What do you know about espresso? Most general patrons are left in the dark about this mysterious substance even though it’s the life-blood of a café. The process of brewing espresso may look simple at first but, one miss-step could result in one crumby cappuccino. So, we’d like to give you some food for thought and make you the hero of ordering espresso drinks.
A Brief History
The espresso machine patent was registered in Italy in the late 1800s and was built with the intent of creating a single serving cup of coffee faster than ever before. Espresso machines use pumps and boilers to push hot water through the coffee. Espresso and café culture quickly exploded to encompass all of Europe and its subsidiaries. This technology has remained the same for the majority of espresso machine existence but is constantly being modernized. Over the past twenty years, espresso brewing has become a science thanks to advances in roasting and brewing technology.
The Brewing Process
When making espresso, coffee goes from whole-bean to liquid form in about fifty seconds. In that short amount of time, a series of steps take place and they must be executed with accuracy to ensure quality and consistency. So, what exactly happens behind that chrome or powder-coated machine that sits in every coffee shop? Let’s take a look at the espresso-making process in a nutshell:
To start: The barista cleans out and dries a portafilter (the metal basket/handle used to brew espresso) from the espresso machine.
Coffee is ground ultra-fine and dosed into the portafilter often using a scale.
The coffee is then compressed using a tamp. Baristas apply about thirty pounds of pressure straight down on the freshly ground coffee. The portafilter should never be hit or tapped after the coffee has been tamped.
The portafilter is inserted into the espresso machine group head and the extraction is started by the barista. We call this “pulling a shot”.
Depending on the type of espresso machine that is being used, the barista will stop the extraction manually or the machine will stop the extraction automatically after a certain amount of time has passed or a certain volume or weight is achieved.
Espresso as the Product
What becomes of espresso once it’s found its way into the cup? Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to drink espresso on its own, but it’s often perceived as a strong bitter/sour shot that is thrown back out of need for caffeine, not pleasure. Coffee is naturally bitter to the untrained pallet. But, after acclimating your taste buds to the nuance of well-extracted espresso, you will recognize a whole new world of flavors ranging from caramels and chocolates to cherries and peaches. If you need a little help finding the flavor notes in espresso, add a little simple syrup or sugar.
Espresso is good on its own but is most often used as a base for a series of drinks made with milk, water, or sodas. Most commonly found on the espresso menu are the espresso-based milk drinks that we are more familiar with. We’ve listed the most common in order from smallest to largest:
Macchiato- Espresso with milk foam
Cortado- Espresso with two ounces of steamed milk
Cappuccino- Espresso with four ounces of steamed milk
Flat White- Espresso with five ounces of steamed milk
Latte- Espresso with eight ounces of steamed milk
A series of espresso drinks exist outside the realm of those with milk. On most coffee menus you’ll see the classic Americano (espresso and hot water) or an espresso tonic (espresso in tonic water). Baristas are also taking advantage of flavors found espressos made with exotic coffees, using then to creating signature espresso drinks that look and taste more like craft cocktails, not cups of coffee.
You, as the Hero
Now that we’ve shed more light on the mystery that is espresso, we hope you feel encouraged to ask about the differences in the house espresso blend and the single-origin or try an espresso tonic. If you do have questions about something you are more interested in or something you don’t recognize, ask the barista helping you. Be sure to watch how your drink is being made. Well-crafted espresso drinks will taste like the care and precision that’s put into them. On your journey forward into the specialty coffee world the, more you know about the espresso, the more you'll feel like the hero of your own coffee experience!