Espressos are one of the most popular coffee drinks, but what is espresso? It’s a concentrated coffee using an espresso machine that creates high pressure to force hot water through finely ground coffee. The brew process expresses the coffee flavors in an espresso.
The brew method is the main difference that answers what is espresso versus regular coffee. Espresso beans and coffee beans are the same. That alone is surprising to many people.
I wanted to explain all the basics behind the famous Italian coffee drink and lay out exactly what is espresso in this guide. There are five big things to learn about espresso: origin, taste, brewing, grind, and roast. I’ve also included 11 espresso drinks: four straight espresso shots and seven mixed drinks.
Let’s start with the espresso basics then get into the details.
What Is Espresso?
Espresso (pronounced es-PRESS-so) is a thick, concentrated form of coffee with a bold flavor. Espresso is unique because espresso machines use nine bars of pressure to push hot water through finely ground beans. The brewing process extracts coffee rapidly and leaves a high density of soluble oils in espresso shots. The oils create a thick mouthfeel and “expressed” coffee flavors.
Espresso originated during the early 1900s in Italy, where it remains extremely popular. You’ll likely receive a shot of espresso if you order a “caffe” in Italy. Espresso originally became popular because it only took 30 seconds to brew, a fraction of the time for regular brewed coffee. Workers preferred espresso because it was faster to order and drink during break times!
Espresso versus coffee: the main (and really only) difference between espresso and regular coffee is the brew method. Espresso machines use high pressure to push water through the coffee grounds, while regular coffee brewing devices use gravity. Espresso uses the same beans as other coffee brews, although espresso beans are finely ground and usually dark roast.
Espresso coffee tastes bold (formatting pun intended!). The high ratio of coffee-to-water means the coffee flavors will be more expressed in an espresso. In fact, “espresso” means “expressed” in Italian! Aroma, sweetness, roast, acidity, and unique flavor notes will be very present in espresso.
Espresso machines don’t use a paper filter which allows all the flavor-filled oils to reach the cup. The oils are heavy and roll around the mouth and linger. These components give espresso a thick body.
Espresso is low on bitter flavor thanks to the fast brew time. Bitter flavor comes from heavy compounds in coffee, which take the longest to extract. Espresso’s fast brew time of 30 seconds doesn’t leave any time to extract the heavy compounds into the espresso shot (very different than the typical four minutes for regular brewed coffee). This adds to espresso’s nice flavor profile.
How Is Espresso Made?
Espresso’s flavor is far different than other brew methods. It’s why many people think espresso beans are different than regular coffee beans, but espresso flavor is due to the brewing.
Espresso is made with espresso machines. What separates an espresso machine is its ability to generate nine bars of pressure to push water through grounds. The pressure makes the difference in espresso. Nine bars of pressure equates to 130 pounds per square inch (psi), which is a serious amount of pressure. Bike tires use 60 psi and car tires use 35 psi. Nine bars of pressure is equivalent to 245 kilograms (540 pounds) of weight on the espresso puck. That’s the weight of three espresso machines!
Espresso machines use a 1:2 coffee-to-water ratio, which is much more concentrated than the 1:15 ratio for regular coffee. The coffee grounds are finely ground and tamped down in a portafilter for an espresso machine. The espresso machine brews a shot in 30 seconds by squeezing hot water through the portafilter with nine bars of pressure.
There are cheap steam machines that retail for over $100, but they do not make consistent espresso. A quality espresso machine costs several hundred dollars and is worth the investment to make delightful espresso every morning.
There are other ways to make an espresso without spending a small vacation budget on a machine. Manual espresso machines use a hand pump, and an AeroPress can make espresso-like coffee.
While the machine is the most component of making espresso, there are two other important things to know: roast and grind.
Espresso is typically made with dark roast beans. Beans become a dark roast when the beans have cracked twice, which usually requires 230 degrees Celsius (~450 degrees Fahrenheit). The roast removes most of the acidity and releases trapped gas.
Light and medium roasts can be used for espresso. Be warned lighter roasts are more acidic and can be overpowering in espresso. The hot water extracts light coffee compounds (including acidic flavors) first. Espresso brews fast so acidity and sweet flavors notes will be prevalent. Dark roasts have a well-rounded flavor in espresso.
Espresso always uses finely ground coffee beans. Espresso has the finest grind size of any brew method except for Turkish coffee. The fine grind exposes more surface area for the hot water to extract espresso flavor in 30 seconds or less.
There is such a thing as too fine of a grind for espresso. Extra fine coffee will clog the portafilter and the espresso will flow out at a glacial pace. It’ll take over 30 seconds to fill a one-ounce shot and the espresso will be over-extracted leading to a bitter flavor.
