What is espresso? All you need to know

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We all know Espresso is a type of coffee, but accurately describing it can be complicated.

Many people don’t realize what is espresso and why it differs from other types of coffee.

We hope this guide clears up some common misconceptions about espresso, as well as gives useful information that will help you make a good cup at home!

What is espresso?

The word espresso is used to describe a type of coffee brewed by forcing hot water through finely ground, roasted coffee beans.

Espresso is generally thicker than coffee brewed by other methods and has crema on top (a golden coloured creamy foam).

The flavours in espresso are very concentrated, thanks to the high pressure brewing process. This contributes to the intense and sometimes bitter flavour.

Importantly, espresso coffee can only really be made in an actual espresso machine, due to the high pressure required during the extraction process.

Espresso is also the base for other drinks such as a cappuccino, macchiato, mocha, flat white, latte, long black, or Americano.

What does espresso taste like?

The perfect espresso should be sweet and rich with a hint of caramel. It should never taste sour or bitter.

Different roasts taste different, depending on a number of factors. Darker roasts typically have more traditional coffee flavours such as chocolate and caramel, while lighter roasts usually have more delicate notes such as fruit or citrus.

Likewise, the variety and origin of the coffee beans will also impact the taste of your espresso. There is a wide range of varieties, each with its own taste, aroma and character.

Single origin (a single variety of coffee produced in one country) beans can make for an interesting and complex espresso shot that showcases the specific flavours and aromas a region is known for.

However, blends of multiple bean varieties are often preferred by baristas because they offer more balanced flavours and aromas. They also tend to be more suitable for milk-based coffee drinks such as lattes and cappuccinos, which rely on milk for the larger part of their taste.

The most important thing for making amazing espresso at home is high quality, fresh beans. If your beans are stale, even the best espresso machine won’t save you.

Another critical aspect for brewing great espresso is having a consistent grind size. While there are many different types of grinders out there, none can beat the consistency of burr grinders when it comes to preparing coffee for espresso.

RELATED: Ristretto Vs Espresso

The espresso extraction process

To make any kind of coffee – whether espresso, french press, or cold brew – you start with roasted coffee, grind it into small pieces, and add water. As the water hits the coffee, it extracts the flavour compounds.

The secret to espresso’s taste are the three dispersed phases of extraction:

  1. Emulsion of oil droplets
  2. Suspended solids
  3. Layer of gas bubbles or foam, forming what is known as “crema”

In espresso, because this process happens in a fairly short period of time (around 30 seconds) and uses a small amount of water, it’s important to get the variables correct.

Water acts as the solvent in the coffee extraction process.

This is why it’s essential to have the correct grind size and consistent particle size for your ground coffee beans. If you don’t grind your coffee evenly it will affect the taste and lead to over or under extraction.

In addition to grind size, the dose amount and tamping pressure can also impact the extraction process.

The history of espresso

The first espresso machine is thought to have been created by Angelo Moriondo in Turin, Italy. He was granted a patent for his steam powered coffee making machine in 1884.

However, arguably the biggest early contributor was a businessman named Luigi Bezzera. In the early 1900s, Luigi Bezzera invented a single-shot espresso maker while seeking a way to quickly brew coffee.

Luigi’s machine featured many elements that can still be seen on the espresso machines we use today.

It was based on Moriondo’s earlier model but his version used compressed steam and cold water mixed together to produce a single shot of espresso. This gave it the distinct crema that remains today as one of its defining characteristics.

Bezzera’s model became popular in Milanese cafes and soon inspired other inventors to make their own versions of the machine. One such inventor was Desiderio Pavoni who bought Bezzera’s patent in 1905. La Pavoni continues to make espresso machines to this day.

RELATED: The Best Espresso Cups

Espresso beans vs. regular coffee beans

In general, brew methods with a fast extraction time, like espresso, work best with a darker roast. In contrast, lighter roasted beans are preferred for slower brewing methods, like pour over or filter.

Espresso coffee beans tend to be roasted for a longer time at a higher temperature. This is what gives espresso its deeper roast and bolder flavours.

The roasting process allows the fats and oils within the coffee bean to break down. The roasting process also causes the sugars within the bean to caramelize, giving the bean its distinctive flavour.

Coffee beans for espresso tend to have more chocolate or caramel accents, whereas normal coffee beans will have more fruity or citrusy accents.

How to make the perfect espresso shot

Grind Size

The grind size should be fine enough to allow for a 20-25 second extraction time.

If your espresso has an extraction time of under 20 seconds, then your grind is probably too fine.

Conversely, if it takes over 30 seconds to pull your shot, then you may need to make your grinds finer.

Tamping Pressure

Once you’ve found the right grind size, then you’ll want to make sure that you are tamping with consistent pressure.

This ensures that you will not have any channels in your puck which leads to uneven extraction.

Water Temperature

Your water temperature should be between 90 and 96 degrees Celcius at the group head.

At a hotter temperature you may end up with more extracted coffee but it may taste burnt and bitter.

Cooler temperatures, on the other hand, extract coffee at a slower rate and potentially lead to under-extraction and less flavourful espresso.