What is Espresso?

what is espresso
Americans are such innovators. If we don’t invent it, we improve it and make it our own. Nothing can be more illustrative than with the example of espresso. This liquor of potent coffee extraction is a quintessentially Italian beverage made possible by early 20th century invention. Names like Bezzera, Pavoni, Gaggia and Arduino—popular today because of the modern machines and companies that are well known by coffee connoisseurs—were then known as the inventors and innovators who made espresso possible.
For more than three-quarters of a century, Italians owned espresso. In America and elsewhere, it was typically found in the Italian communities like New York’s Little Italy,  Boston’s North End, or San Francisco’s North Beach. It wasn’t until the 1980’s when Starbucks began its expansion beyond the borders of Seattle that espresso became as ubiquitous as, well, Starbucks.
In Italy, espresso is still quite traditional. 14 grams of a finely ground, special blend of coffee, extracted at about 2 grams per second with water at approximately 200°F at 9 atmospheres of pressure into two cups, to a maximum of 25 grams of coffee in each cup. While this sounds complicated, the genius of the espresso machine is that each of these variables can be precisely controlled to produce two cups of espresso in around 30 seconds. A busy shop with a four group espresso machine can be expected to produce up to 500 cups per hour.
The Starbucks empire was not built on quick and inexpensive cups of espresso. Instead, they create elaborate milk-based drinks invented by an Italian-American, known as the “latte”. Such beverages cannot be consumed quickly, so to get the caffeine jolt one might have by downing a couple of quick espressos, more coffee was needed. Double-shots, triple-shots, and even quadruple shots are called for in these cream and sugar laden beverages where the drinks are aptly referred to as large, larger, and larger still. The quality of the espresso is less important in these concoctions. What is important is that a hint of coffee flavor cuts through the sweetness, so it’s no surprise that Starbucks is synonymous with dark roasted coffee.
As the 21st century celebrated 100 years of espresso, a new movement was afoot among a younger generation of coffee drinkers who became enamored with the story and the process of coffee preparation. Coined “third wave coffee”, a notable characteristic is a shift toward lighter roasts and other methods of coffee preparation beyond espresso, where slower extractions highlight the terrior—the unique properties due to varietal, soil, and climate—of a coffee.
Espresso has been pulled into the third wave with single-origin coffees preferred over blends, or newly designed blends that depart from the big bodied espresso blends of yesteryear. Creating a great espresso that compliments these lighter roasts is tricky. Coffee needs to be ground finer to arrive at a fuller extraction and avoid a sourness or weak flavor. Espresso machine manufacturers have adapted by adding pressure profiling to their machines, giving the barista even more control over the extraction process.
If it’s a light roasted single origin coffee, is it still espresso? In a way, yes, as it is a concentrated coffee extracted with an espresso machine. But to traditionalists, this new wave espresso has little in common with the complex, slightly sweet, slightly bitter tango of a true espresso. Ultimately, it comes down to preference. If you enjoy the fruit and jasmine tones of a natural processed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, then you might delight in the intense liquor of concentrated flavor found in the coffee prepared as a single origin espresso. On the other hand, if a latte is your thing, the nuanced flavors of North Africa or sweetness of Costa Rica would be lost in a super-sized milky concoction.
Fortunately, not every purveyor of specialty coffee specializes exclusively in light roasts. In my own roasting, I prefer to offer both new wave and traditional style roasts, based on what the customer prefers. It creates greater demands on the roaster with more extensive exploration of each coffee’s potential before deciding how it should be roasted, but hopefully the end result is a celebration of the very best in coffee, its tradition, and the promise of a bright future.

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