If you’re a coffee drinker looking to better understand and/or get into the world of espresso, be prepared to hear the espresso drinker’s terminology:
We’ll define all of those in a moment, but first, let’s define the big one.
Espresso is a concentrated coffee beverage made when hot water is forced through finely ground coffee beans. It’s rich, robust, concentrated and frequently used as the base for familiar coffeehouse beverages, such as cappuccinos and lattes.
But not all concentrated coffee is espresso. True espresso is defined by 3 criteria:
An espresso machine’s ability to meet those three criteria consistently is what makes an espresso machine poor, serviceable, good or great.
Steam espresso machines are pretty cheap, frequently under $150, and may call themselves espresso machines, but steam itself can’t get to 9 bars of pressure. The resulting “espresso” is more appropriately called “really concentrated coffee.”
Great espresso machines are the ones that maintain consistently high temperatures and consistently provide the right pressure, which allows for a consistently pulled shot within the 25-30 second time frame.
Notice my consistent use of the word “consistently”? That’s not an accident. You want your espresso machine to be able to hit the same extraction parameters every single time. That way the same recipe always pulls the same shot.
You don’t as much “brew” espresso as you “pull” it. You’ll still see the word “brewed” in the espresso world — I’ll use it frequently, such as in our How to Brew Espresso article — but the act of brewing is called pulling.
And you don’t pull a “cup” or a “serving”…you pull a “shot”!
Shot size ranges from a 0.5 oz ristretto to a 2.8 oz double espresso, but they’re all still shots.
If espresso is really concentrated coffee, ristretto is really concentrated espresso.
First, let’s expand our lingual consciousness: in Italian, “ristretto” means “restrict” so it makes sense why the smallest portion of espresso would be considered restricted.
Espresso connoisseurs often speak of espresso recipes, which is the ratio by weight of ground coffee to water. Espresso ratios range from around 1.0:1.5 to 1.0:2.5. Ristretto is on the lower end of that range, meaning ristretto shots use less water for the same amount of ground coffee.
Unsurprisingly, this means a ristretto shot will have less extraction time than a full sized espresso shot.
Take a look at the following chart showing extraction as a function of time.
If ristretto has less extraction time than normal espresso, how do you think the resulting shot will compare?
If you said sweeter or less bitter, you’re right!
Organic acids — the compounds that make your coffee/espresso bitter — take the longest to extract from the bean. If you end extraction sooner, you’ll end up with fewer of these bitter organic acids compared to a typical espresso extraction.
But what about a lungo shot?
Lungo is the opposite of ristretto.
To pull a lungo shot, use the same amount of coffee grounds but more water.
Care to guess what that means for a lungo shot’s flavor profile?
(Hint: You can use the chart above.)
That’s right! A lungo shot has more organic acids and therefore is more bitter than both ristretto and standard espresso shots.
And because I gave you an Italian lesson above — “ristretto” means “restrict” — I’ll give you another one here, too.
“Lungo” means “long” in Italian.
Thanks for reminding me.
No “what is espresso” explanation is complete without talking about crema.
“Crema” is the lighter colored layer on the surface of your espresso.
The presence of a rich, light brown crema (not too thin but not too think and foamy) indicates a well-pulled shot. A great crema can tell you four things:
A beautiful crema is part of what makes espresso such a delightful sensory experience, but it is possible to get a great espresso shot without a perfect crema. Great espresso should be defined by great espresso flavor, and while a great crema often indicates a great flavor, that isn’t always the case.
Still, I do enjoy a delicately rich crema.
We’ve talked at length about espresso and the various nuances between different types of shots, but we haven’t yet talked about what you pull that shot into.
That’s right. “Demitasse” refers to the cup your espresso is pulled into — a “demitasse” cup.
Ready for your third Italian lesson?
Go somewhere else!
“Demitasse” is actually a French word that means “half cup.”
The name is quite literal in fact, as demitasse cups only hold about 3 oz of beverage, making them half the standard coffee cup (6 oz).
(Just because you enjoy a 20 oz coffee in the morning doesn’t mean that’s one cup.)
Espresso can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be.
Go to your local coffee shop and order an espresso shot. Easy, no thought, no mess.
Buy your own high-end, do-it-yourself machine and tweak every single teeny, tiny variable until you dial in the exact recipe that’s perfect for you.
So, where are you on your espresso journey? Just getting started or seasoned veteran? Regardless, these are the terms you need to know when answering the question, "What is espresso?"