If you’re a newcomer to the world of coffee, it can seem a confusing place.
All those different coffee styles can be overwhelming – what do they all mean? And where do you start?
The best place is the single most important word in any coffee expert’s vocabulary: espresso.
Unlock its secrets and you’ll be on your way to understanding virtually every other coffee under the sun. Yes, it’s that important.
So what is espresso?
Read on, and we’ll take you through everything you need to know about this amazing drink.
Sit back and prepare to become an expert!
Why is it called espresso? Or it expresso?
Let’s begin with the name, because this is probably the most mispronounced type of coffee on the menu. It’s espresso with that first “s” and not expresso.
You can see why people make the mistake. The Italian word “espress” sounds like the English “express” that we’re all familiar with. Indeed, there’s a good reason for that. Both words come from the same root and mean broadly similar things.
Espresso actually has two meanings that make it the perfect name for this type of coffee. The first is “pressed out”. Espresso coffee is made by forcing steam and water through the coffee, pressing out the flavor (1).
The second and less obvious meaning is exclusivity. Think of doing something expressly for someone. The first espresso coffee makers took 45 seconds to make one cup. In other words, almost a minute was spent making a drink that was just for one person.
Because espresso pronunciation often proves tricky, “expresso” has made it into some American dictionaries as a variant. There are also some historical precedents for using an “x”. In most cases, though, it’s considered inaccurate – so stick with that first “s” to sound like an expert (2).
What is espresso?
Espresso isn’t a particular coffee variety or roasting method. It simply means that your coffee will have been made by forcing steam and water through the coffee granules in a machine designed especially for the job.
Beans are ground more finely than in other coffee-making methods, allowing the steam to pass through at high pressure. If you tried to use coffee this finely ground in a Chemex, you’d end up clogging your filter. And in a French press, the coffee grounds would end up in your drink – yuck!
The espresso machine quickly produces a strong, dark coffee with a lighter brown colored froth on top. That froth is known as the crema and it’s a very important indicator of the quality of your drink.
First of all, the crema will give you an idea of the age of the beans used to brew your coffee. Because the water in an espresso machine is at high pressure, it is able to dissolve carbon dioxide. This gas is produced in the beans during the roasting process.
As the water passes through the machine, the dissolved carbon dioxide is carried into the coffee. When the coffee then hits the cup, it returns to normal pressure and the carbon dioxide is released in bubbles. Those bubbles are your crema.
So how does this help you tell how old your beans were? Well, carbon dioxide continues to be released from the beans for weeks after roasting. The longer it’s been since they were roasted, the less carbon dioxide they’ll contain. In short, the older the coffee, the less foam you’ll see in your cup (3).
The other aspect of the crema you should look out for is its color. This is a good indicator of the strength of the coffee you’re about to drink. The darker the crema, the stronger the taste.
Another thing to be aware of when you order an espresso is that it’s not a lot of liquid. You may have heard references to an “espresso shot”. One shot is one fluid ounce. It will be served in a small glass or an espresso cup.
An espresso is a single shot. If you want two shots, order a “doppio”, or simply a double espresso. Bear in mind that, despite the terminology, a shot of espresso is not supposed to be drunk in one go! It’s a strong drink, so sip it to savor its flavor.
Take a look at this video to see how to make espresso coffee.
Espresso as the ingredient for other coffees
The reason the espresso is so important is that it forms the basis for almost every other style of coffee. Its intensity of flavor means that it can take all kinds of different additions without losing the coffee taste.
Here are just some of the drinks with espresso at their heart.
A macchiato is simply an espresso with a dollop of steamed milk and foam on top to mellow the taste. A short macchiato uses a single shot of espresso, while a long macchiato uses two.
Macchiatos are usually served in a glass so that customers can see the three layers: dark coffee at the bottom, then a mixture of coffee and milk, and finally the frothy milk on top.
#2 Americano (also known as a “Long Black”)
One of the most popular styles of coffee throughout the US, the Americano is made by adding water to espresso.
A cup is filled two thirds with hot water, then the espresso shot is added over the top.
This is a more intensely flavored alternative to drip coffee, and cold milk can be added too.
#3 Café Latte
Often known simply as a “latte”, this is a sweeter and creamier drink than the espresso alone.
It is made by adding steamed milk to a shot of espresso, with a layer of micro-foam on top. (Micro-foam is foam with very small bubbles).
A drink for those who love their coffee creamy, the cappuccino is similar to the latte.
The key difference is in the amount of foam on top. A latte has about one centimeter of foam, while a cappuccino will have two to three centimeters.
If you have a sweet tooth, order your cappuccino with a sprinkling of chocolate on top.
