Last updated on December 12th, 2023

What Is An Espresso Coffee? Learn Espresso Definition, History, & More!

You’ve heard the term espresso a million times—maybe you have even ordered it in a latte or cappuccino. But what is the definition of an espresso coffee? Is it the same as coffee? In short, an espresso shot is a concentrated beverage made with pressurized water and a fine grind. The resulting thick liquid pairs particularly well with milk.

However, it is no surprise to coffee geeks that the definition of an espresso and its various drinks gets more complicated. I’ll start as simply as possible and answer the basics. Later you can keep reading to find out the geeky science of extraction, the history and meaning in Italian, and the difference between coffee and espresso.

what is espresso: coffee beans shaped like Italy

So if you’re curious about espresso, you came to the right place. Keep reading to learn everything!

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What Is an Espresso Coffee: Basic Definition

You might know of espresso as a crucial part of Italian culture. And it’s become increasingly popular in other Western countries with the rise of Starbucks and specialty coffee. But what is espresso?

Espresso is a type of coffee that you brew by forcing hot water under high pressure through a compact puck of finely ground coffee beans. In a sense, you can think of espresso as a highly concentrated coffee. Concentrated coffee means more coffee per unit of water, aka a tight brewing ratio. This dosage means that compared to the brewing method of black coffee (usually 1:16), espresso is usually around 1:2.

This tight ratio and small serving size are similar to Turkish coffee. But espresso is even richer and more flavorful than Turkish coffee. Usually, the texture is thick and syrupy, and there is a layer of microbubbles and oil on top called a crema that contributes to the aroma and flavor.

Because espresso is so intense/concentrated, it works perfectly as a base for milk drinks like lattes and cappuccinos.

What Is an Espresso Shot?

what is an espresso coffee: a graphic describing a detailed espresso definition

An espresso shot is a small serving of a concentrated espresso beverage that comes out of the machine, commonly called a single shot. The idea is that it is small enough to consume quickly like a shot of alcohol. And like a shot of liquor, a shot of espresso is intense and concentrated. The brewing time is short, but the machine’s high pressure extracts a rich/bold flavor and aroma.

Many people enjoy espresso as a standalone drink, and it is a fast way for folks to get their much-needed caffeine. However, because of its intensity, adding milk and sweeteners is a popular way to balance the flavors.

You can always add more shots to drinks like lattes, cappuccinos, and americanos, to make them stronger.

How Much Espresso Is in a Shot: Is It Always the Same?

There is no absolute standard serving size for an espresso shot because the serving size varies from place to place. But the typical shot will be somewhere between 1-2 fluid ounces. For example, at Starbucks, the standard espresso size for a single shot is less than one ounce. But many specialty shops will approach two ounces for their shots.

Because specialty coffee brewing usually measures water and coffee by mass, the amount in fluid ounces can vary from coffee to coffee. But the dosing in grams will be more consistent.

Is Espresso Coffee?

You can think of it this way: all espresso is coffee, but not all coffee is espresso. Espresso is a type of coffee brewed under high pressure. The pressure and tight brewing ratio create a rich and concentrated beverage. So, yes, espresso is a coffee beverage, but one markedly different from what a standard drip coffee maker produces. And espresso beans are fundamentally the same coffee beans you use for regular coffee.

Espresso is also the base of many popular coffee drinks. For more detailed information, check out this article dedicated to the difference between coffee and espresso.

Caffeine in an Espresso Shot

One of the most pressing questions people have about this coffee drink is: How much caffeine is in a shot of espresso? I’ll dig into the details later of how dosing, roasting, and other factors affect espresso caffeine content. The details are crucial because caffeine levels, serving size, and brewing ratio depend on the coffee shop. Specialty coffee shops often have different dosings.

But for a fast answer, consider the following chart detailing the caffeine content in Starbucks espresso:

Starbucks SizeOuncesEspressoCaffeine
Solo.75 oz.1 shot75 mg
Doppio1.5 oz.2 shots150 mg
Triple2.25 oz.3 shots225 mg
Quad3 oz.4 shots300 mg
Average Size and Caffeine in an Espresso Shot

Drinking Espresso

Many people drink espresso straight, especially if it is high quality. It can be a fantastic way to enjoy a quick and intense coffee. If drinking espresso without any additives, you should use a small cup that lets you smell the strong aroma as you sip. Use a small spoon to push the crema and activate the smells. Let the espresso sit on your tongue to enhance the flavor. You might even consider an obnoxious slurp like you’ve seen wine connoisseurs do.

In Italy, most people order and consume espresso while standing at the coffee bar. But you can also drink espresso as the base of a larger coffee beverage. Espresso balances beautifully with warm milk to make drinks such as a latte and cappuccino. Read more details below about the most popular espresso drinks.

History of Espresso

Espresso’s history dates back to Italy in the early 20th century and has become a centerpiece of Italian culture. While the origins of the espresso machine start with an invention by Angelo Moriondo in 1884, Luigi Bezzera and Desiderio Pavoni improved the concept enough to get credit for inventing the espresso machine in 1901.

