the indication of a well-extracted espresso.
Most people think of the espresso as the go-to caffeine kick. However, the espresso only has around 60mg of caffeine per shot - less than a quarter of your recommended daily intake. Surprisingly, you’re getting less caffeine from an espresso than from a 12oz cup from a drip-brew.
The drink has also been proven to have a range of health benefits. Espresso has been shown to improve long-term memory and concentration, and could even reduce your risk of stroke and type 2 diabetes.
On the other hand, too much caffeine isn’t good for anyone, and you don’t want to be knocking back espresso after espresso all day long. Too much caffeine can cause sleeping issues, increase your blood pressure, and can even heighten symptoms of insomnia. Like anything, espresso in moderation is the key here.
Your espresso should come with a glass of water, but if not, it’s a good idea to order some as this cleanses your palate so you can reap the flavors of the espresso. Some people skim off the crema as it can be acidic, whereas others stir it in. It’s a good idea to stir the espresso anyway though, to ensure all of the flavors are balanced.
Despite this short drink coming in a cup that resembles a kind of shot glass, the vital thing is to not knock back your espresso as if it’s a shot of tequila! Drink it slowly, appreciating the different flavors, the thicker texture, and the beautiful aroma.
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