What is Espresso Coffee? One Quick Guide for Beginners

Updated on: March 18, 2022
Author: Nick
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What is Espresso

Read on to discover what is espresso coffee, and to learn more about its history and its particularities.

What is Espresso Coffee?

Espresso is a concentrated type of coffee drink with Italian origins. Prepared from the same coffee beans as regular coffee, it’s its preparation that differentiates espresso from regular coffee.

Espresso features bold and concentrated coffee flavors and a velvety texture that are achieved through brewing under high pressure, typically 9 bars.

Espresso coffee can of course be drunk by itself – a delicious way to finish a meal!

But espresso also forms the basis of many types of coffee drinks! Espresso is needed to prepare latte, cappuccino, americano, flat white and many more types of drinks. 

The versatility of espresso coffee is what makes this drink so popular around the world!

Now that you know what is espresso coffee, let’s dive into this guide to learn more about espresso, including its history, coffee bean selection, preparation, taste and serving!

A Little Espresso History

Espresso coffee was invented Venice, Italy in the early 20th century…

  • During the late 19th and early 20th century, the Industrial Revolution was still going all out in Italy.

  • Many factory bosses realized the increase in productivity when workers would drink a nice cup of coffee. However, they deplored how long it would take to prepare coffee!

  • This is when Luigi Bezzera an young Milanese entrepreneur, enters the history of coffee. To solve the slow coffee preparation issues, he invented a new coffee machine to increase coffee preparation speed!

  • This became the first single serving espresso machine, which was patented in 1901. It was able to prepare coffee in about 30 seconds – a big leap in speed from previous coffee brewing methods!

  • Luigi Bezzera is considered the inventor of the espresso, but it was Desidero Pavoni who popularized what we know today as espresso through his marketing genius.

  • Bezzera and Pavoni worked together on a new improved espresso machine and showcased it in the 1906 Milan Fair.

  • It was after this milestone that Pavoni took over and branded the machine with the name “espresso”.

  • Finally, it was only until 1938 that Achille Gaggia improved the espresso machine by increasing its steam pressure to about 8-10 atmospheres. Today’s standard of 9 atmospheres falls within this range (1 bar is almost the same as 1 atmosphere)

  • From this point and throughout the WW2, Gaggia and other inventors have gradually improved the espresso machine to the one we know today!

Espresso Beans

Espresso beans are no different from regular coffee beans. What makes an ‘espresso bean’ is the method of preparation method.

Espresso beans are typically roasted for longer periods of times to create bolder flavors and natural oils. Typically espresso bean roast levels range from medium to dark.

So for example, if you have coffee beans with medium dark roast levels, but they are not labelled as ‘espresso beans’ this does not mean you cannot use these beans to make an espresso!

Of course you can! What matter is the roast level as discussed, and the grind size!

Kicking Horse Coffee, Cliffhanger Espresso, Medium Roast

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Espresso Grind Size

Espresso grind sizes are much finer than most types of other coffee grinds.

What makes an espresso is the high pressure needed during the brewing process.

If the grind size is quite coarse, the water will pass through quite easily and fast. As a result, not many coffee compounds will be extracted.

However, if the grind size is very fine, then water will pass through quite slowly through the ground coffee and will need a ‘push’. This is where the high pressure comes in!

You want your coffee grind size to be fine enough such that when a pressure of 9 bars is applied, the brew time results in 25 to 30 seconds.

Brewing Espresso

To make a true espresso, you need an espresso machine that can apply the needed pressure during the brewing process, which means a 4 cup coffee maker or drip coffee, in general, won't work...

However, if you are on a bind and are desperate to have an espresso (I have been there many times!), don’t fret!

There are options to make a coffee that is similar to espresso by using a French press or an AeroPress!

Espresso Taste

Due to its darker roast levels (and of course its high-pressure brewing method) espresso tastes differently than regular drip coffee.

Espresso should not be acidic and should feature full-bodied rich flavors. It has a velvety texture that is heavier than most other coffee drinks.

Something unique about espresso is the crema

Espresso Crema

Crema is the foam that forms on top of the espresso. Lots of crema is a good visual indicator of a good extraction.

Crema usually does not last very long and disappears after a minute or so. 

But that’s ok!

Espresso coffee is meant to be consumed immediately after extraction. If your espresso does not have crema on top, it means either a poor espresso extraction, or your espresso shot was sitting somewhere for too long (and thus it may be cold!)

Serving Espresso

Espresso is served in a demitasse, which means in French a “half-cup”. These cups are classically made of ceramic and are white.

To be more technical, the National Italian Espresso Institute states the following regarding the type of cup that should be used for a Certified Italian Espresso:

“It is a white china cup, free of any inside decoration, elliptical in shape, with a capacity of 50-100 milliliters.”

However, in our opinion, this definition is too restrictive; there is a whole bunch of espresso cups out there for all your needs and preferences!

Before serving, it is highly recommended that you warm your demitasse first. Otherwise, pouring your espresso shot into a cold cup will inevitably result at best in a tepid espresso shot!

After serving, scoop up the crema as it gives an acidity that does not taste too great!

Pro Tip:

If you really want to enjoy the bold espresso flavors, serve your espresso with some sparkling water to clean your palate.

When drinking, do not rush it, this is not a tequila shot!

Drink it sip by sip while enjoying the present moment and the bold espresso flavors.

And if you love espresso that much then try making yourself a Red Eye coffee!

JoyJolt Savor Double Wall Insulated Glasses Espresso Mugs

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Frequently Asked Questions – Espresso Coffee

Does Espresso have more caffeine than regular coffee?

One shot of espresso has about 60 mg of caffeine per shot (1 ounce), whereas a regular 8 ounce cup of coffee can have about 90 to 100 mg of caffeine. However, espresso does have a greater concentration of caffeine. For example, an 8-ounce cup of espresso would have about 480 mg of caffeine. We do not recommend you try this!

Can you use coffee beans to make espresso?

Yes! As long as the roast level is at least medium or darker you should be okay. The most important thing will be the grind size. Make sure it’s fine enough to sustain the required pressure during the extraction process!

We recommend at least medium roast level. If you use beans with a lower roast level, your espresso may end up as too acidic!

If you can make espresso from beans not labelled as “espresso beans”, what is this label for?

When you are shopping for coffee and see the label “espresso beans” in the packaging, this is simply the recommendation of the roaster on how to use these beans.

Does higher pressure means better espresso?

The industry standard for an espresso machine is 9 bars; however, you may have noticed many machines featuring 15 bars. A higher pressure level can help in extracting a higher quality shot, but you many not necessarily end up with a better shot. This is because there are other factors as well that determine a good or poor extraction! You need to have good quality beans, and top notch machine! If you are not using a super automatic espresso machine your skills also come into play!

What is Espresso - Espresso on blue table

Bottom Line

We hope you have enjoyed reading our brief guide about espresso! We hope you have learned something that you can apply towards your coffee journey.

Did you know that the majority of the best Starbucks iced coffee drinks are made with espresso?

Happy espresso brewing!

Nick loves coffee... Actually, he NEEDS coffee! So, he has dedicated his time to learning all he can about this magical bean. He can make a mean latte, is obsessed with flat whites, and is always up for a cup of java!
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