Espresso

Espresso [e-spres-oh] is a type of Italian coffee that is concentrated. It is brewed by forcing a small amount of nearly boiling water under pressure through finely ground coffee beans.

Espresso often has a thicker consistency than coffee brewed by other methods, a higher concentration of suspended and dissolved solids, and crema (meaning cream, but being a reference to the foam with a creamy texture that forms as a result of the pressure). Because espresso is so strong, it is usually mixed with with milk (steamed, wet foamed, or dry foamed) or hot water (e.g. latte, cappuccino, macchiato, mocha, or americano).

Espresso has more caffeine per volume than most beverages, but the usual serving size is smaller—a typical 60 mL (2 US fluid ounce) of espresso has 80 to 150 mg of caffeine, less than the 95 to 200 mg of a standard 240 mL (8 US fluid ounces) cup of drip-brewed coffee. Tamping down the finely ground coffee promotes the water’s even penetration. This process produces an almost syrupy beverage by extracting both solid and dissolved components. It also produces the definitive crema, by emulsifying the oils in the ground coffee into a colloid (a mixture of one substance spread out evenly inside another), which does not occur in other brewing methods.

There is no universal standard defining the process of extracting espresso, but there are several published definitions which attempt to place constraints on the amount and type of ground coffee used, the temperature and pressure of the water, and the rate of extraction. The act of producing a shot of espresso is often termed ‘pulling’ a shot, originating from lever espresso machines, which require pulling down a handle attached to a spring-loaded piston. Today, however, it is more common for the pressure to be generated by an electric pump.

Espresso is both a coffee beverage and a brewing method. It is not a specific bean, bean blend, or roast level. Any bean or roasting level can be used to produce authentic espresso. For example, in southern Italy, a darker roast is generally preferred; but farther north, the trend moves toward slightly lighter roasts. Outside Italy a wide range of roasts are popular (darker roasts are more flavorful, but caffeine diminishes slightly with increased roasting). In the history of espresso, Angelo Moriondo’s 1884 Italian patent is notable. Ian Bersten, who wrote a history of coffee brewers, claims to have been the first to discover Moriondo’s patent. Bersten describes the device as ‘… almost certainly the first Italian bar machine that controlled the supply of steam and water separately through the coffee’ and Moriondo as ‘… certainly one of the earliest discoverers of the expresso [sic] machine, if not the earliest.’ Unlike true espresso machines, it was a bulk brewer, and did not brew coffee ‘expressly’ for the individual customer. Seventeen years later, in 1901, Milanese Luigi Bezzera came up with a number of improvements which he patented as ‘Innovations in the machinery to prepare and immediately serve coffee beverage.’ In 1905, the patent was bought by Desiderio Pavoni, who founded the ‘La Pavoni’ company and began to produce the machine industrially (one a day) in a small workshop in Milan.

In Italy, the rise of espresso consumption was associated with urbanization, espresso bars providing a place for socialization. Further, coffee prices were controlled by local authorities, provided the coffee was consumed standing up, encouraging the ‘stand at a bar’ culture. In the English-speaking world, espresso became popular, particularly in the form of cappuccino, due to the tradition of drinking coffee with milk and the exotic appeal of the foam; in the United States, this was more often in the form of lattes, particularly with flavored syrups added. The latte is claimed to have been invented in the 1950s by Italian American Lino Meiorin of Caffe Mediterraneum in Berkeley, California, as a ‘long cappuccino’ (a cappuccino with more steamed milk and less foam), and was then popularized in Seattle, and then nationally and internationally by Seattle-based Starbucks in the late 1980s and 1990s. In the United Kingdom, espresso grew in popularity among youth in the 1950s, who felt more welcome in the coffee shops than in public houses (pubs).

