If you love a cup of cappuccino, latte, macchiato, Americano, or mocha, then you’re an espresso fan. Each of these drinks has espresso at its base.
(Head’s up! There are book recommendations at the end of this article—not to be missed.)
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For example, a latte is made by topping an espresso shot with frothy, steamed milk. Or maybe you’re a fan of a pure flavor profile, and you drink your espresso black—perhaps with a bit of sugar and lemon peel.
Espresso is warming, delectable, and a perfect way to end a meal or complement your favorite dessert.
Are you a chocoholic? Try pairing espresso with your favorite dark chocolate bar (or most chocolate confections or desserts) for a perfect taste experience. Our favorite dark chocolate bar is certified organic, Taza stone ground.
Espresso also pairs well with lemon-flavored pastries or candies and always pairs well with friends and conversation.
Regardless of how you prefer your espresso, using the best coffee beans is essential. So let’s discuss how to make, use, and enjoy espresso, and let’s have some fun by exploring other espresso delights.
Full disclosure: if you have yet to become an espresso fan, this article will make it happen. Prepare to be inspired and enlightened. (And prepare to want to drink a cup NOW.)
A couple of quick side notes:
Although espresso is expressed, the correct word for espresso is espresso and not expresso—this is a frequent error, but coffee connoisseur that you are, you probably already knew that.
And, when you order an espresso in Europe, especially Italy and France, all you need to say is “un caffè,” and voila! You’ve requested an espresso.
If you’re wondering if espresso is a coffee bean, the answer is no. All espresso is made from coffee, but not all coffee qualifies as espresso. It all depends on how it is brewed.
Nor is espresso a concentrated coffee—condensed, yes; concentrated, no. But no matter how you describe it, it's coffee-lover's heaven. Nothing in the coffee world comes close to enjoying a freshly-brewed cup of bona fide espresso. (More to come.)
As we said, espresso is a condensed shot of pressure-brewed coffee. Authentic espresso has “crema’—a foamy, rich, light-colored finish that rises to the top after being poured. Crema comes from the hot water emulsifying with the coffee bean oils. The creamier the crema, the more it personifies a perfect cup of espresso.
Note that we said that espresso is a “shot of pressure-brewed coffee” and not a cup of pressure-brewed coffee. While espresso is served in a cup, it is traditionally served in a demitasse cup (initially inspired by a teacup) that holds only a few ounces of liquid—also known as a “half cup”—perfect for espresso shots.
Our favorite demitasse cups are shatterproof, double wall insulated, and can hold both a single shot (one ounce) or double shot (two ounces) of espresso:
When drinking espresso, drink it slowly and savor each sip. Even though espresso is served in a small cup, the experience should last as long as it would take you to enjoy a standard cup of coffee. Plus, espresso’s flavor notes are dense and rich, so a little goes a long way.
Of course, the taste of espresso is as crucial as its appearance and how it is served. Making a perfect cup of espresso is an art every coffee lover should master.
It helps to understand the technique behind the flavor profile. For example, the crema in espresso is more than a luxurious foam. There’s a scientific reason why crema adds to the flavor and enjoyment.
ChemistryViews.org explains, “The crema prevents too rapid cooling, holds aroma volatiles back and protects against hydrolysis”—a chemical breakdown from being mixed with water.
Your tongue is your witness. ChemistryViews illustrates how, when you drink a cup of espresso, the crema coats your tongue and masks bitterness on the tastebuds at the back of your mouth, thereby giving a type of time-release experience that prolongs the taste and smell: “After enjoying a cup of espresso with a good crema, one can actually still smell and taste it 20 – 30 min later.”
If you have yet to enjoy espresso, this flavor adventure alone should give you an excellent reason to give it a whirl . . . or a swirl, as the case may be.
Now, let’s discuss the best beans for espresso. It is a myth that you must use a specific coffee bean, blend, or roast to make espresso. So, if someone tells you that you must use a dark roast or espresso blend, they’re wrong.
While both dark roast and espresso blends are preferred and recommended to make espresso, the fact is that, throughout the world, many different blends are used, including medium-dark roasts, light roasts, and regular coffee beans. It’s all a matter of taste, and it’s up to you to discover what you enjoy.
For most, the easiest way to begin is to use an espresso blend coffee. We recommend Custom Roast Coffee—organic, fairtrade, and single origin. They fresh roast your beans within 24 hours before shipping. They offer light, medium, dark, decaf, and flavored blends.
All of Custom Roast Coffee’s blends are outstanding, and they are highly consumer friendly. You can order ground coffee, whole bean coffee, and in most cases, pods. They also have a subscription service that lets you save a whopping 22%, and all domestic U.S. orders over $50.00 ship free. If for any reason, you are a dissatisfied new customer, Custom Roast Coffee will refund your purchase, and (wait for it), you can keep the coffee—a foolproof way to see how much Custom Roast Coffee believes in quality.
Time to make the espresso! Making espresso requires an espresso machine and a coffee grinder if you purchase whole beans.
What grind of coffee to use? That depends on if you are using a steam-driven machine (fine grind) or a pump-driven machine (a grind that’s more coarse). Many experts feel that only pump-driven machines qualify as espresso machines, and we agree. So, if you are purchasing a new machine, you might want to keep that in mind.
Steam-driven machines work much the same as Moka (stovetop) pots, and they do not use enough pressure to qualify as an actual espresso machine. Steam-driven machines also do not produce the lovely crema needed to be the real deal. If the machine requires you to screw the lid closed after adding water, it’s probably steam-driven.
