What is an Espresso?
the world’s favorite coffee drink and its history
Whenever coffee is mentioned, the first
thing that pops into your mind is probably espresso. Or, at the very
least, an espresso-based drink, like a latte or a cappuccino. Why do
you think your mind goes straight to espresso instead of the many
other types of coffee drinks? And there are many other ways to
make coffee: French press, syphon, Aeropress, pour-over, Chemex,
HarioV60, Moka Pot, Drip Coffee, Cowboy coffee… And the list goes
With these many different brewing
methods, why is it that espresso has become synonymous with the word
coffee in our culture?
Well, the answer to that question
wouldn’t be a simple one. But we can try coming up with one by
exploring the many good things about espresso. To fully understand
what an espresso is, let’s look in closer detail at how an espresso
is made and compare it to other methods.
There are, in general, two ways to brew
coffee: steeping and filtering. Steeping means that you mix coffee
and hot water in the same place, let them hang out together for a
while, then separate them (or, in the case of turkish coffee, you
don’t). Filtering means that you place the coffee grounds on top of
a filtered material (cloth, linen, metal) and water is poured
directly on the coffee.
Espresso pretty much broke the rules
when it came out; filtered coffee is obviously going to be weaker,
diluted, because the water is not in contact with it for enough time
to extract all of the flavor and caffeine. The solution that they
came up with was to use a lot of force to push the water through the
coffee; this way, in a matter of seconds, you’d have a coffee so
strong that you would usually have to spend several minutes steeping
it! Plus, it reduces the amount of water needed.
So, the espresso is not just the
fastest coffee of the west, but also the most concentrated one; other
brewing methods have a much higher water content. Even then, the
water content in a cup of espresso is over 90%!
The espresso came from necessity. As
the world was becoming more industrialized, and “bigger”, in a
sense of more densely populated cities, it became clear that people
would rather purchase a beverage that was readily available; they
just wouldn’t wait 5, 10 minutes for their coffee to be made and
Thus came the espresso machine. After
several precursors and inventions, it was finally patented in 1901 in
Italy, and while it wasn’t an instant hit, by the 1950s espresso
was the coffee drink that every respectable Italian citizen
After the espresso conquered Italy, it
slowly but steadily moved to become the coffee drink of choice in the
rest of Europe, while it also slowly became a thing in the US.
Espresso machines were present in the US since very early after its
creation, but it wasn’t until the 1980s, when Starbucks was
created, that it would go on to be popular across the country.
The Italian diaspora helped the
popularization of espresso; this is more noticeably in the US in
cities like New York, and in the Argentinian city of Buenos Aires,
where the drink seems to have caught on rapidly compared to other big
cities on the continent.
After the popularization of espresso in
the US, the espresso drink made big waves worldwide. It was about
this time when we would experience what is known as “The Third Wave
The globalization of espresso made way
for coffee shops to be a common sight in nearly every city of the
world; even in east Asia and India, where tea has been the hot
beverage of choice for millenia, coffee was gaining more and more
popularity. A lot of this probably has to do that coffee shops
provide a social experience much like that of pubs and bars– yet
they are much more welcoming for young people, who often flock to
these spots in groups as a social occasion.
The love of espresso, by itself, was
actually short-lived, and quickly out staged by the latte and
cappuccino; these were drinks that included milk and sugar, appealing
to people with sweet tastes who would otherwise avoid coffee. It has
been said that the latte was first invented in California by an
Italian American, but as with many origin stories regarding coffee,
it’s hard to prove.
And so, we would start seeing a big
number of coffee drinks that were made around the single espresso
shot. Here are some of the most popular and interesting
Cappuccino: Consisting of
an espresso shot, steamed milk, and plenty of milk foam on top. It
is usually enjoyed as breakfast or as an after-lunch drink.
Latte: Probably the most
popular espresso-based drink; consists of frothed milk and a single
Corretto: A popular drink
in countries like Spain and Italy, this drink consists of a single
espresso shot with a small amount of liquor. Traditionally, grappa
is used, but brandy is used outside of Europe with similar results.
Con Panna: A sweet, sweet
drink. Consists of a single espresso shot with plenty of whipped
cream on top.
Irish Coffee: God bless
the Irish. Consists of one espresso shot, whiskey, and whipped
consisting of one espresso shot, steamed milk, and one scoop of ice
cream. With some small modifications, it transforms into a
Americano: One espresso
shot with water.
Mocha: Combining cocoa
and coffee, the mocha consists of one espresso shot followed by hot
chocolate, steamed milk, and whipped cream on top. It is usually
garnished with powder cocoa or chocolate shavings on top. Yum!
…And there are still many more out
there. What’s more, new coffee drinks based on espresso will keep
popping up as long as the drink is so popular as it is nowadays.
