Have you seen The Incredibles? Yes? Think of Jack-Jack, the little baby. He may be small, but oh my, is he strong!
We think an espresso is a bit like Jack-Jack. Okay, it can’t self-combust or morph into metal, but it’s still a small-portioned superhero that doesn’t skimp on strength! ?
Sounds awesome! But wait, what actually is an espresso?
Don’t worry – this isn’t an obvious question to ask. There is quite a bit of misunderstanding surrounding this mini maestro. An espresso isn’t a different bean or a specific roast method (although you can create roasting recipes designed just for espressos). It’s a way of preparing coffee, just like cafetière or filter or AeroPress.
We know that espressos can seem daunting. All that Italian finery and clever science and big silver machine engineering can be scary. But it’s really not. An espresso coffee is easy to define: it’s simply a small, concentrated cup of coffee made using pressure to push hot water through fine coffee grounds.
So, whether you fancy giving it a go yourself or would just like to learn more about your coffee shop staple, let’s find out what it’s all about!
As you can probably guess from the name, the espresso came from a need for speed. Rewind to the early 1900s and you’ll find a Milanese businessman called Luigi Bezzera. He was fed up with waiting five minutes for every coffee, so explored ways of speeding up his brew. And so came the world’s first single-serving espresso machine, which could make a strong coffee in 30 seconds.
This early model brewed coffee using pressurised steam. This was a great starter but could only generate a small amount of pressure (while still keeping the health and safety guy happy, that is). Bezzera’s machine was also hard to control, making consistent coffee impossible.
Several prototypes later, and you’ll find Achille Gaggia upping the water pressure in 1930s Milan. Gaggia invented the ‘Lampo’ system, which relied on hot water pressure rather than steam. The pressure increase was key: where previously you had pressures of 1.5-2 bars, now Gaggia could reach 8-10 bars. The barista operated a lever (fun fact: this is where the term ‘pulling a shot’ comes from) to force hot water through the grounds in a sudden burst. This sudden jump in pressure made it possible to achieve a perfect, crema-topped cup using finer grounds.
Plenty more machine revolutions took place (motorised pumps, double boilers, computerisation, glamourisation…) but the general idea remains the same. Small cup, high pressure, crema top.
Blimey, that’s a long history for a short drink!
How do the big shiny coffee shop machines work?
That’s right; you won’t see all baristas yanking down levers in your local coffee shop. Today’s espresso makers are often much more streamlined and modern.
To make your coffee, the barista will start by filling up a little metal basket with finely ground coffee. This basket fits into the portafilter and has small holes to let your brewed espresso trickle through. Tamping comes next. You use a tamp to compact the grounds into a coffee ‘cake’ (no, not that sort). This is important because if the water finds lots of air pockets, it will run straight through the grounds and give you an under-extracted espresso.
Next, fix the portafilter into the grouphead. Flick the switch and listen as the machine pumps near-boiling water through the grounds. The pressure here will be about nine atmospheric bars. After about 18-24 seconds, you’ll have a lovely, pecan-coloured espresso in your cup. Bellísima!
What kind of coffee do I use?
You might have heard coffee roasters talking about an Espresso Roast. This isn’t a specific sort of bean; it’s a roast method tailored to beans that will be used for espresso drinking. For an Espresso Roast, the roaster will increase the finish temperature of the roast slightly and roast for longer. This creates roasted beans that are more porous and soluble, and extract more quickly.
Does this mean you have to use an Espresso Roast in your espresso machine? Nope! You can use any coffee as an espresso, as long as it’s ground finely. Most people prefer a medium/dark roast in an espresso because they taste richer and less acidic. This is very much up for debate in the coffee world – some people prefer a fruity espresso using a light roast coffee. Just take a sip of both and see!
Quick pointer, though. You may need to adjust the water measurements if you use a light roast. They’re less soluble, so will need a bit less water.
If you’re starting out with making espresso coffee at home, we recommend a brew ratio of 1:2. If ratios gave you nightmares at school (they did for us), don’t turn away. It just means that you will need 15g of ground coffee (2 tbsp) for a 30g espresso. Base this on what your portafilter basket will hold, then weigh double the water through (or a bit less for a lightly roasted coffee.)
Espressos are strong and absolutely scrummy. You don’t need us to tell you that they are small – just take a look at an itsy-bitsy espresso cup. The high coffee to water ratio gives a concentrated coffee just right for quick caffeination. Contrary to what you might assume, an espresso isn’t any higher in caffeine than your average coffee; it’s just a lot more concentrated. Think about the volume: a single espresso is about one ounce of coffee, while the average filter coffee makes eight ounces.
The flavour of an espresso is roasty and intense, with a thick body and buttery texture. This comes from the metal portafilter which, unlike the paper filter you’ll use in filter coffee, allows the natural coffee oils to come into your little cup.
It’s a little powerhouse of awesomeness! Seriously, we wouldn’t be surprised if it starts shooting superhero lasers after all…
No espresso is complete without a good crema. It’s the beer head on your pint; the marshmallows bobbing on your hot chocolate. But why is it so important?
Crema means ‘cream’ in Italian and describes the dense, foamy layer that forms naturally on the top of a good espresso. It was born with Gaggia’s espresso machine and comes from the pressurised water created. When under pressure, water can dissolve more carbon dioxide. But it can’t keep it, so when your espresso comes into your cup and the pressure in the coffee returns to normal, it has to let out some of the gas (a little coffee burb!). The bubbles produced create the crema foam.
If you thought you could tell a lot from tea leaves, take a look at crema. It will tell you about the freshness of the roast (freshly roasted coffee = more foam) and the strength of the drink (stronger espresso = darker foam). Most baristas feel that the crema should have a tawny colour and take up about 1/10 of the drink.
You’ll always get freshly roasted coffee at Two Chimps – we roast our speciality beans multiple times each week. Why? because fresh coffee is the best coffee!
Is it just espresso?
The whoosh and whirr of an espresso machine characterises the coffee shop experience. Most good drinks start with an espresso, whether you like a smooth flat white or a frothy cappuccino. And have you heard of an Affogato or Café Noisette or Con Panna? They won’t get anywhere without a good espresso, either!
Let’s get on it! Our speciality coffees can’t wait to brew espresso-style, and we’ll grind your lovely beans so they’re just right.
Join the troop
And we will plant a tree