Espresso Can Refer to a Machine, Espresso Beans Blend or Beverage

Espresso is an Italian word meaning Express, in English. In Italy it is commonly used to imply express train service and express postal service. Both express the idea of saving time. This rapid coffee brewing system could have no better name.

The espresso machine was invented at the turn of the last century about the same time as the automobile and airplane. Faster was better then, as it is now. Several inventors in Germany, France and Italy came up with prototypes that never got to market. It was an Italian, “Pavoni” who perfected the counter-top, mini steam boiler, adapted to producing fresh brewed coffee one cup at a time. These first machines were only gas fired because they predated the common use of electricity. Another Italian by the name of “Gaggia” improved them in the 1940s by adding a lever-operated, spring loaded, high-pressure piston pump to force the hot water through the fresh coffee grounds. This is where we get the terms “short pull” and “long pull.”

The first machines were ornate works of art, Nouveau and Deco. They were complicated, dangerous and required a professional to operate them. The unique feature of this new type of coffee brewer was the concept of a “portafilter.” A removable or “portable coffee filter holder” that locked into a hot water faucet on the front of the boiler tank. Thus the filter could be quickly removed from the machine, emptied of spent grounds, refilled with fresh ground coffee and re-engaged with the machine for the next cup of brew.

Early espresso machines had a gas-fired boiler inside a sculpted and stylish housing. It generated the steam pressure used to force hot water from the boiler tank through the coffee filter when the portafilter hot water valve was manually opened. Because the hot water pressure was determined only by the relatively weak steam pressure in the boiler, the coffee grinds had to be much coarser than what we use today.

Obviously there was little or no crema on the surface of the coffee shot at that time, as that had to wait until the lever machine was invented. Likewise our current model machine had to wait for commercial electricity to become available, small electric motor development and the high-pressure water pump to be invented to produce the nine-bar pressure to push through the fine-grind coffee we use today. Also of note is that these first espresso efforts had no precision grinders with dosers either. Nevertheless the rapidity of producing a single cup of fresh coffee on demand was so much appreciated and fondly embraced that they became the rage in Europe. Strangely enough Europeans never took to our invention of sliced bread.

The second innovation of these machines was steam on demand. Excess steam was tapped off the top of the boiler to rapidly heat and foam milk. A weighted relief valve on top of the boiler tank controlled the over-pressure, much as a pressure cooker uses today. Constant monitoring and adjustment of the flame under the boiler was necessary to keep the steam pressure within production limits.

The big difference between today’s modern machines and those early pioneer machines is that in modern machines the water pressure passing through the coffee grounds is almost ten times greater than the steam pressure used in the pioneer machines. Also the brew water doesn’t come from the boiler but from a dedicated fresh water source through a heat exchanger immersed within the boiler water. This is a good thing, because the boiler water can become concentrated with salts that are left behind when steam is generated and bled off to foam the milk. In other words the boiler water becomes saltier with time and unless the water is changed regularly at least once a week. Eventually it will become too salty to be used for producing hot water for beverages such as teas. The problem with salty water was not so much of a concern with the original machines because the tank was emptied and refilled often throughout the day. It is in the modern machines that the boiler is constantly auto-filled and never emptied. Baristas fail to consider the boiler water until they try to use it to make a tea and find it undrinkable or until the heating element is completely coated with salt and eventually fails to heat efficiently or burns out completely. Europeans use the boiler water to heat cups and glasses, which keeps the boiler constantly refreshed. We in America often serve only paper cups, with no cup heating or rinsing required.

The water temperature through the portafilter of these early machines was obviously a little over 100oC because it was under pressure in the tank, causing it to boil at a slightly higher temperature. It would have been about ten degrees too high for proper extraction by today’s professional trade-standards for proper coffee brewing.

FYI. Modern machines have a water circulation system through the brewing head to keep it warm. Unfortunately if the machine is not used constantly, the brewing head can actually get too hot. If my machine has been sitting unused for an hour or more I remove the portafilter and cycle brew water through the head as if pulling a shot. Initially the water comes out hissing and steaming because the brew head temperature had risen above the boiling point. After a few seconds the head temperature drops below the boiling point of water, the hissing stops and the hot water comes out in a quiet steady stream. It is then that I replace the portafilter and pull the shot.

In most respects the beverage produced by the first espresso machines was nothing like the espresso we know today. Espresso today has an improved aroma, improved strength, improved crema and an improved flavor.

Espresso Beans & Espresso Roast:

Espresso beans are usually a blend of beans from three or more countries. This is because there are few single-origin coffees that can produce the rich, complex flavor that distinguishes a well-crafted espresso beverage. In other words Espresso Beans are regular coffee beans until the Roastmaster labels his blend “Espresso Beans.”

