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What is Espresso?

by Ed McGuire Updated: October 18, 2021 5 min read

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Updated for 2021

If you're new to the world of espresso and the nuances of coffee, you might be asking yourself a fundamental question: what is espresso? First of all, let me tell you that it's okay to ask this question, and we're overjoyed to have the opportunity to talk about it. One of the more difficult barriers to learning about espresso is the assumed snobbery that seems to haunt coffee culture. Thankfully, that snobbery is mostly assumed, and if you know anyone who knows anything about coffee, you can be sure they'll love you for the chance to talk about it. Of course, if you want to follow a conversation about espresso, you'll need some basic knowledge. So let's get you that info, right now.

Just like coffee, espresso is a dark brown liquid that will charge your battery when you need it most. That being said, espresso is a super concentrated version of your everyday coffee, served 1 or 2 ounces at a time instead of the tall paper cups you're probably familiar with. Just as well, it's a thick, viscous drink bursting with flavor and an overall more intense experience than any coffee can offer.

espresso flowing from a bottomless portafilter

Brewing espresso can be a complex process, but with equally beautiful results.

How do you make espresso?

Most coffee most people are familiar with is known as brewed coffee, or drip coffee. To make this kind of coffee, you'll most likely pile a bunch of ground coffee into a coffee maker, and water will drip through the grounds into a coffee pot. Espresso is prepared a little differently.

Ideally, you'll want to start with whole bean coffee instead of pre-ground. You'll need a quality burr grinder, also, to grind your coffee fresh. Make sure the grind is very fine, similar to granulated sugar. Then, you'll need an espresso machine to brew the coffee. Take the portafilter off the machine (sometimes referred to as the brewing handle), and put 18 grams of ground coffee into the basket. With a tamper, you can apply level, even pressure to flatten and compress the ground coffee into a puck. Then, flip the brewing lever. The machine will brew under pressure (lots of pressure) to extract bold flavor compounds from the coffee bed, and form the iconic, aromatic layer of foam and soluble oils that crowns your drink, known as crema. The brewing process should take about 20 to 25 seconds and dispense about 2 ounces of espresso.

When you get a little more advanced in your knowledge, you can take advantage of brew ratios, which is a different form of recipe that's great for getting consistent, repeatable results. A brew ratio compares the weight of the coffee grounds used (measured in grams) to the goal weight of brewed espresso (also measured in grams). In this case, a very popular brew ratio is 1:2. So, if you're using 18 grams of ground coffee, you should be aiming for 36 grams of espresso.

finely ground coffee resting in a portafilter, waiting to be brewed

The best coffee and espresso comes from fresh whole bean coffee, finely ground with a high quality burr grinder right before brewing.

What does espresso taste like?

Taste, of course, is subjective, but overall flavor is determined by several factors, from how you prepare your drink to the blend and roast of the coffee used to make your drink. In general, you can expect much more intense and complex flavors than you would get from a cup of joe. If you're using a light roast coffee, you can expect bright, fruity flavors. A medium roast will be more chocolatey and nutty. A dark roast will be smokey and savory.

Learn everything there is to know!
The Complete Guide to Coffee and Espresso

The Complete Guide to Coffee and Espresso

This guide covers everything you need to know about brewing the best coffee and espresso at home along with our recommendations on which espresso machines to buy.
Read Article 

How hot is espresso?

Serving temperature can be a sore subject for those unfamiliar with espresso, especially if they're used to piping hot coffee on the go. Espresso is served hot, but not quite as hot as brewed coffee. Generally, espresso is allowed some time to cool down (an important part in developing the flavors in your drink) and is served at about 160°F. Compare that to drip coffee which is brewed at about 200°F and consumed as soon as the pot is full.

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Whole Latte Love Crema Wave Whole Bean Espresso

Whole Latte Love Crema Wave Whole Bean Espresso

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Tested in our favorite machines, Whole Latte Love Crema Wave is a delicious 100% Arabica blend medium roast coffee with sweet notes of almond and honey.

How much caffeine is in espresso?

Espresso is famous for its energy boosting effects, but compared to a full cup of coffee, you're more likely to consume less caffeine in a shot of espresso. While espresso has more caffeine per unit volume, and thus has a higher concentration of caffeine, the serving size is much, much smaller than a typical cup of coffee (2 oz vs 12 oz). In a given shot of espresso, you can expect approximately 65 mg of caffeine. A double shot will net you about 130 mg. That being said, if caffeine is a concern of yours, don't be afraid to try decaffeinated coffees. There's nothing wrong with enjoying the taste and feel of a coffee without worrying about your caffeine intake.

Wrapping Up

These are just a few of the basics, but it's enough to give you an idea of what espresso is. For more information, we recommend checking out our Complete Guide to Coffee and Espresso, which will tell you everything you need to know. And, of course, we're always around on the phone or by email if you want to talk to one of our experts one-on-one. Or, you can check out our YouTube channel for in-depth knowledge about making drinks and the products we carry.

Ed McGuire
Ed McGuire

Ed joined on at Whole Latte Love in 2017 with a particular hatred for bad coffee. We keep him in a room on the other side of the office with a keyboard and an internet connection so he can write about it. He writes and edits product copy, blog posts, scripts, and wiki content in an effort to keep our customers from ever drinking bad coffee again. Ed is afraid of the sun and drinks his coffee black.