What is Espresso?

WRITTEN BY: Equator Coffees

Despite lots of things being labeled as “espresso,” there’s actually no such thing as an “espresso bean,” chocolate-covered or otherwise. Espresso is one of only two things: a brewing method, or the beverage made with said brewing method.

Made in a specialized machine, espresso is brewed by exerting barometric pressure to force heated water through a densely packed puck of coffee. The method results in a highly concentrated coffee drink that is rich in flavor, has a thick and syrupy texture compared to filter coffee, and exhibits the signature sweet crema atop the shot. 

 

The Origins of Espresso

Demand for coffee was growing in the early 20th century. As the popularity skyrocketed, so did the wait times for customers in busy cafes. In search of a faster way to get coffee into the hands of eager patrons, the pressure was on for Italian inventors to design a machine that could prepare coffee quickly and consistently.

The answer, in the end, was pressure. The earliest machines relied on steam to create the forces necessary to quickly force hot water through tightly packed ground coffee, and created a drink that we likely wouldn’t recognize as espresso today. But they did what they claimed to do, which was make the coffee fast and reduce wait times. 


Pulling The First Shots of Espresso

It wasn’t until after World War II that Achille Gaggia, an Italian cafe owner, incorporated a lever that would increase the pressure in the brewing process. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “pulling a shot,” this lever is where it comes from. During the brewing process, the barista pulled the lever to get the internal pressure up to a level that not only made a much better tasting shot, but also introduced the espresso shot’s signature crema—the sweet, golden foam that sits atop the shot and is a sure sign of a fresh, well-pulled shot of espresso. 


Modern Day Espresso

Surprisingly, not a lot has changed about the espresso machines you find in cafes today. The manual-pull lever is gone in favor of a motorized pump that regulates the pressure, and manufacturers have introduced other small innovations that have improved the consistency and reliability of the machines. Otherwise, we’re pulling shots in the same basic fashion as that fateful day when the Gaggia machine first produced a shot with crema. 

What has changed since then is the coffee itself. 


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What Are The Best Espresso Beans? 

In truth, any coffee can be prepared on an espresso machine and turned into a shot of espresso. But that doesn’t mean every coffee should be. 

Though there’s technically no such thing as an espresso bean, there are roast profiles that make for a better shot. Around here we call them our espresso roast profiles, and they consist of intentionally applying heat to roast coffee to highlight its best qualities when brewed as an espresso. 

The concentrated way espresso is served results in very intense flavors. A light roast coffee with a sparkling, effervescent acidity as a pour-over may make for an intense and bright shot of espresso—too intense sometimes. For a more classic espresso flavor profile, it’s common to extend the roast time to help subdue some of the acidity, encourage caramelization of sugars, and release lipids that give the resulting shot a full body. 

Just like roasting any coffee, we’re striving for balance in the cup, and different brew methods bring out different levels of the different flavors of coffee. So we’re always tweaking our roasting times to get the balance just right. 

 

The Espresso Roast Profile

It takes some experimentation to get the right roast profile for any espresso on the roaster’s part. And finding your own personal favorite can take some effort on your part. 

Take our Ethiopia Ardi and Colombia Cerro Azul Enano. Both make for an exceptional shot of single origin espresso and cup of pour-over with the same light roast profile. But with our Jaguar Espresso, we like a classic espresso roast profile that’s a little longer and helps express the rich and chocolatey flavors along with a lot of viscosity. 

Our job as specialty coffee roasters lies in that experimentation, and in searching for the perfect balance for every different lot of beans we source. That search means finding the perfect roast profile that will balance the inherent acids, fats, and sugars to create the sweet, rich, and complex flavors in your favorite coffees.


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Espresso and You 

There’s something we love about being handed a freshly pulled shot of espresso, made just for us, right when we ordered it, brimming with that fresh, rich crema on top. Next time you’re at one of our cafes, ask our baristas what’s on the espresso menu for the day and enjoy one for yourself to be a part of the time-honored tradition. We promise you won’t regret it.

 

Fun Espresso Facts

  • Espresso roast profiles often produce a mellow and more developed cup of coffee when brewed as filter coffee, so it’s worth a try when you’re looking for something less intense
  • Though the practice has declined with specialty coffee roasters in recent years, espresso blends commonly contained robusto in addition to arabica beans to up the caffeine content, resulting in the common misconception that a shot of espresso contains more caffeine than a cup of filter coffee
  • The Italian government has regulations set forth that a shot of espresso must fulfill to be officially considered true espresso
  • The Italian word espresso roughly translates to English as “express” and was named so because of the remarkable speed at which a shot could be brewed to order