The Truth About Espresso

First of all, you must have the correct lingo. Many people mistakenly pronounce or spell espresso as “expresso” which is incorrect.  The name is Italian, and was derived roughly a century ago to describe a cup of coffee that was brewed “just for you”.

The term espresso confuses many people. Is it a strong bitter jolt of caffeine? Is it a trendy yuppie drink that some major coffee chain invented? It is supposed to make you pucker your lips? Does it need sugar? What is the foamy stuff on top?  Espresso is confusing because more often than not, it isn’t prepared correctly. True espresso, brewed with a pump or piston driven espresso machine is a delicacy enjoyed all over the world.

Espresso is not a type of bean: This is a common misconception, and inaccurate marketing by coffee chains, grocery stores, and even word of mouth give the impression that espresso is a type of bean. Any coffee bean can be used for espresso, from the most common Brazils to the most exotic Konas and Ethiopian Harar coffees.

Espresso is not a type of blend: This one is also a common misconception, but with some truth to the claim in that there are specific blends designed for espresso. The problem is, many people believe there is only one type of blend that is suited for espresso. Many high quality micro roasters would disagree with this – Roaster Craftsmen the world over work diligently on their own version of “the perfect espresso blend”.

Espresso is not 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, or more commonly known as a “Full City” roast if you like on the west coast of the USA. In California, the typical “espresso roast” is a dark, or “French” roast, and 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.

Not all espresso machines are Espresso Machines: Often you will see machines labeled as “Espresso Machines” but in fact they are not true espresso machines in the modern sense of the word. A modern espresso machine must produce high pressure (at least 9 BAR or atmospheres or 135 pounds per square inch of pressure) to push water through a very finely ground, compacted bed of coffee. There are many faux espresso machines that are in effect electrical “moka” style pots, relying solely on steam pressure to push water through the ground coffee. Steam pressure can produce at best 50 PSI or about 1.5 BAR of pressure. These machines cannot produce the true crema that pump-driven and lever operated espresso machines can produce. These fake espresso machines are usually sold for under $75 in major department stores. A good indicator that an “espresso machine” is actually a steam driven electrical moka pot is whether or not in includes a carafe – usually a 4 cup model. If it has one, it most likely is not a true espresso machine.

Speaking of moka pots, these also are not true 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 it makes. 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.

So What Exactly is Espresso?

Espresso is simply a method of brewing coffee. While there are many different ways of brewing coffee that include the use of a stove top coffee maker, a percolator, a French press (or coffee press), a vacuum pot and others, espresso is brewed in its own special way.

Espresso is a beverage that is produced by forcing hot water, between 192F and 204F, at high pressures, through a bed of finely ground and compacted coffee. A typical shot is about an ounce of liquid and uses approximately 7 grams (or 1 tablespoon) of ground coffee. A double shot is roughly twice that, between 2 and 3 ounces, using approximately 15 to 18 grams of ground coffee. The ideal shot of espresso is extracted in approximately 23 to 25 seconds, and applies to either a single or double shot. Double baskets are larger in capacity, with a greater screen area, allowing the coffee to flow faster, whereas single baskets restrict the flow, leading to 1.5 ounces in around 25 seconds.

The resulting extraction has three parts known as the crema, body and heart. The crema is the rich golden caramel cream which forms when brewed properly and sits on top of the body which is typically caramel brown in colour, and silky smooth in texture. The heart is at the bottom of the cup, and is a deep brown colour, containing the bitterness which balances out the sweetness of the espresso’s aroma. The crema however is one of the best visual indicators of a quality shot of espresso and you will instantly tell a good shot by the signature tiger stripes which form as a result of the hot water being forced through the emulsified oils in the ground coffee. Drinking an espresso is in itself a delicacy. In Italy, where most connoisseurs enjoy espresso in a traditional bar or cafe, it is customary to lift both the cup and saucer, and take in the fresh aroma of the shot, and drink it back within a few rapid sips. The “ceremony” is completed by clacking the cup back on the saucer in a firm but not-too-hard manner.

Most hard-core aficionados do not take sugar in their espresso, but there is no rule against adding one or two small spoonfuls to your own shots. Truly great espresso can be enjoyed without sweetener, and the sensation gives you more of a complete taste and experience of the essence of the coffee used.

Typically two types of beans are used in the production of espresso; Arabica and Robusta, each yielding very different aroma, flavor and after taste. High quality brands tend to cost more and consist of 100% Arabica beans which  produce a richer more full bodied espresso, whereas lower quality blends will incorporate a fair percentage of Robusta beans, sometimes as much as 80% or more, which tend to produce weaker and more bitter tasting espresso, and are less costly. However, the most popular blends incorporate a blend of both Arabica and Robusta beans, usually along the lines of 50/50. While blending is often driven by cost, it is also a function of achieving the perfect balance of crema, fullness and bitterness of the shot.

Roasting is an art and a science. Beans are introduced into 450F degree barrels or “drums” and typically roasted for between 10 and 20 minutes, depending on the roasting machine and the roaster’s preference. Most roasters will adjust the temperatures and times, which is known as a “roasting profile”.

After the beans are roasted, they require a 12 to 36 hour “degassing” period where the beans give off a great variety of gases produced by the roasting process. Roasting coffee introduces many chemical changes into the coffee bean, and the result is one of the world’s most complex foodstuffs. A roasted coffee bean has at least 800 uniquely identifiable components and chemicals inside of it that directly attribute to the flavour of a cup of coffee. By comparison, a quality red wine may have 300 unique components. Coffee is serious stuff, and you haven’t even got to the grinding and brewing part yet!