The Espresso Roast is likewise arbitrary and determined by the Roastmaster. There is no official national standard for the color or degree of roast for an “Espresso Roast.”

My opinion is that it should be at least a “medium dark” roast, although in America, espresso is more commonly produced at the even darker, French Roast color. Even though some Espresso Blends are oily on the surface, this is not necessary and it can be problematic when the oils build-up in the grinder hopper and slow or restrict the flow of beans through the grinder. Lightly roasted coffees, which are quite suitable for drip-brewed coffee, will produce an acrid and highly acidic flavor unsuitable as an espresso beverage.

In general, the lower the acidity of the espresso blend, the better. Here I am speaking to both the roast and the origin selection. Some origins are naturally lower in acidity that can be more suitable than some other higher acidity origins. As to the roast, natural acidity is diminished, as the roast gets darker. Coffee beans roasted extremely dark often produce a disappointing espresso because most of the natural sweetness and complexity of the coffee has be lost in the roasting process and only a burnt and bitter tastes remain. Nevertheless there are many consumers that particularly enjoy such coffees. This I call the Schweppes Effect. Some people enjoy extreme bitterness. Another disadvantage of extremely dark roasted coffees is that they out-gas more quickly and will produce less crema. In the end it’s still a matter of taste.

Espresso the Beverage:

In most European countries, the straight Espresso is preferred highly sweetened by the consumer. He or she usually downs it in two or three quick swallows at a stand-up kiosk or bistro. This “liquid coffee candy” is consumed primarily for effect, several times a day and often during business hours. The heated porcelain demitasse cup is preferred in Europe and I doubt you would see an Italian drinking an espresso from a paper cup anywhere in Italy.

Even though quaffing is the norm in Europe, this is not to say that they do not enjoy sipping an espresso after a leisurely lunch or dinner. I doubt that Europeans appreciate that in America; we have perfected the half hour “coffee break.” After all they perfected the three-hour lunch break.

In the end it is all a matter of pace.

When in Rome:

Espresso –

A proper espresso should fill a demitasse cup about two-thirds full. (About one and one-half ounces) Above all it should exhibit a rich hazel-colored foam (crema) on its surface.

Espresso Ristretto – “Restricted”

This is a “short pull” espresso that will fill the cup only half-full and be more dense and aromatic. Also called Espresso Corto (short)

Espresso Lungo – “Long”

This “long-pull” espresso will fill your cup and will contain about two ounces. You can expect it to be slightly more bitter and thinner.

Espresso Doppio – “Double” not dope.

Obviously a double serving will be about three ounces served in a cappuccino cup.

Espresso Macchiato – “Marked”

This espresso is somewhat like a mini Cappuccino. A single espresso with a dollop of foamed milk marking its surface.

Espresso Americano-

An American innovation used by espresso cart operators who don’t served brewed coffee. Diluted espresso is served in place of regular brewed coffee. Fill glass with the desired amount of hot water (6 to 8 oz.) and float espresso shot on top to preserve crema.

Cappuccino –

Every coffee expert knows the real story of this milky Italian innovation. I think the name has something to do with bald-headed monkeys or monks. The Italians use only two ingredients, Espresso and foamed milk. Espresso capped with foamed milk. Don’t expect to get this type cappuccino in America unless it’s in an ethnic shop.

Americans usually list three ingredients in a cappuccino. Various amounts of espresso, steamed milk and the foamed milk. The American version of a so called “Dry Cappuccino” has a small amount of added steamed milk and a lot of foam on top while the “Wet Cappuccino” is approximately one-third added steamed milk with the standard ration of foam.

About the milk. First of all there can be a big difference in the taste of milks. Do a test to find your preference before deciding on a brand. There is some talent required to steam milk properly and to make a velvety smooth froth. It takes practice and good wrist action to distribute it across the surface of the shot. Some baristas like to pour the milk froth directly into the espresso creating a creamy swirl in the foam and crema on the surface. Others will make hearts or palm-leaf patterns on the surface.

The temperature of the milk is also important. Too hot and you may damage the protein bonds in the milk and it will appear thin.

By the way, because there is no national standard for espresso drinks in the U.S. you should feel free to request your barista to make it to your taste.

Caffe Latte – “Coffee Milk”

The Italian Caffe Latte is Espresso and steamed milk. The foam on top is optional. If we want no foam, we order it “flat.” The proportions of espresso to milk should be dictated by the flavor and richness of the main ingredient. In Europe, Caffe Latte often constitutes half of one’s breakfast menu. This beverage is traditionally one part espresso with as much as six parts of hot steamed milk served in a large glass, cup or the traditional “latte bowl” which is more suitable for dunking the other half of breakfast, usually a croissant or brioche.

