SUMMARY: Despite its intensity and concentration, you can drink espresso by itself, and a well-made one can be incredibly balanced and delicious. While adding milk and other sweeteners is popular, drinking espresso straight pays homage to its Italian roots. However, be mindful of your espresso consumption, since its concentrated nature delivers an intense caffeine kick.
While I would not recommend drinking poor-quality espresso by itself, a specialty coffee espresso can be shockingly balanced and delicious. However, you should learn how to drink espresso properly to get the most out of this unique form of coffee, including the Italian cultural practices around espresso. Also, it is worth understanding the caffeine content and other health insights before you do so.
So let’s quickly demystify espresso coffee and learn the most authentic and proper ways of drinking it!
Luigi Bezzera patented the espresso machine in the early 20th century, although the origins of the technology date back to Angelo Moriondo’s 1884 invention. You brew espresso by forcing pressurized water through a tight puck of finely ground coffee. The result is a concentrated beverage, similar in appearance and serving size to Turkish coffee, with a layer of oil and microbubbles on top called a crema.
Can You Drink an Espresso Shot By Itself?
Yes, you can absolutely drink espresso by itself, which is a testimony to its authentic Italian heritage. This traditional practice allows you to enjoy the robust, concentrated flavor of the espresso, as well as get a decent caffeine kick in a short time. However, many find the taste of espresso too intense, which is why they often add sugar or milk.
Personally, I would say drinking an espresso shot by itself, while it may be an acquired taste, will enhance your appreciation for the complexity and richness of coffee. Poorly made espresso may be bitter and frankly gross. But, a perfectly extracted shot can reveal a spectrum of flavor, ideally a balance of sweet acidity, earthy notes, and often the nutty flavors of the roast.
Does Espresso Have Milk?
Espresso does not have milk by default. Common espresso drinks combine this thick coffee with steamed milk in varying ratios. Steamed milk blends particularly well with the oily and concentrated espresso, with natural sweetness balanced with the espresso’s intensity.
If a straight espresso seems intimidating but you still want to taste the espresso, my recommendation is to order a cortado or macchiato, which adds the smallest amount of milk.
Do You Sip Espresso Slowly or Drink It All at Once?
While the term espresso shot implies you might drink the entire thing in one sip, it is more common to slowly consume the 1-2 ounces over several minutes. If you wait too long, the espresso will cool down and lose some flavor. I recommend splitting your espresso into 2-3 sips, letting each one fully coat your tongue to get the full effect of the flavor.
How To Enjoy Espresso The Right Way
You do not really have to learn how to drink espresso a certain way, and slamming it back while on the go can be quick and satisfying. But, for those who want to savor the drink and get the full experience, consider following these basic steps:
- Sip on water to cleanse your palate. A clean tongue resets the taste buds so you can taste more subtleties.
- Stir the crema into the espresso with a small spoon and enjoy the aroma as you do so.
- Take a small sip at first to test the temperature and get a sense of the flavor.
- In 2-3 larger sips, finish the espresso and let each sip fully coat your tongue. Having the espresso sit on your tongue for a few seconds will make it easier to notice all of the flavors.
Espresso with Sparkling Water
Especially at specialty coffee shops I’ve been to in America, serving an espresso with a side of sparkling water is extremely common. Even more so than normal water, sparkling water cleans your palate so you can enjoy the espresso flavor with optimal intensity.
Often, I drink half of the sparkling water beforehand. After a few sips of espresso, I drink the other half, which helps to keep the espresso flavors as fresh and noticeable as possible!
Cultural Norms and Practices
Ordering and drinking espresso can vary depending on where you are. For example, you have to order an espresso in America to get a shot, whereas in Italy espresso is the default form of coffee. Often, the only way to get a more typical 8-ounce coffee in other countries is to order an Americano, which is espresso diluted with hot water.
In terms of timing, espresso is popular most times of the day. Some people in a rush consume their espresso without even sitting down, and others take their time slowly sipping on it over several minutes.
I particularly love having a single shot with a dessert after dinner as it pairs nicely with something sweet. On a warm summer day, you might consider a cold espresso drink like an iced Americano.
How To Drink Espresso Like an Italian
In Italy, the birthplace of espresso, drinking it straight is more than a practice—it’s a cherished ritual. Espresso is an integral part of Italian culture, and there are many unwritten rules about it. This is not to say that you cannot order a latte, cappuccino, or macchiato. However, the traditional etiquette is to enjoy espresso quickly with a few sips.
