What do a latte, cappuccino, macchiato, and Americano coffee all have in common?
They all start off with a well-pulled shot (or two!) of espresso.
All shots of true espresso share these common traits.
The result is a bold, rich, full-bodied shot of very concentrated coffee with enough flavor to cut through 12 ounces of whole milk and flavored syrup.
But what if you want a drink with all the flavor and boldness of espresso without all the sugar and fat of a latte?
Try an Americano coffee.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, what the heck is an Americano anyway?
An Americano is usually made with 1 part espresso to 2 parts water. Though that is the standard formula, Americanos have a surprising number of variations. You can opt for one or two shots of espresso, add flavored syrups, or, if you’re feeling brave, top off the rest of your cup with black coffee.
While both your traditional drip coffee and espresso shots are extracted from coffee grounds by hot water, the similarities in flavor between the two end there.
The espresso shot is far more concentrated when compared to its traditional drip coffee counterpart. Even though espresso has a shorter extraction time than drip coffee — just 25-30 seconds — the pressurized steam applied to the grounds extracts more flavor in less time, yielding a sweeter and less bitter cup.
Whether you brew drip coffee with a traditional coffee maker or a fancier all-in-one grind-and-brew coffee maker, drip coffee relies on a few elements to produce the perfect cup:
If all these variables are optimized, you should get a pretty balanced cup.
In other words, the resulting coffee will be flavorful but not overly bitter.
And, unless you’re using a pour over coffee maker, the process should involve little else more than measuring out coffee grounds, filling the water tank, and pushing a button.
(Or you could just try the instant stuff if you’re short on time.)
An Americano — with a shot of espresso at its heart — relies on pressurized steam to extract flavor from the finely ground coffee beans.
Related: Best Espresso Beans (And How to Save When Buying Them)
Whereas most drip coffee takes several minutes to fully extract, espresso takes only 25-30 seconds thanks to the increased pressure. Take a look at the following chart and you can guess why that might be important.
The first thing which quickly extracts is caffeine. Then the flavorful and aromatic oils get pulled out. Lastly, the hot water begins to break down the coffee bean fibers to extract the bitter organic acids.
Espresso has such a short extraction time (even factoring in the increased pressure) to prevent over-extraction of those organic acids.
(Of course, you need some organic acids or else the coffee tastes light and feels thin.)
At the heart of every great Americano is a well-pulled shot or two of espresso. The perfect espresso shot has 3 distinct layers.
Each layer has its own flavor and contributes sweetness, body, and bitter notes to the overall flavor profile of the espresso shot.
The topmost layer in a good espresso shot is the crema. This foamy, golden-brown, emulsified layer is made up of the sugars, proteins, and fats extracted from the bean. As a result, the sweetest, most aromatic notes in the espresso linger here.
It is this layer which defines the espresso shot.
However, all that aromatic sweetness can be ruined if you over-extract your espresso. To prevent this, make sure to stop the extraction process as soon as you see a white ring begin to form atop the crema.
At the center of the espresso shot lies the body. This layer should be caramel brown in color and is slightly less sweet.
Last but not least, the bottom layer in an espresso shot is called the heart. This layer should be a deep brown in color, and it contains all the bitter compounds of the espresso bean. The bitterness of the heart is a nice counterpoint to the sweet, aromatic crema.
Pro Tip: Once you’ve pulled your shot, don’t let it sit for more than a few seconds. If the espresso shot is allowed to sit for too long, the other two layers will gradually become darker, which gives your espresso a very bitter and burnt taste.
After pulling your espresso shot, you can choose to make your Americano in one of 2 ways.
In the traditional Americano, hot water is poured over a shot of espresso within a 3 second window post-extraction.
The long black is an Australian interpretation of the Italian Americano. Hot water is poured into a cup, which is then topped off by the espresso shot(s).
Why the change?
Because the shot is poured over the water, the delicate crema remains undisturbed. Thus, you’ll get to experience the full, undiluted aroma of the espresso.
Americano coffee is usually made with 1 part espresso to 2 parts water. If that ratio doesn’t work for you, feel free to dilute it more or less according to your preference.
While a classic Americano is made with true espresso, you can still turn out a very decent approximation even if you don’t have an espresso machine.
Capsule-based machines, like the Nespresso lines, use small servings of ground coffee to brew a very concentrated dose of coffee, which makes a great stand-in for true espresso.
They’re usually able to get to nearly 15 bars of pressure, but that pressure is often inconsistent and fluctuates throughout the brewing process.
For this reason Nespresso machines don’t make true espresso, but don’t think they only turn out low quality garbage. To the contrary; many refined European hotels and restaurants use Nespresso machines as a convenient alternative to traditional espresso machines.
Invented by Luigi di Ponti in 1933, a moka pot works a bit like a pressure cooker. Boiling water from the lower chamber creates pressurized steam, which then passes through the coffee grounds resting in the filter basket above.
This results in a thick, super concentrated coffee which is very much like a true espresso. It doesn’t meet the 9 bar requirements, but the pressurized steam does somewhat replicate the espresso process.
The AeroPress can also be used to brew a coffee concentrate which comes close to a shot of espresso. Again, pressure is the issues as the resulting coffee won’t have a proper crema and the flavor will lack some richness found in a true espresso shot.
Nevertheless, the AeroPress is a great alternative to the moka pot and a Nespresso machine.
Though the classic Americano seems simple, there a few variations you can try:
Now go forth and enjoy your Americano coffee!