What is an Espresso Coffee?

We are generally used to drinking black coffee, and we usually know any preparation with non-dairy coffee by this name. By extension, we sometimes confuse the denomination of espresso coffee with black coffee. Big mistake friends! Black coffee can have various intensities, various sizes (long, short), some people drink it with or without sugar, and we think that it can be prepared in any way.

Black coffee is coffee without anything else in the cup, only the infused coffee and the water. But what is an espresso? Well, a very different kind of preparation, made under specific, parameterised conditions.

Many people think they know what espresso coffee is, but few can really specify exactly what it is. Espresso, my dear readers, is a symbol in Italy. So much so that there is even an organisation which aims to define, preserve and disseminate the precise conditions and qualities of an authentic espresso coffee: The Instituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano. And more than one Italian colleague would turn their back on us and call us blasphemers if they knew what we meant by espresso.

What is Espresso Coffee?

Certified espresso coffee is made in the following way:

  • An espresso machine is used.
  • Coffee dose: 7 grams.
  • Water outlet temperature: 88º C.
  • Espresso temperature in the cup: 67º C.
  • Water inlet pressure: 9 bar.
  • Brewing or percolation time: 25 seconds.
  • Size of coffee in the cup: 25 millilitres

Slight variations in these values are permitted, but these figures must be adhered to.

If you are wondering why most home coffee makers have 15 or even 19 bars, if it only takes 9 to extract a real espresso, you might be interested to read our article, what are pressure bars for?

In terms of appearance and taste, a real espresso has a layer of dark hazelnut-coloured cream on top. It should be a dense and very uniform layer, without bubbles. The aroma is very intense, and the taste lingers on the palate even for several minutes after drinking it. And very important: It has no astringent notes.

This one here below would be a rather approximate aspect of a certified espresso. We cannot know if the coffee shop where the photo was taken is officially certified, but note the colour of the cream, the size of the cup, and the absence of bubbles in the cream.

In addition to the simple espresso, we can alter the proportions of two magnitudes of the traditional espresso: the intensity, and the length (or size).

  • Espresso intensity: this refers to the dose of ground coffee used in the extraction. The normal dose, as we have seen, is 7 grams, but a doppio or triplo can be made (14 and 21 grams, respectively).
  • Length: the size of the coffee, which can range from the 25-30 ml of a normal espresso to the 50 or 60 of a double or long one, including the 15 of the ristretto.

And, by the way: a ristretto is not the same as an espresso. Read our article if you don’t want to make this mistake.

And now that you know what an espresso coffee is, let’s look at some variations and common doubts about this preparation:

What is a Cut Espresso?

In Italy they call it espresso macchiato, and it’s an espresso with a little bit of milk on top.

What is a Double Espresso?

It’s a doppio, which we talked about before. An espresso with double the size (50 millilitres) made with a double dose (14 grams of ground coffee).

What is a Lungo Espresso?

An espresso with the same dose of coffee (7 grams) and approximately twice the size (50 ml).

How do you drink an Espresso in Italy?

In a single shot, usually without sugar, and standing at the bar. And, by the way, in Italy you order a caffe, not an espresso.