Of course, these are not hard and fast rules, so you can enjoy espresso however you want. But, if you want to fit into Italian culture, consider the following guidelines:
- Only have milk drinks before noon.
- Especially around breakfast time, Italians love eating something sweet on the side of espresso.
- In the evening, consider ordering a Caffè corretto, which is espresso with a shot of alcohol.
- Drink your espresso relatively fast, even standing up.
- Avoid ordering coffee to go—it is much better to sip the 1-2 ounces quickly before leaving.
Espresso Sizes and Varieties
Espresso sizes and caffeine content can be confusing, and there is still no definitive standard. however, the usual single shot of espresso is typically 1 ounce (30 ml), and a double shot, or “doppio” is usually two ounces. While single shots are the default in Italy, most specialty coffee houses in America serve a standard two-ounce shot.
Other varieties for ordering espresso include:
- Lungo: a ‘long’ shot with more water passing through the coffee grounds, resulting in a slightly milder taste.
- Ristretto: a ‘restricted’ shot, where less water is used for the same amount of coffee, intensifying the flavor.
- Macchiato: espresso with a dash of milk added. It subtly tones down the espresso’s intensity without masking the flavor.
Caffeine Content and Health Considerations
Especially because you can enjoy espresso so quickly, it is crucial to stay mindful of its caffeine content. Firstly, as with all coffee consumption, remember that different coffee beans and brewing methods can have varying levels of caffeine.
But, if you’re new to drinking espresso, let’s get a general idea of its caffeine content by examining the various espresso sizes at Starbucks:
How Much Espresso Is Too Much?
The effects of caffeine from espresso are felt relatively quickly, which means you should be able to avoid overdrinking it. However, remember that it can take 30-60 minutes for the caffeine to reach peak levels in the bloodstream. So, leave plenty of time between shots to avoid the jitters.
Caffeine affects everyone differently, so it’s wise to monitor how espresso affects your body, especially if consumed in the afternoon or evening, as it could disrupt sleep patterns if taken up to six hours before bedtime.
In terms of general caffeine health considerations, the consensus among health professionals is that up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day appears to be a safe limit for most healthy adults. This equates to around four small espressos. For me, 200 milligrams is usually the most I like to consume if I want to feel good and fall asleep easily.
This goes without saying, but everyone, especially individuals with certain health conditions, should consult their healthcare provider for personalized advice regarding caffeine intake.
Common Questions About Espresso Drinking
In case I missed anything (and to review,) here are the answers to some common questions about drinking espresso.
Can you drink espresso straight?
You can drink espresso straight, and in many places like Italy that is the most common way people drink espresso. Despite the popularity of milk drinks and sweet syrups in America, European coffee culture values the fast caffeine kick of drinking an espresso shot in a few sips.
What is the best way to enjoy an espresso?
The best way to enjoy an espresso is subject to individual preference, but traditionally, it involves a series of cultural rituals like cleansing the palate with water, possibly skimming or stirring the crema, and taking small, rapid sips. This method intensifies the appreciation of the espresso’s flavor profile. If you are intimidated by espresso’s intensity, consider ordering a latte, cappuccino, or macchiato which all add warm milk to balance the espresso.
Is espresso stronger than regular coffee?
Espresso is indeed stronger than regular coffee in terms of flavor concentration due to its brewing method, which forces hot water through fine coffee grinds at a 2:1 ratio of water to coffee. However, a single espresso shot has a serving size of one ounce, meaning it contains less total caffeine than a standard cup of coffee.
Can you add milk or sugar to espresso?
You can certainly add milk or sugar to espresso, and many variations do just that to balance out the intensity of the espresso. A dash of milk creates a macchiato, while a bit of sugar sweetens the drink. The addition of steamed milk leads to different espresso-based drinks like cappuccinos and lattes, which are popular globally.
In summary, while espresso can certainly be savored by itself to experience its full-bodied flavor and authentic roots, there are many ways to enjoy it. I personally hate the snobbery that often accompanies specialty coffee conversations, so consider the recommendations in this article to be friendly tips.
At least once, though, try to drink espresso straight to get that experience. I think it will only make the espresso milk drinks more enjoyable. But, at the end of the day, the best way to drink espresso is the way you will enjoy it the most!
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