Okay, so you want to make a cappuccino, or perhaps a latte, mocha, or some other drink that you found on the menu at the local coffee bar. Where do you start? Espresso. Espresso is the basic ingredient of all of those coffee drinks you enjoy spending $2-4 on everyday. Yep, you read it right. If you order a latte, cappuccino, caffe mocha, Macchiato, or other "coffee" beverage, it is going to have espresso in it. Espresso is what makes these drinks have that coffee taste. And although most people do know that espresso is in these drinks, there still seems to be confusion as to what espresso actually is.
Is it a strong, bitter jolt of caffeine? Is it a trendy yuppie drink that some major coffee chain invented? Is it supposed to make you curl your lips? Does it use sugar? What’s the frothy stuff on top? Why is it so strong? Let’s start by talking about what espresso is, and in a minute, we’ll take a look at what it’s not.
What It Is
“Espresso” (commonly mispronounced “expresso”) is an Italian word that was derived around 1900 to describe a cup of coffee that was (loosely translated) brewed "expressly for you". Simply put, it’s a type of coffee brewed in a specific way – like French press, vacuum pot, or drip style. What makes espresso brewing unique is that it has fairly specific parameters like the amount of ground coffee that is used, the amount of water applied to these grounds, the pressure at which the water is applied, and the temperature of the water.
Specifically, espresso is a beverage that is produced by pushing hot water (between 190F and 195F in temperature) at high pressure (between 8 and 9 bars, or 135 PSI) through a bed of finely ground, compacted coffee. A normal single shot of espresso is approximately 1 to 1.5 ounces of liquid, using approximately 7 grams of ground coffee. A normal double shot is between 2 and 2.5 ounces, using double the volume of coffee grounds. Both single and double shots are brewed in approximately 20 to 25 seconds. (These parameters are part of what we call The Espresso Rule of Thumb.) When brewed properly, the resulting beverage is topped with a dark golden cream, called crema.Many people do add a bit of sugar to their shots, but truly great espresso can be consumed sugar-free. It should have a smooth, sweet taste and roll across your tongue leaving a lasting impression of flavor.As you can see, espresso is a pretty specific thing – and not too complicated at that. It only took me a few paragraphs to explain. But with the rising popularity of cappuccinos, lattes, and other specialty coffee drinks, the idea of what espresso really is got lost and several myths sprang up instead. Let’s take this opportunity to dispel some of these espresso old wives’ tales.
Myth #1 - Espresso is loaded with caffeine
The mother of all espresso misconceptions is that espresso is full of caffeine and that you will be bouncing off the walls after just one shot. The truth of the matter is that it takes three or four espresso shots to equal the caffeine content of one 12-ounce cup of regular of drip coffee. So if you think that you are getting a "jolt of energy" by asking the barista to add four shots of espresso to your latte in the morning, perhaps you should save your money and go buy a cup of coffee at the local mini-mart. You will get just as much (if not more) caffeine, it will be much less expensive, and they usually don't charge for the cream.
Myth #2 - Espresso is a type of bean
This myth is largely the result of inaccurate marketing by coffee chains, grocery stores, and other uneducated coffee retailers. In reality, all coffee beans are created equal, and any one of them can be used to create espresso through the pressure brewing process - from the most common to the most exotic.
Myth #3 - Espresso is a type of blend
Myth #3 is a little different in the fact that it does bear a nugget of truth – there are specific blends designed for brewing as espresso. However, there isn’t any magic recipe combining 20% of X bean with 80% of Y bean that – Voila! – creates espresso. The same goes for drip coffee, French press, and all of the other brewing styles. Sure, there are blends that perform better when brewed in specific manner, which is why roasters the world over work diligently on their own version of "the perfect espresso blend". But there isn’t any one blend that makes espresso.
Myth #4 - Espresso is a Roast Type
Another popular misconception is that espresso can only be roasted one way, and usually the thought is that espresso must be super dark and glistening with oils. This is not the case. In fact, the Northern Italian way of roasting for espresso is producing a medium roast, more commonly known as a "Full City" roast. In California, the typical "espresso roast" is a dark, or "French" roast, but in parts of the eastern US, a very light or "cinnamon" roast style is preferred. The bottom line here is this: you can make good espresso from almost any roast type; the decision is purely up to your own taste buds.
Myth #5 – All espresso machines are created equal.
Often you will see items labeled as "Espresso Machines" but they are not true espresso machines in the modern sense of the word. A modern espresso machine must produce, as we learned above, at least 8-9 BAR or 135 pounds per square inch of pressure to push water through a very finely ground, compacted bed of coffee. There are many “espresso makers” that are in effect electric "moka" style pots, relying solely on steam pressure to push water through the ground coffee. Unfortunately, steam pressure can produce at best 50 PSI or about 1.5 BAR of pressure, so you’re not getting “true” espresso with this type of machine. In addition, these machines cannot produce the true crema that pump-driven and lever operated espresso machines can produce.
Machines like this are usually sold for under $75 in major department stores. A good indicator that an "espresso machine" is actually a steam driven electric version is whether or not in includes a glass carafe - usually a 4-cup model. If it has one, it most likely is not a true espresso machine. Moka Pots (also known as stovetop espresso makers) are also not espresso machines in the modern sense of the word. They produce an excellent coffee when used properly, but again, rely solely on steam pressure for producing the coffee they make. They fall under the class of "espresso maker" mainly because that's how most people use them. Folks will drink the strong coffee they make straight or they will combine it with steamed milk to make a latte type drink. These are very popular brewers in Italy, and are found in most Italian homes. You may recognize them - typically they are a hexagonal shaped device with two parts - a bottom where the coffee and water sit, and a top with a lid and spout, where the brewed coffee ends up.
There you have it. You’re fully educated on what espresso is and isn’t, which puts you ahead of the majority of coffee drinkers in this country. This information will help you to make wise decisions about the type of machinery and coffee that you purchase. So now you can face the rest of your espresso journey with confidence and go wow your friends with all of your newfound espresso expertise.