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Espresso for Beginners: History and Common Misconceptions

So there are many different ways to make a coffee and In many parts of the world when you order a coffee what you’ll get is espresso. It’s also the coffee part of drinks like the cappuccino, flat white, latte and other drinks collectively referred to as milk-based espresso beverages

Today an up close look at espresso, what it is, and some common misconceptions.

So first, just what is it? Well, it started about 120 years ago as a way to brew coffee faster using steam instead of water. It turns out even back then people, especially workers wanted there caffeine fix faster, so not much has changed! Now It was a lot faster, but using high temperature steam made coffee that, well,really didn’t taste all that great. As the machines evolved that steam was replaced with water under pressure and brewing at a lower temperature of 195 to 205 degrees.

So that brings us to espresso today. It’s made using very finely ground coffee. Here’s a typical espresso grind which is maybe a bit finer than table sugar. And next to that a typical drip grind which is much more coarse. To make espresso the finely ground coffee is placed in a filter basket held by a portafilter and compressed in a process called tamping. A typical dose of coffee for an espresso ranges from 7 grams for a single which makes about an ounce up to 18 grams or more for a double which makes about 2 ounces.

Brew water at that 195 to 205 degrees is forced through the coffee under a pressure of 8 to 9 bar. 1 bar is the atmospheric pressure at sea level and equals about 14.5 pounds per square inch so espresso brewing happens at about 125 pounds per square inch of pressure. It’s the finely ground coffee that restricts the water flow causing the pressure to build up and the reason why very small changes to grind size make a big difference when making espresso.

And that’s one of the reasons why grinders are so critical in making good espresso. The other, well the best espresso is made from coffee ground fresh right before being brewed. And that’s why baristas and home espresso geeks are very particular about their grinders and the grind they produce. A lot of them say their grinder is more important than their espresso machine

So let’s move on to some espresso misconceptions. But first if you’d like to learn more about the machines that make espresso use the link up here for our video: Espresso Machines for Beginners. It covers manual semi-automatic machines which require a little skill to use as well as totally automatic machines that make espresso, regular coffee, lattes and more from freshly ground whole beans at the touch of a button with no skill required.

Common Misconceptions

So those misconceptions. Perhaps the biggest one: espresso is bitter. Now back when it was made with steam it probably was. And maybe that’s why old Italians put a lot of sugar in their coffee. The high steam temperature did over-extract the coffee and produce bitter flavors. And the quality of the coffee probably didn’t help much. But today it’s a different story. Espresso is rarely a bitter beverage. Today’s high quality Italian style blends are rich and often chocolaty. And there’s a whole new world of options like single origin and high altitude coffees with fruit, floral and berry notes.

Next up is the perception that espresso is loaded with caffeine. According to the national coffee association a shot of espresso contains 30 to 50 milligrams. Compared to an 8 ounce cup of regular coffee which has 65 to 120 milligrams. So the caffeine in espresso is more concentrated but at typical serving sizes there’s usually more caffeine in a cup of drip coffee.

Our last misconception is that espresso is a type of coffee you know like a bean variety. Now, you will see espresso on the labels of some beans, especially on bean blends, but espresso is a brewing method and not a particular type of coffee. Espresso can be made from any coffee bean in fact the trend in recent years is to more exotic varieties as part of the espresso drinking world moves away from the traditional dark roasted bean blends and into medium roast coffees featuring distinct flavors as is the case with single origin beans and shade grown and high altitude coffees which grow slower and concentrate more flavor in the bean.

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