Every person has at least one unique recipe in them!
But what about espresso today? Surely,
with all the changes the world has undergone in the past two decades,
something has changed in regards to this coffee drink.
Yes, of course it has. We mentioned
earlier that coffee shops were a social hotspot, and while this is
still true today, the fact is that people have stopped depending on
coffee shops for their daily dose of espresso. We have seen for more
than a decade now the arrival of home espresso machines, machines
that bring to your home the technology for making an espresso and,
almost as important, for steaming and frothing milk.
The arrival of these machines put a
serious challenge on coffee shops, which had to get creative and
could no longer just rely on having an espresso machine. Coffee
drinkers, too, became evermore knowledgeable about coffee–their
quest for independence also meant that they had to be able to make
coffee. As it turns out, making good coffee isn’t just about having
the means, but also takes a certain amount of skill acquired through
Still, there have been several
developments after the home espresso machine, which was basically a
shrunken version of the espresso machine. These are the capsule
coffee machine and the manual espresso maker.
Capsule coffee machines are a sort of
chimera; they mix different brewing methods to achieve something
that’s very similar to an espresso, but instead of inserting coffee
grounds, one inserts a coffee “capsule”. Capsules are
pre-packaged coffee grounds, sometimes with added ingredients. The
capsule format serves to preserve the coffee’s integrity instead of
letting it be exposed to the elements, which could–and usually
does–cause coffee grounds to go stale. Upon insertion, the capsules
(which are made of aluminum for the most part) are perforated on the
top and bottom of the capsule; the bottom perforations serve much
like a metallic filter.
Depending on the machine, a combination
of pressure, filtering, and steeping is done to achieve an
espresso-like drink. A notable capsuled coffee is Nespresso’s
Vertuo line, which has patented a somewhat mysterious brewing method
that involves, among other things, spinning the capsule at hundreds
of revolutions per minute. The claim is that this brewing method
results in a superior extraction, and therefore a much better coffee.
Manual espresso makers, on the other
hand, are less complicated and more practical. The aim is to not rely
on big machines or even power to be able to make an espresso. The
solution is–almost always–to manually provide the pressure; in
the Aeropress, for example, one presses down on a plunger with some
force, achieving impressive results. By manually pressing down on
this rubber-sealed chamber, one can achieve a pressure like that of
professional espresso machines… with an invention that costs about
$50. Then, you have fancier inventions, like the Flair espresso
maker, which takes inspiration from old-timey lever machines, which
relied on the barista to provide pressure.
Manual espresso machines are
increasingly popular because of their portability, low cost, and ease
For most people, espresso by itself is
a very bitter drink. It is always recommended not to force yourself
to enjoy espresso with no sugar, as it is more of an acquired taste
over the course of several years. At first, be sure to either use
creamer, milk, or plenty of sweetener for your espresso. Another good
way to accompany espresso is along with a dessert; there is hardly
anything better than a sip of bitter espresso after a bite of
something sweet, and vice versa.
The espresso drink is very high in
caffeine, so it should be had in moderation. Studies have shown that
up to 4 cups of coffee can be safe, with results suggesting that this
amount is safe even for patients suffering from heart conditions.
Over 4 cups can be bad for your health. Caffeine is a stimulant,
after all, and all stimulants can be dangerous when taken in big
amounts. But don’t be scared, as the amount of caffeine in coffee
isn’t a big deal. For comparison, a cup of tea contains slightly
less caffeine that a cup of coffee. Most sodas, too, contain
caffeine–check the label!
If you’re drinking espresso out, make
sure you’re in good hands. Too often we can be served burnt
espresso, under-extracted espresso, or some variation of bad coffee
which can make us think that all espresso tastes bad. You can also
try making espresso at home, in which case it is advisable you read
up a lot on the theory before you start making espresso.
As with all coffee beans, they have to
be ground before you can brew coffee. For espresso, we need to use
the finest grind possible. With other brewing methods, this would be
a mistake: the smaller the coffee particles are, the faster the
coffee is extracted. If we steeped fine grounds, we would end up with
awfully bitter, possibly sour coffee.
The only reason we can use such finely
ground coffee is because of the espresso technology, which lets us
pass the water through the grounds at intense speeds; usually under
twenty seconds. Anything over twenty seconds, in fact, qualifies as
burnt coffee. The more you know!
Interestingly, there is a grind even
finer than the espresso grind, and it is only meant for Turkish
coffee. The coffee beans are ground down until a powder is achieved;
this powder is then brewed in a pot with water. Strangely, there is
no filtering going on, since the coffee and the water become
completely mixed, with a texture much like that of mud–only that it
tastes delicious, and it is said to be healthier because you’re
getting more of the health benefits of the coffee beans.