The right grind size varies by the espresso machine. Baristas will “dial in” the grind, tweaking the fine-ness until the drink is extracted in 30 seconds. The color of espresso indicates the right extraction level. A light brown color means the grind is too coarse (under-extracted), pure black means too fine (over-extracted), and dark brown is just right.
Crema: The Beautiful Espresso Topping
A good espresso has a thick layer of crema, the foam on top of an espresso shot. The crema forms when hot water contacts the coffee grounds, causing CO2 to rush out of the beans. The gas combines with heavy oils and floats on top of the drink. Like a good coffee bloom, the crema signals the beans are fresh.
The crema adds aroma to the espresso as it steadily dissipates. The heavy oils and crema create distinct layers to an espresso, each of which has a different flavor. Crema tastes bitter and some people spoon it off their espresso. We recommend stirring espresso before the first drink to mix the layers for a balanced flavor.
Espresso is served in smaller quantities than regular coffee. The typical espresso is 27 milliliters or one ounce. Espresso is ordered as a “shot” from a barista. This doesn’t mean you drink an espresso in one sip like a shot, although espresso is often ordered at the bar in Italy.
There are a couple of ways to order an espresso. I listed out the espresso drinks using the Italian word with the English translation:
- Solo (single): The typical single shot with one ounce of espresso.
- Doppio (double): a double shot with two ounces of espresso. Espresso machines make double shots with each brew. You’ll notice baristas have two glasses under two spouts to separate single shots.
- Ristretto (restricted): a ristretto uses less water with the same amount of coffee. A ristretto is also known as a “short shot” and has ¾ of the water as a solo. A ristretto will taste sweeter due to the shorter extraction time.
- Lungo (long): the “long shot” uses more water per coffee, typically 1 ½ compared to a solo. The lungo has a more bitter taste due the to longer extraction time.
Espresso is also served in demitasse cups, which is actually a French word for “half cup”. The demitasse holds around three ounces and is the perfect size for any espresso drink.
Other Espresso Drinks
Espresso is also the base for many common coffee beverages.
- Cappuccino: a cappuccino is one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third milk foam. The layers create a distinct texture while letting the espresso flavor come through.
- Latte: a typical latte has two ounces of espresso, eight ounces of steamed milk, and one ounce of milk foam. The steamed milk makes a latte more of a casual, full morning drink.
- Flat White: a flat white has two ounces of espresso and six ounces of steamed milk. The flat white is similar to a latte but uses less milk and zero foam. This brings out a little more espresso taste.
- Cortado: a cortado includes two ounces of espresso mixed and two to four ounces of milk. The cortado is a step towards an espresso compared to a flat white. The cortado has a creamy texture and espresso taste.
- Macchiato: a macchiato includes two ounces of espresso and one to two ounces of milk with a dash of milk foam. The macchiato includes a slight amount of milk, making it the closest drink to straight espresso.
- Americano: an americano includes two ounces of espresso and six ounces of hot water (the water ratio varies widely). The hot water softens the espresso taste and mouthfeel.
- Mocha: a mocha includes an even amount of espresso and hot chocolate topped with milk foam. I consider a mocha more of a dessert than a coffee, but that’s another discussion…
The baristas at Večerka have a great side-by-side comparison of the espresso drinks (around the 5:20 mark).
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
How much caffeine is in espresso?
A single espresso shot (one ounce) has 65 milligrams of caffeine. This is less than a cup of coffee (eight ounces) which has 96 milligrams of caffeine. While espresso is a stronger drink and has more caffeine per ounce compared to coffee, espresso has less caffeine per drink than coffee.
How is espresso different than coffee?
Espresso is made with an espresso machine, which uses nine bars of pressure to push water through finely ground coffee. Regular coffee brewing uses gravity to pull water through the coffee. High-pressure brewing is the main difference between espresso and coffee. Espresso takes 25-30 seconds to brew, compared to regular coffee at 3-4 minutes. Espresso uses a 1:2 ratio of coffee-to-water while regular coffee uses a 1:12 to 1:17 ratio. Espresso has a thicker texture and flavors are more “expressed” than regular coffee.
How are espresso beans different than coffee beans?
At a high level, espresso beans and coffee beans are the same. They both come from the roasted beans from the fruit of a coffee tree. Any coffee beans can make espresso and any espresso beans can make coffee. Espresso beans tend to be a dark roast, which avoids a strong acidic taste. Espresso beans are always finely ground for an espresso machine.
Espresso is one of the many ways to make coffee and explore our other coffee brewing guides to find out different ways to brew coffee.