Coffee Tips

What is Espresso?

By Jon Ferguson | June 23, 2020

Espresso has become a staple in many of our lives, where it has been introduced into every latte, mocha, and specialty coffee drink that is hand crafted by your local barista. But what is espresso? Some of the more curious questions asked over the years about espresso: Is espresso a type of roasted coffee, such as a dark roast? Is it a type of blend of coffee? When someone asks for an espresso at a café, what are they technically asking for, versus what they might think they want?

Did you know that when espresso is mistakenly spelled with the letter “x”, it’s not entirely wrong? In most cases, espresso is spelled with an ‘s’ and refers to a coffee drink, not the air flow position on a German built coffee roaster. Although, the spelling of the drink is often found spelled expresso, in North America it would be considered improper spelling.

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Espresso is a type of brew method that uses a brewing system with pressurized force to pull oils and other flavors out of finely ground coffee, making about one to two ounces of coffee, or as much as a shot glass. I love to use the metric system that bases measurements on the weight of water, which in this case would equal about 30ml (or 30 grams in weight). Using a scale for measurement should be okay, and although espresso is thicker and weighs slightly more than water, it’s pretty accurate and much more consistent than eyeballing the volume of the espresso and crema that continually shrinks as it degasses in the shot glass.

But what about espresso beans?

Espresso is not a roast level, nor is it a coffee a bean. The coffee that is roasted is the seed of a fruit, not a legume, although it looks like a bean.

The reason why people ask for a roasted coffee espresso blend is because coffee roasters know which types of coffees work well together to make espresso shots that go well with milk based drinks, and traditionally, these roasts were often very dark, oily, full bodied, with a lingering carbonized, ashy finish. The onset of modern-day specialty coffee, otherwise referred to as third wave coffee changed the image of espresso by expanding the horizons of what espresso flavors could represent. Coffee roasters experimented by using a single type of coffee from one origin, while also roasting the batch lighter, moving away from the darker, smokey attributes to more fruit forward, citric or malic vibrant acidity, with caramel and chocolate notes in the resulting espresso beverage.

And it worked. Roasters around the world caught on to the espresso revolution, ditched the old ways, and explored new roast profiles, single origins, and put these coffees into the espresso grinder and started building a new interpretation of what espresso can be.

There was still confusion from customers with the types of drinks.  Many referred to darker roasts as espresso roast and continued to ask retail coffee shops for their espresso roast to take home with them. But baristas who hadn’t been around before the espresso revolution, never experienced the 90’s culture of dark roast, oil, rancid, stale coffee blends, and when they sold these new progressive forms of single origin coffees that they were using for espresso preparation, there was a disconnect between roaster and consumer.

The evolution of espresso has definitely changed and continues to be a hot topic across the entire coffee industry. The final take on what is espresso is simply that it is a drink that measures about one ounce in volume.

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The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) refers to espresso as:

Espresso is a 25–35ml (.85–1.2 ounce) beverage prepared from 7–9 grams of coffee through which clean water of 195°–205°F (90.5°–96.1°C) has been forced at 9–10 atmospheres of pressure, and where the grind of the coffee is such that the brew time is 20–30 seconds.” – SCA

No matter how you think of espresso, it’s definitely strong and will continue to add the powerful caffeine kick and flavor to your favorite coffee specialty drinks.

Arbor Day Coffee program has introduced a special coffee that is roasted and selected for preparing espresso. It is a great opportunity to add shade-grown coffee to your drinks every day, and what a great way to connect with your customers every day, letting them know they can participate in planting trees with every latte.

Learn about the Arbor Day Coffee Club.

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