What Is Espresso Coffee?

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What is Espresso Coffee? It is 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 wonder: what exactly is one?

The term does not refer to a specific coffee bean, grind, or roast level; rather, it describes the beverage 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 using a lever-style barista machine, in which the user pulls down a spring-loaded handle 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 outshines the instant granules many rely on. It’s often enjoyed as is, or paired with milk (hot or cold) to make various 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 a French Press or a Moka pot, each espresso contains more 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 brewing, the near-boiling water passes 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 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.’ 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.

According to the Italian Espresso National Institute, espresso is best served in ‘a white china cup, free of any inside decoration, elliptical in shape, with a 50-100 millilitres capacity.’

This type of cup allows you to ‘appreciate the look of an excellent froth, the precious smell and the warm and smooth taste of espresso.’

The sensory profile of Certified Italian espresso has been established through thousands of consumer tests conducted by the Italian Espresso National Institute in collaboration with the International Institute of Coffee Tasters and the Taster Study Center.

The combined results of these consumer and laboratory tests have led to the definition of high-quality espresso, as shown in the sensory profile diagram below.

How Do You Make The Perfect Espresso?

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

Here are the exact technical characteristics of a ‘certified Italian espresso’ extracted directly from the experts at the Italian Espresso National Institute (Instituto Nationale Espresso Italiano):

A portion of ground coffee7g ± 0.5g
Water exit temperature190°F ± 4°F or 88°C ± 2°C
Temperature in cup153°F ± 5°F or 67°C ± 3°C
Water pressure9 ± 1 bar
Percolation period 25 ± 5 seconds
Viscosity at 451.5 mPa s
Total volume per shot (including crema)0.85 ± 0.08 US fl oz or 25 ± 2.5 ml
Caffeine< 100 mg/cup
Fat> 2 mg/ml

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 own barista-style coffee machine or a high-quality bean grinder at home.

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 must also be at a specific temperature – between 190 and 194 degrees Fahrenheit- for the ground beans to dissolve successfully.

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


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 you should pre-warm your cup for the ideal espresso.

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

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 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 the same from every place, but do expect to enjoy a delicious drink.

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