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Definition/History of Espresso/How to make Espresso

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The Definition of Espresso

Until recently, the American consumer had little direct experience with espresso, and when it did the experience was usually not favorable. The term "espresso" has been used loosely, and what positive connotations that it had - evoking romance, mystery, sophistication - usually had no firm basis for definition. Given the general quality of espresso sold in restaurants in the United States even today, it would be preferred if we could start off with a new term, because many of those people that have been brave enough to have ordered and tasted espresso in the past, probably will not be brave enough to try it again.

In truth, espresso - when skillfully prepared with high quality coffee - is one of the most enjoyable beverages that humans have ever invented. It is also a very powerful component to a wide menu of popular beverages such as caffe lattes, cappuccinos and caffe mochas. But, what is Espresso ?

As a general definition, Espresso is a coffee beverage prepared using water under pressure. But, a more exact definition is necessary because the brewing method requires strict conditions be satisfied for the beverage to be acceptable, and even more strict for the beverage to be at its potential which can be nothing short of phenomenal.


We will explore more of the details of the definition of Espresso . But let us be clear about one thing before we go on, and that is what Espresso is not!

What Espresso is not

The term espresso has been applied as a descriptor and modifier to ice cream, cakes, tortes, paint color, and many other not-so-deserving things. As for coffee, the term espresso is often construed inaccurately as a definition for a darkness of roast, a a general fineness of grind, a specific blend of coffees, and even mistakenly as if Espresso was a country where coffee is grown!

Although a particular roaster may have established a specific blend and darkness of roast that they have defined as the coffee that they will use in making espresso, and thus named the blend their "Espresso Blend," and the darkness of roast their "Espresso Roast," this casual naming of products for their intended use should not be allowed to confuse anyone about the true meaning of Espresso which is:

      "a fine beverage made using the espresso method of brewing."




Espresso is a 45ml (1.5 ounces) beverage that is prepared from 7-9 grams of coffee through which clean water of 192 - 198 F (88 - 92 C) has been forced at 9-10 atmospheres of pressure, where the grind of the coffee has made the brewing "flow"* time approximately 22-28 seconds. While brewing, the flow of Espresso will appear to have the viscosity of warm honey and the resulting beverage will exhibit a thick dark gold cream foam ("crema") topping. Espresso is usually prepared specifically for, and immediately served to its intended consumer.

*Brewing "flow" time is counted from the point in time that the espresso begins flowing from the bottom of the portafilter spouts. Many espresso machines have a distinct "pre-infusion" cycle where a small quantity of water is pumped into the grounds and allowed to sit for several seconds before the pump is reactivated to finish the brew. The prescribed method of "timing" shots when the flow begins to appear at the portafilter spout can be universally applied for all machines, no matter the pre-infusion cycle.

Preferably, Espresso is brewed directly into a small thick flared china cup that has been preheated, and is served immediately to the consumer. The presentation is important, like with any food or beverage because of the aesthetic value that presentation provides, but the purpose for the "small thick flared-mouth china cup that has been pre-heated" has functional value as well. Because the beverage is small in volume (at 1.5 ounces, it would not even fill 20% of a normal cup), if it were served in a large, thin-walled cold mug its "structure" and all of its heat would immediately be lost. The flared mouth design forces the drinker to open their mouth, allowing enough air to be mixed with the beverage and exposes more of the drinker?s taste buds to the flowing beverage. The cups that Espresso is served in are generally called "demi-tasse" cups.

The term "espresso" comes from the Italian language, the English translations which include both "quick" and also "expressly for a special purpose". Both of these definitions suggest the original intent that inspired the invention and perfection of Espresso, in that satisfying the inherent urgency and ego of human nature, people wanted their coffee personally made for them as quickly as possible upon their requested demand. Espresso perfectly satisfies these human desires given its very quick brewing time, and the fact that it is brewed in individual portions. It is an added benefit that the brewing method tends to create, when all of the underlying conditions are right, the most extraordinary of beverages.

From Andrea Illy?s recent book, Espresso Coffee: The Chemistry of Coffee, comes another definition for Espresso:

      Italian espresso is a polyphasic beverage, prepared from roast and ground coffee and water alone, constituted by a foam layer of small bubbles with a particular tiger-tail pattern, on top of an emulsion of microscopic oil droplets in an aqueous solution of sugars, acids, protein-like material and caffeine, with dispersed gas bubbles and solids.

Illy goes on to say:

      "The distinguishing sensory characteristics of Italian espresso include a rich body, a full fine aroma, an equilibrated bitter-sweet taste with an acidic note and a pleasant lingering after-taste, exempt from unpleasant flavour defects."

The noted coffee author, Kenneth Davids, has another valuable approach toward describing Espresso in his book " Espresso: Ultimate Coffee":

      "To extend the technical definition somewhat, we might say that espresso is an entire system of coffee production, a system that includes specific approaches to blending the coffee, to roasting it, and to grinding it; and that emphasizes freshness through grinding and brewing coffee a cup at a time on demand, rather than brewing a pot or urn at a time from pre-ground coffee and letting the result sit until it is served."

Obviously, for the Espresso beverage to satisfy these definitions, many conditions must be met:

            1. The coffee used for the preparation must be of high quality and have characteristics that are positively exhibited through the espresso brewing method.
            2. The water used for brewing must be clean, free of foul aromas or flavors, and be applied to the coffee at the appropriate and consistent temperature and pressure.
            3. The quality of the machines used to grind the coffee and brew the Espresso must be capable of maintaining the established standards.
            4. The skill of the operator who is responsible for brewing the Espresso must be of a high enough ability to consistently produce the exacting standards of the brew.



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