Espresso is a strong, somewhat bitter version of brewed coffee made from dark-roasted coffee beans.
Visually, it is noted for being served in small 2 oz (60 ml) cups, and for the thin patches of caramel-coloured “foam” on top, referred to as the “crema” (“cream”) or “sciuma” (that’s right, “scum.”)
Making it requires a special roast of coffee beans, usually a blend of dark-roasted, oily beans (less-dark roasts are more popular in northern Italy and France.) For use, the beans are finely-ground.
Often, the beans used can be of a slightly lower quality than might be used for drip or filter coffee, because the darker roasting the Espresso beans receive will change and develop the flavour anyway.
The temperature of the brewing of the ground Espresso coffee should be between 195 to 205 F (90 to 96 C.)
The ground coffee is pressed into a filter basket with a handle. There is a knack to learn in how hard to press the coffee down. Too hard, and the foam on top won’t be light-coloured and frothy, and the coffee will come out very slowly. Too light, and the coffee will come out too fast and be thin tasting.
Espresso is not meant to be served scalding hot. The serving temperature range should be 175 to 185 F (80 to 85 C.) A normal serving portion is 1 1/2 oz (45 ml) of brewed coffee.
Outside Italy, some restaurants purporting to serve Espresso may not actually serve genuine Espresso. They may use Espresso roast coffee, but brew it in a drip machine first thing in the morning, and then use it throughout the day for various coffee beverages such as cappuccino, etc. This saves on the hassle of having someone trained who knows how to make actual Espresso.
You can also buy instant Espresso in powder or granules, to which you just add hot water.
For some English-speakers, no matter how well-brewed an Espresso is, it is always too burnt and bitter tasting for them.
When you just ask for a “coffee” (“Caffè”) in Italy, you get an Espresso. It’s the standard coffee. There are many versions of Espresso in Italy:
- Espresso Corretto: (“corrected Espresso”.) Has an alcohol such as grappa added. very small amount, about 4 teaspoons (20 ml)
- Espresso Doppio (“double Espresso”.) Two shots; double the amount. To clarify, therefore made with twice the amount of coffee and twice the amount of water. will be 3 to 4 oz. Needs a larger than normal Espresso cup to serve it in, one about 5 oz.
- Espresso Lungo: (“long Espresso”, aka “Caffè lungo”) more hot water. Usually added separately.
- Espresso Macchiato: (“marked Espresso”, aka “Caffè macchiato”) Espresso to which a small amount of foamed milk, usually 1 to 2 tablespoons, is added.
- Espresso Ristretto (“restricted Espresso”.) Made with less water, by shortening the amount of time water is pushed through. You end up with less liquid in the cup, about 1 oz, and a more concentrated coffee.
- Espresso Romano: served with a twist of lemon zest on the saucer (America and France, not Italy).
In America, serving Espresso with a twist of lemon zest on the saucer is often seen as a “classy flourish.” It is done in North America and sometimes in France, but not in Italy. Outside of Italy, this is called an “Espresso Romano.”
Italians are mystified at this. In Italy, it is only done when you’re ill because the belief is that doing this will make you throw up (and therefore feel better.)
To counteract the contention of non-Espresso lovers that Espresso has too much caffeine in it for them, foodies began saying that Espresso actually has the same amount of caffeine as regular drip coffee. But in fact, this is a “counter myth” that is wrong, and the drip-coffee drinkers were right. Ounce for ounce, Espresso has more because it is more concentrated. It only has less “in effect” because you drink it in such small quantities, compared to a normal cup size for brewed coffee.
- 1822 — The first Espresso machine is made in France;
- 1901 — Luigi Bezzera creates a machine to make coffee faster;
- 1905 — Desidero Pavoni bought out the rights on Bezzera’s design. He continued research on it, and created a machine called that worked at 8 to 9 bars (see separate entry on Espresso Machines), with water at a temperature of 195 F (91 C);
- 1933 — The first automatic Espresso machine is created by Dr Ernest Illy;
- 1946 — Achilles Gaggia invents a high-pressure Espresso machine with a spring powered lever system;
- 1960 — The Faema company invents a pump-driven Espresso machine.
Literature & Lore
“Coffee Espresso is the finale in keeping with an Italian dinner — and so few places are equipped to do it that it’s more a name than a reality.” — Lee, Martha. Coffee Can Be Exciting Ceremony. Oakland, California. The Oakland Tribune. Tuesday, 4 March 1941. Page 20.
“‘We’ll serve the salad course before dessert, not before the entree, and we won’t serve butter with the bread or lemon peel with the Espresso,’ said Hazan, whose goal is to teach Americans how to taste.” — Hayes, Jack. Hazan seeks to conquer midtown Atlanta with new Veni Vidi Vici – restaurateur Marcela Hazan. New York: Nation’s Restaurant News. 30 April 1990.
“Mrs. [Marcella] Hazan, a consultant to the Atlanta restaurant Veni Vidi Vici, says it serves Espresso without lemon peel and the customers don’t ask for it. “I find that very encouraging,” she said.” — Fabricant, Florence. What Makes Food Italian? Don’t Ask American Chefs. New York Times. 20 March 1991.