What is Espresso Coffee?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Espresso coffee is tightly packed coffee that has been brewed through an espresso process and forms the base of many popular coffee drinks. Despite some confusion on terminology, espresso can be made from nearly any brand or roast of coffee, although some dark roasts are often branded “espresso roasts” by the seller. Espresso coffee has been around for more than a century, but rose to vast popularity in the late 20th century as a staple of coffee house drinks.

A stove-top espresso maker.
A stove-top espresso maker.

An espresso coffee shot is thick, almost syrup-like, with a distinct head of red-brown foam on top. Although served in small quantities, the beverage is extremely high in flavor as a result of the unique brewing process. Learning to make, or “pull,” the perfect espresso shot can take time and patience, but may be well worth the effort.

Whole roasted coffee beans.
Whole roasted coffee beans.

One main difference between espresso and regular coffee is the fineness of the grind. Unlike drip coffee, espresso is ground especially fine, almost to a powder-like consistency. Bulkier grinds will allow water to pass through too quickly, diluting the powerful flavor of perfect espresso.

Espresso requires dark, strong coffee beans.
Espresso requires dark, strong coffee beans.

To make a perfect espresso, a special machine is used that forces hot water through the tightly packed ground beans at an intense pressure, absorbing as much flavor as possible in the brewing. Espresso shots are small, typically about one ounce (29.5 ml), though many espresso machines brew two to four shots at once. At some coffee shops that place high value on freshness, shots are discarded if not used within one minute.

Espresso con panna is a shot of espresso topped with a dollop of whipped cream.
Espresso con panna is a shot of espresso topped with a dollop of whipped cream.

Choosing an espresso machine depends on the frequency of uses and additional features desired by the user. Some machines allow the brewing of both espresso and regular coffee, while others specialize in creating single, perfect servings of espresso coffee only. Many feature a foaming wand, which can be used to create thick, silky froth to top drinks by forcing hot air into a pitcher of milk. Espresso machines are easily found at coffee shops, kitchen stores, and department stores. Consider asking a barista or coffee-addict friend to help pick out the perfect model.

Espresso requires beans that are finely ground.
Espresso requires beans that are finely ground.

After brewing, espresso coffee can then be sold as a straight shot or combined into dozens of drinks. In an Americano, a shot of hot water is added to the coffee. A cappuccino is typically a double shot of espresso coffee with an equal amount of steamed milk and velvety foam. Espresso con panna is a delicious shot of the coffee with a dollop of whipped cream on top.

Espresso is traditionally served in small, demitasse-style cups.
Espresso is traditionally served in small, demitasse-style cups.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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