Espresso—the Essence of Coffee
‘If coffee only tasted as good as it smells!’ Have you ever said that? Then you might want to try “caffè espresso.” Connoisseurs have called it the “ultimate coffee” and “the pinnacle of coffee drinking.”
PERHAPS you have already tasted espresso? Maybe you were intrigued by its heavy body and rich flavor. On the other hand, you might have decided: ‘This is not my idea of a cup of coffee. No wonder it is served in the tiniest of cups—who could stand more than a few swallows of so harsh and bitter a drink? Besides, it surely contains an unhealthy amount of caffeine!’
However, is well-made espresso bitter? And does a serving of espresso contain more caffeine than a cup of regular coffee? The answers may surprise you.
What Makes It Espresso?
Espresso originated in Italy, although various countries and cultures have developed their own methods of preparing it. What does it taste like? Espresso lovers describe it as aromatic, rich, syrupy, smooth, bittersweet, caramel-sweet, and perfumy. A perfectly brewed cup of espresso includes a top layer called crema—a golden-brown foam, usually obtained with difficulty, that adds smoothness and holds in some of the aroma.
A single serving is a mere one to one and a quarter ounces [30-40 ml]. It is generally served with sugar in a demitasse immediately after it is brewed—superlatively fresh!
How is it produced? Espresso-making starts with a specially formulated blend of beans, roasted to a very dark brown (but not black) and ground more finely than those used for regular coffee. However, it is not primarily the roast or the grind that produces espresso—it is the unique brewing process, one that uses pressure instead of gravity. The amount of coffee used in a single serving is roughly two thirds the amount used for drip coffee, but with far less water. This brewing process brings out the essence of the coffee beans.
You can request a single or a double serving in many restaurants and coffee shops. A caution, however: Carelessly made espresso is bitter. So when you are served espresso at a restaurant or café, inspect it. If your cup is too full or the coffee is not topped with crema, you have likely been served a harsh, overextracted brew.
Associated with espresso is a line of espresso-based drinks. If you find espresso too rich, why not try a delicious cappuccino or a creamy caffe latte?
Equipment for Home Espresso
Would you like to make espresso drinks at home? Attention to every detail is essential, to ensure a rich, sweet drink.
What sort of espresso maker should you purchase? No drip method will make true espresso, regardless of the roast or the grind used. You will need specially designed equipment.
Stove-top brewers are often the least expensive. Many people are satisfied with stove-top espresso at home, even though the coffee is thin and likely to lack crema. You can get a good espresso by carefully limiting the amount of water put in the reservoir or by leaving the top open and taking the pot off the flame about midway through the process.
Electric steam machines utilize steam to force the water through the coffee. How can you get the best results? By cutting off the flow of coffee after the first one to two ounces, in order to avoid overextraction and save enough steam for foaming milk. Therefore, look for a machine that includes a switch or another means of cutting off the coffee flow. Steam machines make good cappuccinos and lattes but, like stove-top brewers, are incapable of producing the best straight espresso.
Piston machines are usually the most expensive and are capable of making excellent espresso. To operate a piston machine, you apply pressure by depressing a handle, which compresses a spring-loaded piston, forcing hot water through the coffee. Some people prefer piston machines because they offer manual control and are attractive in appearance. Others find them difficult to operate and too slow in the warming-up process.
Pump machines also generate enough pressure to make excellent espresso. They are easier and faster to operate than piston machines. Therefore, those who want the best of espresso usually opt for a pump machine. Features vary, and some pump machines are considerably more durable than others. So shop around before you buy. Stores that demonstrate their machines put you in the best position to make a solid choice.
The Coffee You Buy
Choose a fresh espresso roast. Coffee sold in supermarkets is rarely fresh, so seek out a specialty coffee shop—all the better if roasting is done on the premises. Ground coffee becomes stale within days, whereas whole beans will stay reasonably fresh for a few weeks. Therefore, if possible, buy whole beans and grind them at home, as needed. The right grind is fine, but not too powdery. If you must purchase ground coffee, buy a small amount and use it soon.
To keep your coffee fresh, store it in an airtight canister with a solid seal. If you will use it within a couple of weeks, keep the canister of coffee in a cool, dark area. Otherwise, store it in the freezer.
The Art of Brewing
Even with the best of equipment and coffee, the art of espresso making must be learned, not purchased. The steps of brewing will vary depending on the machine you use, so follow the directions that come with it. Use enough coffee grounds. The right dose will almost fill your filter insert, while leaving some room for the grounds to expand. It will take some experience to pack, or tamp, the coffee in the filter properly, so that the water flows slowly and evenly through the bed of grounds, ensuring full extraction of flavor.
A mistake to avoid? Brewing too much coffee from the grounds. If you try to brew two or three ounces [60 or 90 ml] from a single dose, the brew will get thin and bitter. Instead of getting espresso, you finish up with a drink that resembles strong drip coffee—not what you hoped for.
Therefore, an important factor is knowing when to stop brewing. Connoisseurs suggest that a single shot of espresso should result in one to one and a quarter ounces [30-40 ml] of liquid in about 20 to 25 seconds. At this point the grounds are thoroughly extracted and should be discarded.
Even when brewing a double espresso, “Less is more.” The less coffee you brew, the sweeter the drink. The definition of a double serving varies, but it is roughly two servings of espresso in one cup, using twice the amount of coffee grounds.
What About Caffeine?
A single serving of espresso may contain less caffeine than a cup of regular coffee. Does that surprise you? How can it be, given the intense concentration of espresso?
One factor is the darkness of the roast. Darker roasts contain less caffeine. Also, many specialty coffee shops use arabica coffee beans, which contain significantly less caffeine than the robusta beans used in many of the canned supermarket coffees.
But the biggest factor is volume. While espresso contains more caffeine per ounce than regular coffee, there is simply less liquid per cup. Thus, some studies show that a six-ounce cup of regular coffee may contain 100 or more milligrams of caffeine, whereas a single shot of espresso may contain somewhat less.
Nevertheless, results from studies vary, and the amount of caffeine will depend on the beans used as well as every step in the brewing process. Of course, a double espresso will contain more caffeine than a single. Your best guide in determining the level of caffeine is probably the way you feel after the drink. If you wish to decrease caffeine intake and still enjoy espresso, you can use a decaffeinated espresso roast or blend it with a regular espresso roast, according to the percentage of caffeine you desire.
Are you ready to brew espresso in your own kitchen? Good results come with persistence, so be your own guinea pig—practice on yourself before serving it to your friends. You will need experience to produce crema and foaming milk. Your perseverance, however, will pay off when you delight your friends with espresso drinks that rival those in your local coffee shop. You may even come to agree that espresso is the very essence of coffee.
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Instructions for Foaming Milk
To foam and/or steam milk for cappuccinos and lattes, you will need a steel pitcher, cold milk, and a milk steamer. If your espresso maker does not include a wand for milk steaming, you can purchase a stand-alone device for this purpose.
1. Fill a steel pitcher no more than halfway with cold milk.
2. Place the steam wand just under the surface of the milk, and open the steam valve.
3. Keep the tip of the wand barely under the surface, lowering the pitcher and incorporating more air as you foam.
4. The ideal temperature is usually reached when the pitcher becomes too hot to touch.
5. Close the steam valve, and remove the pitcher from under it. Then open the steam valve to clear any remaining milk, and wipe it with a damp cloth.
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Coffee beans stay fresh longer than ground coffee
A steam espresso maker is shown