what is espresso coffee

What Is Espresso Coffee?

February 4, 2021

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In A Nutshell…

A globally beloved invention that hails from Italy, the espresso is one of, if not the most popular order in any coffee shop… but if you aren’t familiar with its preparation, you may be wondering: what exactly is one?

The term does not refer to either a specific coffee bean, grind, or roast level; rather, it describes the beverage itself and the brewing process used to create it.

Very simply put, this small but mighty caffeine shot is finely ground coffee combined with scalding hot water to make a short ‘shot’ – it is also common practice to have two of these at once, an order known as – you guessed it, a double espresso.

The term ‘coffee shot’ and the phrase ‘pulling a shot’ originate from the act of using a lever-style barista machine, in which the user pulls down a spring-loaded handle in order to release the hot water.

Why So Popular?

Thanks to its higher concentration of that delicious bean, the humble espresso’s deep, intense flavor far outshine the instant granules many rely on. It’s often enjoyed as is, or paired with milk (hot or cold) to make a variety of different drinks.

Enjoying an espresso is the most common method of coffee preparation across Europe, particularly in Italy (of course!), Portugal, France, and Spain. You’ll also find popular coffee shops and cafes use espresso as the base of many menu items.

For instance, a latte is just one espresso plus steamed milk, whilst a cappuccino is two espressos (usually) and some especially frothy milk. Mocha, flat white, Americano, macchiato? All start with espresso, baby!

Naturally thicker than coffee made in, say, a French Press or a Moka pot, each espresso contains a larger amount of dissolved and suspended solids on average. This also results in a thick, creamy foam at the top of the shot, known as crema.

So – how do they manage to infuse such a rich taste into every cup? During the brewing process, the near-boiling water is passed through the ground coffee at significant force – typically measured at around 9 or 10 bars of pressure.

What Does An Espresso Look, Smell, and Taste Like?

A shot of espresso is certainly a beautiful sight to behold! According to the folks over at the Italian Espresso National Institute, they have ‘a hazelnut colored froth…, with tawny hinges,’ which is a very fancy way of saying several shades of brown!

The crema on top has ‘a very fine texture, which means that its mesh is tight and large or small bubbles are absent.’ Essentially, it’s a thick layer, about a millimeter high, and it should be smooth and free of air.

When it comes to your sense of smell, you’ll discover ‘an intense scent, with notes of flowers, fruits, toasted bread and chocolate;’ it’s important to remember that the blend and roast of a coffee determine its taste and smell – each one is different!

Speaking of taste, espresso should be ‘round, substantial and smooth… sour and bitter are well balanced and neither one prevails…astringency is absent or barely perceptible.’ That basically means… it’s strong in flavor, without becoming bitter.

dad loves coffee
One of many coffee mugs at Spiffic!

How Do You Make The Perfect Espresso?

Most baristas (and certainly every coffee shop!) will have their own opinion on the exact specifications for the perfect espresso. That being said, they do tend to stick within certain parameters, which have existed for generations.

Here are the exact technical instructions for preparing a ‘certified Italian espresso,’ directly from the experts at the Italian Espresso National Institute:

Parameter Value 
A portion of ground coffee 7g ± 0.5g
Water exit temperature 190°F ± 4°F
Temperature in cup 153°F ± 5°F
Water pressure 9 ± 1 bar
Percolation period  25 ± 5 seconds
Total volume per shot (including crema) 0.85 ± 0.08 US fl oz

Let’s go through it, step by step, in language that’s a little easier to understand!

Amount Of Coffee

Each shot of espresso should, in an ideal world, contain 7-7.5 grams of ground coffee beans – this is the optimal amount for perfect shot extraction.

Any more, the taste is too bitter, any less and you’ll have a watery cup.

Water Pressure

Not all of us are lucky enough to have our very own barista-style coffee machine at home or a high-quality bean grinder.

Those who do should aim for a unit that pushes its water through at 9 or 10 bars of pressure, to perform a perfect shot extraction.

Water Temperature

Water also needs to be at a very specific temperature – between 190 and 194 degrees Fahrenheit, in order for the ground beans to successfully dissolve.

That way, you’re guaranteed the thick, crema layer, and a fuller mouthfeel.

Percolation

Basically, just the amount of time you should take to pour an espresso – achieving this depends on ensuring every other factor is perfect, so start with those first!

Ideally, your shot should be completely extracted in between 25 and 30 seconds.

Cup Temperature

Not everyone does this every time, but for the ideal espresso, you should pre-warm your cup.

Using water at a temperature of 153-158 degrees Fahrenheit to heat it, and quickly pouring this out before you extract your shot, is the easiest way to do so.

Size of Shot

Last but not least, if you want a really specific guideline to aim for, you should try and extract your shot at a volume of 0.85-0.93 fluid ounces. That’s why it’s so easy to drink five!

In Summary

So, what have we learned? Espresso is both the name of a drink and a method of making coffee, by following a specific set of guidelines established by the Italians a good few hundred years ago. Short, concentrated, and dark in color!

Remember: the aroma, taste, and appearance will vary depending on the roast, grind, and brew style of the coffee. Don’t expect exactly the same from every place, but do expect to enjoy a delicious drink.

Learn More

Want to learn more and make coffee like a barista? Then enroll in the Ninja Coffee Barista Course. Practical videos and fun to learn.

online barista training course

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