What Is Espresso? – The Ultimate Guide


Espresso is essentially a more concentrated version of coffee, prepared using a unique brewing method. It is served in shots and forms the base for many popular coffee beverages (including the cappuccino – my personal favorite!).

One of the questions I had when I first got fascinated with the world of coffee was about espresso. I honestly felt embarrassed not knowing what it meant, given it was being thrown around everywhere. I later realized that this was a question many others had.

Read on if you want to learn more about what exactly espresso is, and how it is different from coffee.

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What Is Espresso (And How Is It Different From Coffee)?

For those of you starting out in the coffee world, this may come as a shocker – espresso is actually the same as coffee! Let me explain. The term “coffee” refers to the liquid extracted from coffee beans. All caffeinated drinks can hence be called coffee, including espresso.

What separates an espresso from regular coffee is the brewing process. Simply put, espresso is a coffee brewing method. It involves forcing hot water through finely-ground coffee under pressure. In contrast, regular coffee brewing methods usually use gravity – as hot water slowly filters through the coffee grounds.

Espresso uses the exact same coffee beans as all other brewing methods. What you see as “espresso beans” are just coffee beans that have been roasted in a specific way. As you will see, espresso is made in a specific way to bring about that flavourful and aromatic shot that we coffee fanatics all crave.

So, How Is Espresso Made?

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise since we gave a spoiler in the previous sections, but espresso can be made with pretty much any regular coffee bean. But, to attain that heavenly espresso taste, the beans are roasted and ground in a certain way.

The Roast

Dark roast beans are generally used to make espresso, which removes a lot of the acidity in the beans. This is why espresso shots (or any coffee made with dark roasted beans) are less acidic in nature.

Here is a handy roast color comparison!

Light and medium roasted beans can still be used in espresso, though many might find the acidic taste too intense. The hot water extracts light coffee compounds first (which includes acidic flavors!). The lighter beans’ acidity is hence extracted into the espresso shot.

Personally, I find that espresso made using dark roast beans has the most balanced flavor and taste, but it’s up to you to experiment and see what suits you best!

The Grind

When we make espresso, we almost always use finely ground coffee beans. The brewing time for espresso is one of the fastest, taking between 25 and 35 seconds only. By using finely ground coffee, we can increase the surface area of the coffee beans that are exposed to hot water. This allows us to extract much of the beans’ divine flavors into our 1-ounce espresso shot.

Grind comparison

As always though, too much of anything can never be good. Using too fine of a grind has its own set of problems. This is because the portafilter (the instrument where we place the ground coffee) tends to become clogged. This means the espresso will flow out extremely slowly. The coffee beans’ flavors tend to be over-extracted in this case, which leads to a bitter taste.

Figuring out the exact grind size is an art in itself, and varies from (espresso) machine to machine. Broadly speaking, baristas usually experiment with the grind size till the drink can be extracted within 30 seconds. For a visual indicator of whether the espresso has been extracted properly, we can look at its color. Under-extracted espresso tends to be light brown and indicates a coarse grind. Over-extracted espresso leans towards the darker side, indicating the grind is too coarse.

Anatomy Of Espresso

The perfect espresso shot typically has 3 main parts to it – the crema, the body, and the heart.

Layers of an espresso

Top Layer: The Crema

The iconic layer of foam that sits on top of a beautiful expresso shot is the crema. The perfect espresso shot will always have a thick layer of crema. The crema mainly consists of carbon dioxide gas and heavy oils extracted from the coffee bean. This is another reason why dark roast beans are preferred for espresso since these oils are more common in them.

Though the crema looks beautiful, its taste is bitter thanks to its’ oil-heavy composition. Some people prefer to stir the espresso before drinking to mask the bitterness while others prefer to spoon this layer off. My personal preference is to mix it all in, but it ultimately boils down to personal preference!

Middle Layer: The Body

This caramel brown layer is responsible for the rich flavors and aromas of our espresso shot. This layer makes up the biggest portion of the solid and consists of 3 main ingredients – soluble solids, soluble gases, and insoluble solids.

Soluble solids refer to the actual amount of coffee dissolved in the shot. The soluble gases are what give us that distinct and mouthwatering aroma of the espresso shot. The insoluble solids are a mixture of oils and contribute to the mouthfeel (how the espresso feels in your mouth) of the shot/

Bottom Layer: The Heart

As the name implies, this dark brown and syrupy layer is the foundation of the espresso shot. This layer should be a deep and rich brown color and contains the bitter qualities of the espresso.

Caffeine In Espresso

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns people have with drinking espresso is the caffeine content. Since espressos are much more concentrated than your regular coffee, they contain more caffeine. But, there’s a catch! Espresso’s serving size (usually 1 ounce for a single shot) is much smaller than that of regular coffee (usually 8 ounces). As a result, you usually end up consuming lesser caffeine when you drink espresso.

On average, a 1-ounce shot of espresso contains about 64mg of caffeine. The average 8-ounce drip coffee meanwhile contains about 95mg of caffeine! So for those of you avoiding espresso citing its high caffeine, be assured an espresso shot has lesser caffeine than your regular drip coffee.

Types Of Espresso Drinks

Espresso isn’t always served as a single shot (known as a solo). You may not know it, but it is actually the base for many common coffee beverages. Let’s

Doppio (a double shot): Doppio literally means double in Italian. A doppio espresso quite simply refers to two shots of espresso. It’s perfect for those of you who love espresso and always wished that it lasted longer.

Macchiato: Contains equal parts milk and steamed espresso. Traditionally, a single shot of espresso is topped off with an equal amount of steamed milk.

Lungo: Uses more water (typically 1 ½ to 2 times more) than a traditional single-shot espresso. This one is for those of you who want a less concentrated drink.

Ristretto (a short shot): A more concentrated version of espresso. Unlike lungo, ristretto uses less water ( ½ to ¾ times) than a single shot espresso. The extraction time is also shorter, leading to a sweeter taste.

Cappuccino: One of the most popular drinks around the world, cappuccino is made with one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third frothed milk. All 3 of these components have distinct layers.

Caffé Latte (or just latte): Has typically one or two ounces of espresso, six to eight ounces of steamed milk, and a final, thin layer of frothed milk on top. Similar to the cappuccino in terms of ingredients, differing in the proportions used.

What To Do Next?

Now that you know what espresso is, check out the different varieties of coffee (insert link).

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Mellina is an avid coffee lover and is loves to brew the best possible coffee at home. She loves sharing anything which helps people perfect their next cup of coffee.