Pump-driven espresso machines maintain the perfect water temperature and use the high pressure needed for the perfect cup. Pump-driven models can be costly, but if you love REAL espresso, it’s worth it.
How to tell if you have a pump-driven machine: If you do not need to screw on the lid but only add water before pushing “on,” you probably have a pump-driven model. The easiest way to tell is to ask the manufacturer how many bars of pressure they use. A pump-driven machine will use at least 9 bars.
We recommend the De’Longhi La Specialista Maestro Espresso Machine. It grinds your coffee to your specifications and produces a superior flavor profile. If you’re in a rush, the La Specialista Maestro even takes pods! It comes with a two-year warranty, and De’Longhi extends the warranty to three years if you register your machine.
If you want to grind your coffee and do not have a machine with a built-in grinder, then a burr grinder is your best choice. Unfortunately, blade grinders can produce grounds that make bitter-tasting coffee. Burr grinders cost more than blade grinders, but they deliver uniform grounds and consistently good taste (as long as you’re using fresh and fabulous coffee beans, of course).
Kitchen Aid has an excellent burr coffee grinder, and you can choose your grind: espresso, French press, percolator, or drip. Altogether, it offers 70 grind settings, including cold brew. Use the “Removable Top Hopper to save and transfer unused beans back into a sealed container for fresh-keeping and easily switch beans between brews.”
Now it’s time for you to decide what coffee blend to use.
Custom Roast Coffee’s espresso roast comes from sun-dried, hand-selected beans to keep the humidity at an excellent level. They do not rush their beans and let them rest for 30 days to ensure the best flavor notes.
If you prefer to use a different blend, try these (no pesticides used):
Rocket Fuel: As if a shot of espresso isn’t already strong enough, Custom Roast Coffee’s Rocket fuel has 5 times the caffeine of standard coffee, yet it remains silky and gratifying.
Dark Roast: Dark roast coffee is probably your next best choice if you don't use an espresso blend. Custom Roast Coffee’s dark roast has exquisite, smokey, dark chocolate notes, and the smell is as wonderful as the taste.
Light Roast: Let’s talk a bit about light roast coffee. If you think “light” roast coffee makes the coffee less strong, think again. Light roast means the coffee has been roasted for less time than regular or dark roast.
Is there less caffeine?
More flavor? Yes.
We’re all so used to thinking of something labeled “light” or “lite” as having less or being weaker than the original; For example, light sour cream has less fat and calories than regular sour cream. So, it is easy to assume that light roast coffee is the same.
Think again. Light roast coffee gives a lot of flavor complexity and often has more sophistication than dark roast. Coffee lovers enjoy the sweet, fruity, and floral flavors. Here’s the scoop: Light roast coffee tastes excellent because light roasts are brighter and more acidic. That means you’ll taste more of the regional flavors in light roast than dark. Custom Roast Coffee’s light roast uses Colombian Arabica beans to deliver a brisk and beautiful cup of coffee with sweet, citrus notes. If you are a dark roast drinker, do yourself a favor and try light roast. If not for espresso, then for regular or iced coffee. Yum.
Medium Roast: This is Custom Roast Coffee’s top-selling roast. If you want to try making espresso that is smooth and a little less bold, give the medium roast a try.
Decaf: This decaffeinated medium roast never uses harsh chemicals or shortcuts. Instead, a Custom Roast Coffee decaf uses a proper (time-consuming) Swiss water method, which we highly recommend. The flavor is as good as their regular, medium roast. And, if you like, they also offer Half-Caf with half the caffeine of regular coffee—perfect for someone who loves to drink a lot of coffee, enjoys caffeine, but doesn’t want the caffeine to add up too quickly.
Here are some caffeine considerations:
Coffee isn’t the only beverage with caffeine. Black tea, energy drinks, chocolate, cola (and more) contain caffeine.
As you know, caffeine is a stimulant. But it helps to remember that the caffeine in coffee is a natural stimulant without many (if any) side effects. A cup of coffee can relieve boredom, help you perform tiresome tasks, and keep you "stimulated."
Reports say that coffee drinkers are less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's or dementia. Furthermore, studies show that coffee may stave off type-2 diabetes, even in glucose-intolerant people. In addition, coffee is recognized in colorectal cancer prevention and is effective in reducing the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Ongoing studies show the positive effects of coffee, and as a bonus: coffee is loaded with antioxidants.
So, enjoy your coffee, and especially enjoy your espresso!
Bonus: If you’ve read this far, you love to learn about espresso, so here are some suggestions for further reading:
Espresso Making Perfection: How To Make The Perfect Espresso, by Antonio Verona
Espresso Making Perfection is a beginner's guide to espresso—a short and easy read that’s great to keep handy.
Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality, 2nd Edition, by Andrea Illy (Editor) and Rinantonio Viani (Editor). Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality is for the hardcore enthusiast. If science is your thing, and if you want to bring your knowledge and expertise of espresso to a high level, then this book is for you. For further reference, the editors include an excellent bibliography. It’s like having an espresso lover's Library of Congress at your side.
Coffee Art, by Dhan Tamang
If you enjoy making cappuccino, and if you’re an artist at heart (or wish you were), you’ll love Coffee Art almost as much as you’ll love impressing your friends with your talent.
Latte art has become a global phenomenon, with enthusiasts creating beautiful designs using milk as an artistic medium. Now you too can take this popular trend into your own hands thanks to Dhan Tamang's new book that teaches readers how they too can create impressive multicolored designs.