Espresso spread with the Italian diaspora, and grew in popularity with tourism to Italy exposing others to espresso. Initially, expatriate Italian espresso bars were downmarket venues, serving the working class Italian immigrants– and thus providing appeal to the alternative subculture / counterculture; this can still be seen in the United States in Italian American neighborhoods, such as Boston’s North End, New York’s Little Italy, and San Francisco’s North Beach. As specialty coffee developed in the 1980s (following earlier developments in the 1970s and even 1960s), an indigenous artisanal coffee culture developed, with espresso instead positioned as an upmarket drink. Today, coffee culture commentators distinguish large chain, midmarket coffee as ‘Second Wave Coffee,’ and upmarket, artisanal coffee as ‘Third Wave Coffee.’ In the Middle East, espresso is quite popular and becoming more widely available with the openings of Western coffee shop chains. However, the most common type of coffee remains what is popularly called in English ‘Turkish coffee’ (although it is variously known as ‘Arabian coffee’ or ‘Greek coffee’ in various parts of the world) which is also served short like espresso. Turkish coffee is almost the same measure of ground coffee as an espresso, added to water and brought to a boil. It is quite common that ground cardamom is added to the blend of coffee for added flavor.

A distinctive feature of espresso, as opposed to brewed coffee, is espresso’s association with cafés, due both to the specialized equipment and skill required, thus making the enjoyment of espresso a social experience. Home espresso machines have increased in popularity with the general rise of interest in espresso. Today, a wide range of home espresso equipment can be found in kitchen and appliance stores, online vendors, and department stores. Initially, espresso machines were not available for home use; development of domestic machines began in the 1970s, and remained expensive and bulky, and required skill to operate. In recent years, the invention of convenient counter-top home espresso makers based on coffee pods has increased the quantity of espresso consumed at home. The popularity of home espresso making parallels the increase of home coffee roasting. Some amateurs pursue both home roasting coffee and making espresso.

The origin of the term ‘espresso’ is the subject of considerable debate. Although some Anglo-American dictionaries simply refer to ‘pressed-out,’ ‘espresso,’ much like the English word ‘express,’ conveys the senses of ‘just for you’ and ‘quickly,’ which can be related to the method of espresso preparation. The words ‘express,’ ‘expres,’ and ‘espresso’ each have several meanings in English, French, and Italian. The first meaning is based on the idea of ‘expressing’ or squeezing the flavor from the coffee using the pressure of the steam. The second meaning refers to speed, as in a train. Finally there is the notion of doing something ‘expressly’ for a person. The first Bezzera and Pavoni espresso machines in 1906 took 45 seconds to make a cup of coffee, one at a time, expressly for the customer. The spelling ‘espresso’ is widely considered correct while ‘expresso’ appears as a less common variant. Italy uses the term ‘espresso,’ substituting most ‘x’ letters in Latin root words with ‘s’; ‘x’ is not considered part of the standard Italian alphabet. Italian people commonly refer to it simply as ‘caffè’ (‘coffee’), espresso being the ordinary coffee to order; in Spain, while ‘café expreso’ is seen as the more ‘formal’ denomination, ‘café solo’ (alone, without milk) is the usual way to ask for it when at an espresso bar.

In Slovakia and Czechia, espresso is commonly referred to as ‘preso,’ and is served with milk (either 10%-fat ‘coffee cream’ packaged in small plastic cups, or milk in a tiny bucket in better cafés) on the side by default. ‘Espresso lungo’ is also still more common than ‘normale’ (usually referred to as ‘piccolo’), let alone ‘ristretto.’ This is referred to as ‘presso with milk’ The practice is slowly changing (especially under the influence of specialty coffee shops and international coffee chains). Modern espresso, using hot water under pressure, as pioneered by Gaggia in the 1940s, was originally called ‘crema caffè,’ in English ‘cream coffee,’ as can be seen on old Gaggia machines, due to the crema. This term is no longer used, though variants find occasional use in branding.

