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What is Espresso?

BY: Shannon Grilli | Dec 3, 2018

Have you ever visited a coffee shop and found yourself befuddled by terms like ristretto and americano? Have you asked why the cups of coffee with milk you make at home taste so different than the latte you get at the corner café? The answer is espresso. That answer, however, leads us to a few more questions: What is espresso? What sets the different espresso drinks apart? And what about espresso vs. coffee? And what about expresso, isn't that a thing?

Fortunately, we're here to answer all those queries. So pull up a chair, pour yourself a cup, and follow along as we examine the basics of everyone's favorite caffeinated beverage.

What is espresso?

"Espresso" is just a fancy (and much shorter) way of saying "coffee that's been brewed by forcing hot, pressurized water through finely ground coffee beans." Unlike french press and automatic drip coffee, espresso is all about intense extraction in a relatively quick amount of time, percolating in about 25 seconds. The result is a small cup of highly caffeinated coffee with a rich, almost syrupy texture.

What is the difference between coffee and espresso?

Espresso may mean "coffee" in Italian, but it's much more concentrated than its namesake. As such, it boasts a much stronger flavor and aroma than coffee and a thicker consistency. With that in mind, espresso also has a much higher caffeine per volume content. But, because most espresso drinks are made using a small amount of espresso (commonly referred to as a shot), the overall caffeine content of your espresso-based beverage is not necessarily higher than a standard cup of coffee.

How do you make espresso?

Espresso's intensity is a result of its unique brewing method. Both espresso and traditional coffee are made using ground coffee beans. When making espresso, however, the beans are ground to a much finer, almost sugar-like, consistency. This fine powder is then packed tightly into the espresso machine's filter basket.

Then, water is forced through the ground beans at a very high pressure. It takes roughly 20 to 25 seconds to produce a shot of espresso, vs. coffee, which can take many minutes to brew as the water is slowly trickles over the grounds. This fast, high-pressure process is what creates espresso's concentrated, syrupy texture.

The process is also what produces one of the hallmarks of good espresso: crema. This creamy, foamy top layer is produced when the high pressure water emulsifies the oil content in the beans, forcing it into tiny air bubbles that form into a caramel-colored froth.

But what about expresso?

Expresso is just a mispronunciation of "espresso." It does not exist in the coffee world. Please do not ask for expresso unless you are looking for the Portuguese newspaper or the ostrich from Donkey Kong. In which case, proceed.

How is a cappuccino different from espresso?

A cappuccino is one of many espresso drinks you might find on a coffee-shop menu. Each drink typically differs in what it is blended with (milk or water, for instance), how it is served (foam, no foam), and other factors. The guide below breaks down the components of more popular menu items, so you can have a better understanding of what you're ordering.

What is espresso powder?

Espresso powder is finely ground coffee crystals that are designed to dissolve quickly and you don't really need to worry about it unless you're an avid baker! That's right; espresso powder is best used for enhancing the flavor of chocolate or adding a subtle coffee flavor to baked goods. Stick to the real stuff for drinking.

Popular espresso drinks:

espresso diluted with hot water

Latte: an espresso shot mixed with steamed milk and topped with a small amount of foam; the espresso to milk ratio is typically 1:2

Cappuccino: similar to a latte, except that the espresso to milk to foam ratio is 1:1:1, yielding a much stronger cup

Café macchiato: a shot of espresso topped with a very thin layer of foam


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