#5 Red Eye
Not one for the faint-hearted, the red eye is a drink for when you need your caffeine! It’s made with a single shot of espresso served on top of a drip coffee. It’s also known as a Shot in the Dark or an Eye Opener.
If even that isn’t enough caffeine for you, there are variations on the theme. The Black Eye is made with two shots of espresso, and the Dead Eye is made with three shots. Handle with care!
#6 Cuban Espresso
As you might expect from the name, it originated in Cuba, where espresso is traditionally made with darker roasted beans. The key difference to an ordinary espresso is the sugar content. In the Cuban version, demerara sugar is added directly to the pot or cup that the espresso drips into.
You might think that this isn’t so different from ordering an espresso, then adding a spoonful or two of sugar. But you’d be wrong. The heat from the coffee-making process breaks some of the sugar into its component molecules, creating a sweeter and slightly thicker coffee.
Many Cuban baristas will add only a few drops of espresso to the sugar in the cup before mixing it vigorously. This creates a creamy, light brown paste to which the rest of the espresso is then added. When the two are mixed together a light brown foam layer, known as espumita, forms on top.
Take a look at this YouTube video to see a Cuban espresso being made.
Caffeine and espresso
You might have heard that espresso is loaded with caffeine. The way it’s referred to as a “shot” also suggests that this is a drink that packs a punch. Both of those things are true – but they’re not the whole story.
Let’s start with the question of how much caffeine there is in a single shot of espresso. A classic espresso is made with 7 grams of finely ground coffee extracted to 1.5 fluid ounces over about 25 seconds. That one and a half shot espresso will have 77mg of caffeine.
But every coffee shop will have its own particular style, blend and even serving size. Coffee beans themselves can vary significantly in terms of how much caffeine they contain. The Tanzania Peaberry coffee bean, for example, contains 1.4% caffeine while the Yemen Mocha Mattari has just 1% (5).
All this means that the amount of caffeine in a single shot of espresso can vary widely in practice. Recent research in Australia found a huge variation in the amount of caffeine per shot – from 25g to 214mg (6).
Does this mean that you should avoid espresso in favor of other options – say, drip coffee? Compare the caffeine levels between the two and you might be surprised.
If we take average figures – bearing in mind that these will vary between coffee shops – the amount of caffeine in a single shot of espresso is about 40mg. The amount of caffeine in the average drip coffee, on the other hand, is 92.5mg.
In other words, on average, a cup of drip coffee will have 2.3 times as much coffee as an espresso! But that’s not the end of the story. It’s important to remember that a serving of espresso is very different in size from a serving of drip coffee.
In the espresso, that 40mg of caffeine is concentrated in just one fluid ounce of coffee. The 92.5g of caffeine in drip coffee, on the other hand, will be contained in eight fluid ounces of liquid.
That means that if you tried drinking as much espresso as in a regular serving of drip coffee, you’d be consuming more than three times as much caffeine. In short: an espresso has less caffeine by serving than a drip coffee, but more by volume.
So what should you take away from this?
If you’re after a caffeine hit, the espresso will do the trick. You’ll drink the smaller serving more quickly than you would a drip coffee, and the caffeine will be more concentrated. The combination of those factors means the caffeine will have a faster effect than if you sipped a drip cup over an hour.
Secondly, don’t buy drip coffee thinking it has less caffeine than espresso. It doesn’t!
Espresso in food
The intense flavor of espresso means that, as well as other drinks, it’s often used as an ingredient in food. And not surprisingly, with Italy as its historic home, many of these dishes are Italian.
Perhaps the most famous of all Italian desserts, tiramisu, uses espresso as a central ingredient. Finger-shaped sponge biscuits are soaked in espresso and layered with mascarpone cheese, egg yolks and cream.
Other examples include affogato – vanilla ice cream topped with a shot of hot espresso – and espresso panna cotta, a cold Italian custard. This YouTube video shows Gordon Ramsay in action making espresso panna cotta.
Espresso can also be used to bring out other flavors. A dash of espresso in black bean chili will create a deeper, richer flavor. It even works with chocolate – try espresso brownies for a twist on a classic dessert.
So now you’re an espresso expert
We hope you’ve enjoyed exploring espresso in all its versatility. We’ve looked at how it’s made, understanding what it means for your caffeine intake and – most importantly – how it’s used to make the huge variety of coffee drinks available today.
Of course, the best way to understand espresso is to drink it. Without expensive equipment, it isn’t easy to make at home – so take a trip to your favorite coffee shop and sample it there. You can practice that pronunciation at the same time!
If you have any questions, please comment and let us know.
My name is Kathy Gallo, Editor of Ag Ferrari, a Coffee buff. The guide you find here is designed exactly for you, and it is our hope that you find it not only interesting but also actionable.