Café con Leche – “Brewed coffee with hot milk”

This variant of a Caffe Latte is the popular breakfast beverage in Latin America where espresso machines are not as common. The French call it Café au Lait and they use the same style of service, a small pot of strong hot coffee served with a small pot of hot milk on a tray. The consumer usually pours equal amounts into his cup or bowl, simultaneously and sweetening to taste. Although this is more popularly as home-style coffee, it is often served in shops and cafes that have table service. Americans sometime call it Café Ole.

Cioccolata Mocha – “Chocolate Flavored Coffee”

Even though the name means Chocolate Coffee, it is not made from brewed coffee but from Espresso and is basically a chocolate flavored Caffe Latte. It is often topped off with foamed milk or whipped cream and sometimes even a dusting of chocolate powder.

Americans usually call this beverage Caffe Mocha. Literally “Coffee/Coffee”. Caffe means coffee in Italian and for the last four or five centuries, Mocha has always meant “coffee,” most anywhere in the world.

One last note about milk. Cream and processed creams as well as diluted creams have a long history of use in coffee beverages. The Italians serve Espresso with a dollop of cream referring to it as Caffe con Panna. Drinks with half and half are known as Breves.

The Espresso Blend

First of all, Espresso Roast is not a standard Dark Roast. It is actually a specified degree of roast selected by the individual Roastmaster. It is the appropriate degree of roast that gives the best suitable flavor for the espresso blend. This is not to say that some roasters don’t use extremely dark roasts for their espresso blend, but at Wheelin Pete’s we are always careful not to over roast and lose the flavor of the coffee to the roast.

Many roasters blend as few as three different origins for their espresso blend and there are those that will use as many as six origins in varying amounts in order to keep a more consistent flavor as crop characteristics change from season to season.

Low-grown coffees can be less expensive because they have less acidity compared to their high-grown counterparts. It so happens that low-acidity coffees are quite suitable for espresso blends, which is a good thing if price is a major concern. This has not escaped notice of many European espresso roasters.

Natural (dry processed) coffees are usually less expensive compared to the washed (wet processed) types. Dry processed coffees and pulped natural coffees often have a lower acidity and heavier body than their washed counterparts. Obviously these coffees are also popular in espresso blends. Brazil naturals and Sumatran semi-washed coffees are the two favorites when designing an espresso blend. Both origins have a variety of different processes available so you have to specify the type you are interested in. There are roasters that will use both of these coffees in their espresso but most will use either one or the other.

Robusta is a favorite component of espresso in certain European countries. It’s used mainly for its higher caffeine content but also for its unique contribution to the flavor of the blend, and supposedly for as its contribution to “crema,” the foam found on the surface of a well-made espresso shot. Poor quality robusta tastes harsh and nasty. Good quality robusta tastes like toasted barley.

Coffee flavor is derived from the degree of roast and the selection of beans. As mentioned before the two favorite bases for espresso are Brazil or Sumatra.  Now one adds small amounts of the next origin you want to blend with. This process is continued until you fine-tune the proportions of each.

When blending with a limited number of origins you will need to find the degree of roast most suitable for each origin and begin blending with the best overall roast. This is assuming one is going to pre-blend before roasting. Wheelin Pete’s pre-blends its Espresso beans and house and decaf blends for you but you may order individual origins and hand blend each component separately, either before or after roasting. Four our personal use, Wheelin Pete’s post-roast blends our house and decaf house blends to select the best degree of roast for each component separately for the balance of those blends.

Origin cupping should be performed at the intended final roast for proper results. Again pre-roast blending and post-roast blending is of concern when using beans of different density. Robusta and Indian Monsooned coffees are lighter in density and roast at a different rate than your typical fresh Arabica.

High grown coffees will exhibit a high acidity. Usually a blend of all high acidity coffees will produce an overly acidic cup that borders on acrid. Remember that espresso extraction process concentrates the coffee and exaggerates the acidity. This is why we ordinarily start with a high percentage of a low acid coffee as a base. The style of roasting can minimize acidity. Slow roasting is the main method of minimizing acidity.

Remember the quality of your green coffee components are of paramount importance. Natural coffees are usually strip-picked as opposed to the individual picking of ripe cherries for washed coffees. As such, you are more likely to find under-developed and defective beans in dry processed coffees. When sample roasting you will recognize any under-developed beans in the early or mid-roast because they will show up as pale yellow or tan against the rich brown color of healthy beans. As one roasts darker, the pales will eventually turn dark; yet still retain their defective off-taste characteristic.

There are a little more than seven grams of ground espresso beans in a single Espresso shot. Seven grams is about fifty beans. One bad bean in fifty is recognizable in the cup as an off-taste.

One more note about green quality. When cupping for espresso blends, try to find the sweetest or the least bitter beans. Sweetness in Espresso always counts.