What is Espresso?
WRITTEN BY: Equator Coffees
Despite lots of things being labeled as “Espresso” there is actually no such thing as an “Espresso Bean,” chocolate-covered or otherwise. Espresso is only one of two things; a brew method or a beverage. To prepare espresso, a barista will grind and tamp coffee into a puck shape inside a portafilter, and hot water is forced through the coffee puck. An espresso machine uses a perforated metal basket rather than a paper filter which allows coffee oils to pass through more easily compared to the pour overs and batch brew (“filter coffee”) we might prepare at home. Espresso, the beverage, is highly concentrated, thick and syrupy in comparison to filter coffee.
The espresso machine, and the beverage we know as espresso, was invented in the early 20th century. Demand for coffee was growing at the turn of the century but the brewing process was slow and the wait time for customers at a busy cafe was long. Italian inventors sought to create a machine that would prepare coffee quickly and consistently. The earliest machines relied on steam, which limited the amount of pressure the machine could exert, and created a beverage we wouldn’t recognize as espresso today. It wasn’t until after World War II that Achille Gaggia, an Italian cafe owner, incorporated a lever to increase pressure in the brewing process. This lever is the origin of the term “pulling a shot” and the higher pressure created, for the first time, crema. Crema is the sweet, golden foam that sits on top of a shot, and signifies a fresh and well-prepared espresso.
It is a common belief that espresso has more caffeine but this is only partially true! Espresso has more caffeine by volume, but less caffeine per serving than filter coffee. Historically some roasters would include a small amount of Robusta variety coffee with Arabica variety coffee in their espresso blends to increase the caffeine content. However, Robusta varieties are usually more bitter and their inclusion in espresso blends from Specialty Coffee Roasters has declined in recent years.
Any coffee can be prepared on an espresso machine and turned into a shot of espresso. Our Ethiopia Ardi and Colombia Cerro Azul Enano are favorites among the Equator team for single origin espresso, in addition to tasting delicious as a pour-over with the exact same roast profile. Though there is no such thing as an Espresso Bean, there are espresso roast profiles. This means intentionally applying heat to unroasted coffee to highlight its best qualities when brewed as espresso. The concentrated way espresso is served can result in very intense flavors. A coffee with a sparkling, effervescent acidity as a pour over may make for an intense and bright shot of espresso. For a more “classic” espresso profile; a chocolatey and rich shot with a lot of viscosity like our Jaguar Espresso, it is common to extend the total roast time. A longer roast will help subdue acids, encourage caramelization of sugars in the coffee and release lipids that give it a full body. You might be wondering why you wouldn’t want to subdue acidity and increase caramelization for every roast. People tend to balk at the mention of “acidity” in coffee. In reality, without acidity even the sweetest coffee will end up tasting flat. A good balance between acids, fats and sugars are what creates the sweet, rich and complex flavor in your favorite coffees. Just as any coffee can be prepared as espresso, a coffee roasted for espresso can be brewed as filter coffee or any other brew method you like. These coffees will usually taste mellower and more developed than their counterparts roasted for filter. For people who prefer a mellow cup, preparing espresso profile coffee could be the perfect fit.