The main variables in a shot of espresso are the ‘size’ and ‘length.’ This terminology is standardized, but the precise sizes and proportions vary substantially. Cafés generally have a standardized shot (size and length), only varying the number of shots in espresso-based drinks such as lattes, but not changing the extraction – changing between a double and a triple requires changing the filter basket size, while changing between ristretto (restricted), normale (medium), and lungo (long) require changing the grind, and cannot easily be accommodated in a busy café, as fine tweaking of the grind is a central aspect to consistent quality espresso-making, which is disrupted by major changes, such as ristretto to lungo. A normal espresso takes from 18 – 30 seconds to pull, while a lungo may take up to a minute. The size can be a single, double, or triple, which corresponds roughly to a 1, 2, and 3 US fluid ounce (approximately 30, 60 or 90ml) standard (normale) shot, and use a proportional amount of ground coffee, roughly 7–8, 14–16, and 21–24 grams; correspondingly sized filter baskets are used. The Italian term ‘doppio’ is often used for a double, with ‘solo’ and ‘triplo’ being more rarely used for singles and triples. The single shot is the traditional shot size, being the maximum that could easily be pulled on a lever machine, while the double is the standard shot today.

A portafilter (or group handle) attaches to the group head of semi-automatic and piston-driven espresso machines, and carries a tamped puck of coffee grounds within its basket. It is usually made of brass, and is attached by a plastic or wooden handle. Single baskets are sharply tapered or stepped down in diameter to provide comparable depth to the double baskets and, therefore, comparable resistance to water pressure. Most double baskets are gently tapered (the ‘Faema model’), while others, such as the La Marzocco, have straight sides. Triple baskets are normally straight-sided. Portafilters will often come with two spouts, usually closely spaced, and a double-size basket – each spout can optionally dispense into a separate cup, yielding two solo-size (but doppio-brewed) shots, or into a single cup (hence the close spacing). True solo shots are rare, with a single shot in a café generally being half of a doppio shot. In espresso-based drinks, particularly larger milk-based drinks, a drink with three or four shots of espresso will be called a ‘triple’ or ‘quad,’ respectively, but this does not mean the shots themselves are triple or quadruple shots. Rather, generally double shots will be used, with one and a half shots used in a triple (split via the two spouts), and two shots used in a quad.

The length of the shot (ristretto, normale, lungo) corresponds to a smaller or larger drink with the same amount of ground coffee and same level of extraction. Proportions vary, and the volume (and low density) of crema make volume-based comparisons difficult (precise measurement uses the mass of the drink), but proportions of 1:1, 1:2, and 1:3–4 are common for ristretto, normale, and lungo, corresponding to 1, 2, and 3–4 US fl oz (30 ml, 60 ml, 90–120 ml) for a double shot. Ristretto is the most commonly used of these terms, and double or triple ristrettos are particularly associated with artisanal espresso. Ristretto, normale, and lungo are not simply the same shot, stopped at different times – this will result in an underextracted shot (if run too short a time) or an overextracted shot (if run too long a time). Rather, the grind is adjusted (finer for ristretto, coarser for lungo) so the target volume is achieved by the time extraction finishes. A significantly longer shot is the ‘caffè crema,’ which is longer than a lungo, ranging in size from 4–8 US fl oz (120–240 ml), and brewed in the same way, with a coarser grind. The method of adding hot water (such as in an americano) produces a milder version of original flavor, while passing more water through the load of ground coffee will add other flavors to the espresso, which might be unpleasant for some people.

Methods of preparation for espresso based drinks differ between drinks and between baristas. For macchiatos, cappuccino, flat white, and smaller lattes and Americanos, the espresso is brewed into the cup, then the milk or water is poured in. For larger drinks, where a tall glass will not fit under the brew head, the espresso is brewed into a small cup, then poured into the larger cup; for this purpose a ‘demitasse’ or specialized espresso brew pitcher may be used. This ‘pouring into an existing glass’ is a defining characteristic of the latte macchiato and classic renditions of the ‘red eye’ (a cup of coffee with a shot of espresso in it). Alternatively, a glass with ‘existing’ water may have espresso brewed into it – to preserve the crema – in the ‘long black.’ Brewing onto milk is not generally done.

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