Bezzera’s machine was smaller and more practical, and it could make a single cup of coffee in mere seconds. Initially designed for restaurants and cafes, the machine eventually became popular for home coffee brewing. Modern-day espresso machines have evolved, but the basic principles of brewing are the same. You will likely find an espresso machine in most restaurants and cafes, as espresso is one of the world’s most popular coffee beverages.

Espresso Meaning in Italian

The word “espresso” is derived from the Italian word “esprimere,” meaning “to express.” It refers to the pressure method used to brew coffee that was popularized in Italy before spreading throughout Europe and beyond.

In many countries, ordering coffee defaults to normal brewed coffee with a wide ratio and serving size of 8-12oz. But espresso is the basis of coffee culture in Italy and their default coffee drink. If you order a “caffè,” you will get espresso. If you want the more diluted form of coffee typical in America, you must order the caffè Americano, a drink diluted with hot water.

What Is the Roast for Espresso?

Many people mistakenly think that espresso coffee beans are fundamentally different from beans used in filter coffee. But an espresso bean is the same as a normal bean, the primary difference being the roast profile.

Espresso beans often have a medium to dark roast, which occurs when the internal temperature of the beans reaches 440-460 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature is past the point of sugar caramelization and begins imparting the burnt flavor of the beans into the espresso. You will also notice that a dark roast causes oils to come to the bean’s surface, creating a shiny appearance.

Specialty coffee shops will rarely roast dark like this, but many people prefer the bold flavor of a dark espresso roast. Dark roasts also create a desirable balance in milk drinks like lattes and cappuccinos.

Is Espresso Healthy?

While there is no definitive proof about which method of coffee consumption is healthiest, some observational studies showed that filtered coffee is healthier than unfiltered. Whether due to cholesterol-raising diterpenes or something else, it might be worth knowing that espresso is an unfiltered brewing method. Fine particles and coffee oils become part of the drink.

But espresso also brings many health benefits shared by all methods of coffee consumption. Coffee has antioxidants that may protect you from certain diseases like type 2 diabetes and liver disease.

Considering its strength, note that espresso can be dangerous if over-consumed. Especially because a small amount of liquid contains a large dose of caffeine, you should be aware of the downsides of too much caffeine intake. Anxiety and bad sleep are common side effects of consuming too much caffeine.

How Is Espresso Made?

You might already be satisfied with understanding what espresso is and how it works. But for those extra geeky coffee lovers out there, this section will go into the details and science of how espresso extraction works.

What Is an Espresso Machine and How Does It Work?

Like all coffee drinks, the ingredients to espresso are simply coffee and water. But the key to espresso’s unique taste and texture is that it uses finely ground coffee and high pressure. You also pack the fine grounds into the portafilter and tamp them down, creating a tight puck.

After dosing, grinding, and tamping properly, it is the job of the espresso machine to force hot water through this puck of coffee grounds. The machine’s pump reaches 9 bars of pressure, and it typically takes around 30 seconds to pull an espresso shot. The high pressure creates rich flavors and a thick/syrupy texture.

Espresso Machine Parts

While it can look complicated, an espresso machine contains four main parts:

  • Boiler: This tank keeps the water under pressure and above the boiling point. Expensive machines will have an additional boiler that is hotter for the steam wand.
  • Group head: This section is where the hot water flows out.
  • Portafilter: This metal basket holds the puck of coffee grounds and has a long handle. Portafilters can be bottomless or have two spouts.
  • Steam wand: This stick releases steam to heat up and froth milk for lattes, cappuccinos, and other milk drinks.

Aside from these components, the machine also needs a pump to maintain water pressure as you brew. Some manual devices like this Flair Espresso Maker use a hand lever to create pressure. But it is more common to use a machine with an electric pump.

Espresso Drinks

Many people drink espresso by itself. But it is even more popular to make an espresso drink by combining espresso shots with steamed milk at various ratios. Steaming milk creates a thick texture with milk foam on top. All espresso drinks are a combination of espresso, steamed milk, and foam. People can also sweeten their espresso drinks with syrups and whipped cream.

Some of the most popular espresso-based drinks are:

  • Cappuccino: espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam
  • Latte: espresso and steamed milk
  • Americano: espresso and hot water
  • Macchiato: espresso with a small amount of steamed milk
  • Mocha: espresso, steamed milk, chocolate syrup, and whipped cream

Cold Espresso Beverages

Just like you can brew drip coffee over ice to make iced coffee, you can pull an espresso shot over ice to make cold espresso drinks. For example, you can add cold milk and espresso to a cup of ice to create an iced latte. Or you can add cold water and ice to dilute espresso and create an iced Americano.

A drink like a frappuccino combines espresso, milk, ice, and sweet syrups into a blended frozen coffee drink. For dessert, you might try pouring hot espresso over ice cream, which is an affogato. The espresso and ice cream flavors blend beautifully, and the blend of hot and cold also tastes wonderful.

How To Make Espresso Coffee at Home

If you have a machine, you can make espresso at home after just a short amount of learning. The most expensive machines will brew the best espresso, but many affordable models are worth it if you enjoy brewing coffee at home. I recommend investing in a grinder so that you can grind your beans directly before brewing. Even the best coffee beans will not last when pre-ground at a fine setting.

