Espresso. Some of us know it as our morning fuel. Some of us know it as part of our favorite café creations. And, like myself, some of us know it as the reason we’re alive.
No, really. I would die without espresso. Literally.
Maybe it’s the little cups and tiny spoons. Maybe it’s the way your favorite barista makes your cappuccino. Maybe your suspender-wearing, man-bun-wielding hipster friend gave you a shot “on the house” and you quickly became obsessed. No matter what your own attraction to it is, espresso is a captivating, intense, and often mysterious phenomenon that keeps people coming back for more.
Throughout the next few articles, we’re going to be covering everything espresso—what exactly it is, its history, and even how to choose the best espresso machine for you to make the perfect cup right in your own home.
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How does coffee become espresso?
This is like the, “Where do babies come from?” question of the coffee world. It’s a little complicated, but espresso is fundamentally about the preparation.
First, roasted coffee beans are ground to a really fine consistency. Then they’re dumped into a portafilter, which is the basket you put into an espresso machine, and tamped, which is essentially packing the grind down into the basket with a special and overpriced tool. Once the filter is locked in, the espresso machine uses a lot of pressure to force super hot water through the beans, and the result is the espresso! That’s the gist of it.
I know, there’s a lot of steps and vocabulary to keep track of. That’s why we’ll soon be breaking down the entire process in a guide that any new or aspiring home barista can understand.
How does espresso become other drinks at the café like lattes, macchiatos, and chai?
Chai is actually tea, first of all. So if you’ve been ordering them and acting all caffeinated after you finish your drink, it’s probably just the load of sugar that the big coffee chains like to put in their chai mix.
Traditional macchiatos add a “mark” of milk to the espresso. Lattes are created by adding more steamed milk and a little milk foam. Cappuccinos have a lot of foam. There are also mochas, breves, flat whites, affogatos, Americanos, cortados, and a whole bunch more, but what they all have in common is the starting espresso.
Do I have to use different beans than for my french press or Chemex, for example?
Contrary to what a lot of people believe, espresso doesn’t require any special beans, roasts, or flavors. What defines espresso is the preparation outlined above. You can use the same beans (though not the same grind size) for espresso, pour-over, French press, Aeropress, drip, and anything else on different days of the week if you wanted to…
Or you can be like me and do it all in one day. Just be warned that your physician might not approve.
Why do many people pronounce it “expresso?”
Expresso is actually that weird ostrich with sneakers in Donkey Kong Country, so maybe it’s all one sick joke and everyone is secretly talking about an ostrich. Otherwise, the coffee drink is definitely espresso.
What’s the difference between an espresso, ristretto, lungo, and doppio? Isn’t it the same thing?
Woah, easy with the advanced questions. I always hated those smart kids in the front of the class.
If you really must know right away, there’s a certain sweet spot to aim for when extracting espresso. A good single shot of espresso is usually extracted between 20 to 30 seconds and yields one ounce of product. A single ristretto uses the same amount of coffee grind but yields only half of the product. Since it’s basically the first half of a regular espresso shot, it’s very bold, but you end up with less liquid.
A single lungo is the opposite. It’s the same amount of coffee as a regular shot of espresso but about an ounce and a half of product. It gives you more liquid, but it’s weaker. A doppio is simply a double shot of espresso. Twice the amount of ground beans, twice the product, same strength in the product (all else being equal).
Enough with the science lesson! As you can probably tell by now, extracting the “god-shot” of espresso is all about balancing the strength, volume, and flavors of the coffee. It’s an art and a science.
Espresso is awesome! What do I do next?
Learning to pull some espresso of your own can seriously revolutionize the way you consume coffee of any type. Not only will you have an impressive skill under your belt (or suspenders), but you’ll begin to notice the complexity in different tastes you get from all the various methods of brewing coffee.
You also won’t be able to look at your local coffee shop lattes the same again. Espresso is a serious craft, and all good baristas at one point or another start to obsess over it. Join the club!
In the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring the history of espresso machines, how to choose one for your own home setup, and how to start amazing your friends, family, roommates, and unsuspecting first dates with your new found skills. Subscribe to our email list so you don’t miss a thing, and receive our Ultimate Coffee Gear Guide for free!
Until next time. Ciao!