There are few caffeinated drinks as shrouded by mystery as espresso. With stories of ‘the god shot’ and baristas tatted’ with murals of beans and portafilters, one might think espresso is an underground cult rather than a coffee drink.
For better or for worse, there is no ‘god shot’, nor is espresso that mysterious. But, as with any brew method, understanding the ins and outs of how it’s made unveils its secrets.
We’re going to lift the veil on espresso so you can comfortably walk into a cafe, order your espresso, and enjoy it the way it was intended.
Espresso Machine & Brew Basics
Espresso is both a beverage and a brewing method. And either way, we look at it, espresso is a little different from the rest.
Espresso, the brew method, uses a specialized brewer known as an espresso machine. Walk into a craft coffee shop, and you’ll see one of these babies sitting proudly on the counter.
In case you are wondering, yes, it is as expensive as it looks.
Costing upward of $20,000, these beastly espresso machines are designed to make thousands of drinks every day.
The barista might be pulling half a dozen shots every minute, all the while making steamed milk, brewing tea, and whipping up other coffee drinks. The espresso machine is the backbone of almost every coffee shop.
Espresso the Brew Method
First, the barista tightly packs around 20 grams of finely ground coffee into the espresso maker portafilter.
The portafilter is essentially a metal filter basket with a handle – sometimes you’ll see them use a naked portafilter (one which has no bottom), for aesthetics. Upon inserting the portafilter, our barista will then engage the espresso. This will begin the flow of water from the espresso machine’s boiler. And this is where things start to get a little crazy.
As the hot water reaches the grounds, it finds resistance (the coffee is ground very fine and packed tightly into the portafilter).
Not afraid of a little resistance, the espresso machine forces the water through the puck of finely ground coffee with around 9 bars of pressure, or 130 PSI (pounds per square inch). The whole brewing process takes only 30 seconds or so.
Forcing the water through the grounds allows it to dissolve most of the coffee’s soluble material. And because the grounds are so fine, it does so with relative ease.
Espresso the Drink
Espresso as a beverage, known simply as ‘an espresso’, is a concentrated ‘shot’ of coffee. As a result, it is strong and intense, both in regards to flavor, caffeine, and strength.
The golden combination of high temperature, high pressure, and a fine grind size allows the water to really extract the coffee— much more than we’d see in a V60 brew. As a result, a cup of drip coffee will be around 1.5% actual coffee solids.
An espresso, on the other hand, rolls in at around 10-12% coffee solids. So we can clearly see how much stronger it is than drip coffee. Not only is there more ‘coffee stuff’ in an espresso, but it is also far less diluted than filter coffee.
The telltale sign of good espresso shots has always been the thick crema layering the top of the drink. While many coffee lovers these days skim the crema off (crema tastes more bitter than the rest of the brew), crema is a trademark of it being freshly made.
A good espresso is syrupy in its mouthfeel. It’ll be very intense and packed full of delicious coffee flavor.
How To Drink Espresso 101
Order The Drink
Head on up to the counter of the coffee shop. Say hello and ask the barista for ‘a double shot espresso, please’.
If you’re at a good cafe, they’ll probably give you a choice of coffee beans to choose from.
Don’t freak out!
Either take a look at the menu and choose what you think sounds nice (there will be flavor notes there) or just talk to the barista. Ask what they’d recommend.
Take a seat and relax. You did good.
The barista will bring over your shot of espresso, usually on a saucer with a teaspoon and a glass of water.
This water is for drinking, not adding to the shot.
Drink the water before starting your espresso. Some cafes serve it sparkling, designed to cleanse the palate before drinking your espresso.
Expect solubles in your cup
As we spoke about earlier, there is quite a lot of solid coffee matter in an espresso. And these solids tend to sink down to the bottom, creating layers not unlike a B-52 cocktail.
There is also a layer of crema at the top of the beverage that doesn’t taste particularly great as a first sip. Take your spoon and give the espresso a gentle stir.
