Espresso’s a bean, right?

Espresso’s a bean, right?

Well, no.

Espresso is a method. A method of brewing the beans, not the beans themselves. Just as you can use any kind of coffee (Costa Rica Tarrazu or a blend, such as Berkshire Sky) to make a Chemex, an Aeropress or a drip coffee, you can use any variety of coffee or blend to make an espresso. Let’s get into it.

What makes an espresso an espresso?

Is the how. How you get the flavor out of the beans. Espresso is one way of doing it. Albeit an obsessive, excessive and brilliant way. Thank the Italians. Meek they are not.

The process is this: pack some finely ground coffee beans into a little puck and hit it with almost-boiling water under 9 bars of pressure and the result is an espresso. Some context is in order: 9 bars or pressure are about130 psi (pounds per square inch). A standard portafilter (what houses the espresso puck) is about about 2” in diameter which means, each espresso shot you drink is the result of the force of 530 pounds of pressure forcing water through a little bit of ground coffee. No, meek it is not.

The first Italian to thank is Angelo Moriondo who, in 1884, patented a steam-driven coffee-making machine, the first machine that controlled the supply of steam and water separately through the coffee. In the early 1900s, Luigi Bezzera from Milan improved on Moriondo’s machine and was granted a patent for what is considered the first espresso machine. In 1903, this patent was bought by Desiderio Pavoni, who founded the La Pavoni company and began to produce one machine daily in his small workshop in Via Parini, Milan. Modern espresso was born.

The three phases

There are three phases in an espresso, each which create distinct layers and flavors, adding up to the amazing, complex espresso we love:

  • Heart: This first layer is the first to come out of the portafilter and is an emulsion of oil droplets. This is the dark brown base of your espresso. These droplets preserve the aromatic compounds (lost in other coffee brewing methods) resulting in espresso’s intense taste and thick, viscous body. The taste of this first layer is dense, like melted chocolate, and more acidic than what follows.
  • Body: The second phase, lightly lighter brown, is the greater part of the shot and is made up of soluble solids, soluble gases and insoluble solids, again with a heavy body similar to warm honey. This layer is more complex and more balanced with sweetness and clarity.
  • Crema: The third layer is made up of the light gas bubbles that sit on top. The crema forms when hot water contacts the coffee grounds, causing CO2 to rush out of the beans (if your beans are fresh). The gas combines with heavy oils and floats on top of the drink. This has a slightly bitter taste. We think in a good way, contributing to the balance of the drink as a whole (some spoon the crema off their espresso before drinking).


But [shudder] the caffeine!

Here is where the universe rewards you for your good deeds. Espresso has less than half the caffeine of regular brewed coffee per serving. This is because one serving of an espresso (about 1 oz. for a single shot) is much smaller than the size of a cup of brewed coffee (about 12 oz.). So your cappuccino or cortado (single shot) has far less coffee than your average cuppa and even your double shot has a little less.

What IS the best coffee for espresso?

Espresso can be made with a wide variety of coffee beans and roast profiles (light to dark). And, sure, some people may take a delicate, lightly-roasted Ethiopian or Panamanian Gesha and put it through an espresso machine but, for most, this is not ideal. Lighter roasts have more acidity and, combined with the floral, citrus-like coffees, they become too bright when put under the pressure of the espresso method. The hot water extracts light coffee compounds (including acidic flavors) first and because espresso brews so fast, acidity and sweetness are the prevalent notes.  Darker roasts have a more well-rounded flavor in espresso. We have two: our Notes from the Underground (deep, dark, intense, classic Northern Italian espresso) and Street Legal (a more modern, West Coast blend that is brighter, more acidic and livelier).

Cafe ordering roulette, compliments of the mermaid

How intimidating, how unpredictable and how frustrating this drink business is. We’ll break it down for you:

Let’s start with the espresso:

  • Solo: a single shot of espresso (1 oz.)
  • Doppio: a double shot (2 oz.). Just a solo x 2. Easy, rational. Stay with us.
  • Ristretto: a short shot (3/4 oz.), which means the barista pulls the cup away early resulting in a smaller, sweeter cup (remember, the sugars get pulled out first) with less water.
  • Lungo: a long shot(1 1/2 oz.), which means the barista lets the cup sit longer so that more water goes through the portafilter. This results in a more bitter taste due the to longer extraction time (bitters are extracted after sugars).


When we add milk to the equation, confusion abounds. (First off, forget everything you’ve ever seen on any Starbucks menu anywhere ever; they are inventions, to be kind.) These are the classics in the classic tradition with the classic ratios. All you need to be classically classy. (The frenzy never captured more brilliantly than in Sprudge’s Flat White: Explained article which, entertainingly, cleared up exactly nothing.) For the following we are assuming a double shot:

  • Machiato: 2 oz. of espresso: <1oz. microfoam only. Very little milk actually gets into the drink. It is mostly espresso.
  • Cortado: 1 oz. Espresso: 1-2 oz. of steamed milk
  • Cappuccino: 2 oz. espresso: 2 oz. steamed milk: 2 oz. microfoam. We are not big fans of microfoam (who needs a moustache?), but we need to report in honesty here.
  • Flat White: same as above but “wetter” meaning 2 oz. espresso: 4 oz. steamed milk where there is little foam, the microfoam is more integrated into the milk itself and how we prefer to serve all of our milk drinks.
  • Latte: 2 oz. espresso: 8 oz. milk (most lattes need to be double-shots to accommodate the amount of milk put into them)


To at-home or to not-at-home

We’re oh so tired after having re-read Sprudge’s article, we’ll have to kick this topic to another article. Stay tuned.