But without a grinder, make sure to have your coffee ground fine or espresso. Otherwise, it will be impossible to brew properly.

The basic steps for making espresso at home are:

  • Measure coffee: While these details can change depending on preferences, coffee type, and portafilter size, I recommend starting with 18 grams of coffee. You may have to use less with a smaller portafilter.
  • Grind: Ideally, use a burr grinder to grind your beans right before brewing. You can adjust the grind to be finer or coarser depending on how well the shot pulls.
  • Tamp: After adding ground coffee to the portafilter, use your tamper to compress the grinds into a tight puck. The standard tamp pressure is 20-30 pounds, but you will develop muscle memory for it over time.
  • Pull shot: If using 18 grams of coffee, the machine should produce 36 grams of espresso within 30 seconds. While I generally aim for a 1:2 ratio of coffee to water, you can play with this until you dial in the perfect taste.

If your machine has a steam wand, you can add steamed milk for drinks like a latte. Otherwise, you can make frothed milk with an affordable device such as this handheld foam maker.

Recommended Machines

To avoid going into the full details of different machines and their features, for now, I will just give a few standard recommendations. Buying an espresso machine is an investment, but the money you save from buying lattes at a coffee shop adds up over time!

Gevi Espresso Machine: Budget Option
Gevi Espresso Machine 15 Bar Pump Pressure, Cappuccino Coffee Maker with Milk Foaming Steam Wand for Latte, Mocha, Cappuccino, 1.5L Water Tank, 1100W, Black silver 4
Breville Barista Express Espresso Machine: Mid-range option
Breville Barista Express Espresso Machine, Brushed Stainless Steel, BES870XL, Large
Rancilio Silvia Pro X: Premium Home Machine
Rancilio Silvia Pro X Espresso Machine, 1 liters, Stainless Steel

Without an Espresso Machine

While you cannot make true espresso at home without a machine, some devices allow you to brew a strong coffee that tastes like espresso. The key is to use a fine grind and a tighter brewing ratio. For example, a Moka pot uses stovetop heat to brew a highly concentrated coffee that is a fantastic espresso substitute.

You can also use the AeroPress to brew concentrated coffee under the pressure of the device’s plunger. You can check out this detailed recipe for AeroPress espresso to learn the ins and outs.

Espresso Caffeine: The Details

Per liquid unit, espresso has a high caffeine content compared to regular drip coffee. Depending on the coffee type and recipe, a typical 1-ounce shot of espresso has approximately 60 milligrams of caffeine. So if you were to drink 8 ounces of espresso as you would drink for drip coffee, you would be having an insane dose of caffeine.

Luckily, you normally consume espresso in small quantities between one and two ounces. In this way, the caffeine content balances with standard coffee much like alcohol content balances between liquor and beer.

Can You Drink Espresso like Coffee?

If you try to drink espresso as you would coffee, you will consume way too much caffeine. If you enjoy espresso but want to drink it more slowly like you would drip coffee, consider making an Americano. An Americano dilutes the intense espresso with hot water to get close to the strength of drip coffee (and you can also make an Americano iced.)

Roast Level and Caffeine Content

Many folks mistakingly think that dark roasts have more caffeine than lighter roasts. The more intense and bold flavors from a dark roast only help to perpetuate this myth. But while some aspects of roast level can affect the caffeine content of coffee beans, dark and light roasts tend to have similar caffeine doses.

The one exception that may give dark roasted espresso more caffeine is when you measure by mass. Since dark roasts are less dense, you will use slightly more beans for a shot of espresso to get the same mass. But if you measure by volume, you will get less caffeine due to the lost weight/density of dark roasts.

Espresso FAQs

Last but not least, let’s finish by answering some of the most common questions people have about espresso.

How is espresso different from coffee?

Espresso is a method of brewing and serving coffee, so all espresso is coffee in that sense. But compared to drip coffee, espresso is stronger and more concentrated, usually served in shots of 1-2 ounces, often complemented with steamed milk.

Why is espresso served with a spoon?

Many coffee shops serve espresso with a spoon to allow the drinker to stir and taste the beverage before drinking. The spoon also helps to activate the intense espresso aromas.

Why do Italians drink water before espresso?

Italians drink water before espresso to cleanse their palate and enhance the flavors and aroma of the espresso. Many specialty shops serve sparkling water on the side of espresso.

Is espresso stronger than instant coffee?

Although you can brew instant coffee to be quite strong, the high pressure of espresso brewing makes it stronger than instant coffee in flavor and caffeine content.

What do you call espresso with milk?

There are many drinks whose recipe involves espresso with steamed milk at different ratios. The most popular drinks with espresso and milk are cappuccinos, lattes, and macchiatos.

Final Thoughts

If you usually drink regular coffee and are new to the concept of espresso, hopefully, you now have the curiosity to try something new. While espresso is a form of coffee because it combines a coffee bean with hot water, you will probably find the espresso experience to be much more intense than drip coffee.

A shot of espresso is also a fantastic way to get a quick boost of caffeine. And blended with steamed milk, espresso drinks can find a balance of intensity and sweetness.

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