Stirring espresso and crema is crucial— it will ensure that each sip is balanced and tasty. If the barista doesn’t give you a spoon, ask them for one. You need it.
Though the term ‘espresso shot’ does imply it, we don’t actually want to treat the espresso-like we would shots of tequila.
Take a sip from your demitasse cup. Roll it around in your mouth before swallowing it. It might sound odd, but kind of chew on it in your mouth.
You Need To Be A Fan Of Strong Tasting Coffee
Espresso brewing has the ability to highlight everything the bean has to offer.
If the coffee is naturally fruity, those flavors will be amplified in the shot of espresso. While it might be a little too much for first-timers, the intensity of flavor is part of the experience.
Having said that, brewing a truly balanced espresso drink isn’t easy. If you taste a shot at a cafe and it’s super sour or extremely bitter, it might have been brewed poorly. Don’t just give up on espresso forever!
Good shots, what many refer to as ‘god shots’, are sweet, rich, and intense, with balanced, juicy acidity and a lingering aftertaste.
Do you drink espresso with milk?
There are loads of different espresso drinks that contain steamed milk.
The flat white cafe latte, cappuccino, and piccolo all contain milk in varying portions.
These are all known as espresso-based drinks because espresso provides them with their backbone.
Why do They Serve Espresso with Water?
Any good cafe will serve a glass of water with their espresso. Some of the really good ones will go a step further, serving it sparkling.
The water is there to cleanse your palate and freshen your taste buds so you can fully taste the coffee. It’ll help remove any taste of toothpaste, food, or gum from your mouth, fresh and ready to receive the delicious taste of espresso.
Do you drink water before or after espresso?
You’ll want to sip the water before drinking your espresso. After you’ve finished the espresso, you’ll have this gorgeous aftertaste that can go on for some time. Drinking something immediately after would wash away and eliminate this beautiful aftertaste, which would be a shame.
Do You Add Sugar to Espresso?
Most espresso aficionados will agree that there is no need for sugar in a well-prepared shot. If the barista is well adept at their craft, and the cafe is using quality beans, it will already be very sweet and will have very little bitterness.
If, however, you find the liquid in the cup bitter and muddy, which is what most people think when they think of espressos, then sugar is absolutely acceptable. An espresso from most chain cafes throughout the world will almost always need sugar to make it even slightly palatable.
Whether or not it’s ok to add sugar is entirely up to each coffee drinker. The negative health effects of sugar have been well documented, so unless you really need it, it’s probably best avoided.
How to Drink Espresso Like an Italian
A traditional Italian coffee house is entirely different from the third-wave cafes we’ve spoken about here.
It’s a busy place where the espressos are thick with crema and consumed quickly in a small demitasse cup while standing at the bar.
That’s not to say that Italy doesn’t have specialty coffee shops. In fact, some of the most respected roasters in the world, such as Rubens Gardelli, are Italians. But traditional Italian cafes are very different places.
Here’s how to drink espresso the Italian way.
- Order your espresso at the bar. Simply “Un caffè per favore” will do the trick. Espresso is the default coffee in Italy. If you want to fit in, only order milk drinks like the cappuccino before 11 am. An espresso macchiato (espresso with a stain of milk foam) is acceptable in the afternoon. Espresso drinking is acceptable any time of day, and it’s part of the culture. No latte, flat white, or caramel mocha, I’m afraid.
- Stand at the bar to drink your espresso. While this would be an odd thing to do in Australia or America, standing and drinking your espresso is perfectly normal in Italian coffee culture.
- Drink it quickly. Sitting down at a table and sipping an espresso for an hour isn’t common for a coffee lover in Italy. Italian espressos should be consumed in 2-3 sips. They’re a quick pick-me-up. The idea is to finish it before the crema has dispersed. If you want to add sugar to your demitasse cup, go for it. Sugar isn’t a dirty word here like it is in craft coffee shops.