What is an Espresso?
Knowing 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 on.
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 served.
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 had.
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 of Coffee”.
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 espresso-based drinks:
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 espresso shot.
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 cream.
Frappe: Traditionally consisting of one espresso shot, steamed milk, and one scoop of ice cream. With some small modifications, it transforms into a Frappuccino.
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 practice.
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 of use.
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.