What is Espresso?
Espresso. Not EX-presso. ES-presso. Yes, that’s the stuff.
Any coffee drinker who frequents cafes will be familiar with the rumble of grinding beans, the gurgle of trickling shots, and the hiss of steam as milk is foamed. Espresso is a staple in cafes, inseparable from our modern coffee culture though not antiquated as you might think. It is essential in creating popular beverages such as cappuccinos, lattes, and cortados, to name a few. However, despite its ubiquity, many coffee drinkers may understandably still ask the question: What is espresso?
First and foremost, it must be understood that espresso is a brewing method, not a type of coffee. Other brewing methods include the French Press, various pour-over methods such as the Hario V60, immersion devices such as the Aeropress, and even old-school drip coffee machines. Coffee roasters create specific taste profiles for espresso, but technically you could use any type of coffee bean for the espresso brewing method.
Espresso brewing involves hot pressurized water shot through very finely ground beans packed into the long-handled portafilter which locks into the espresso machine; the resulting highly-concentrated liquid is caught in a small cup called a demitasse. Officially speaking, espresso is defined by pressure, temperature, and time. Pressure must be 9 bars (roughly nine times normal atmospheric pressure), the temperature must be around 93 °C (200 °F), and the shot must be drawn in 25-30 seconds. In fact, the parameters and methods of brewing espresso are so specialized that they have their own terminology. With other methods one would say they ‘brewed a cup’; with espresso, one will ‘pull a shot’.
Now, the extremely observant coffee drinker will notice that espresso shots are not always pulled to match the parameters described above. Espresso, perhaps more than anything else, is a marker of quality and experience in a coffee establishment. Anyone who has worked at a cafe will relate to the struggles of wrestling the espresso machine into producing a well-balanced shot.
Painting in very broad strokes, inexperience behind the bar or a poorly-tuned espresso machine will result in an underextracted or overextracted shot. Underextracted shots (not enough pressure, heat, or time) tend to taste acidic or sour. Overextracted shots (too much pressure, heat, or time) tend to taste bitter or burnt. Well-balanced shots highlight the full flavour profile of the coffee and are marked by a light-brown aromatic foam that floats on the surface known as crema. If you want to fall further down the espresso rabbit hole then check out Matt Giovanisci’s article on Roasty Coffee.
So the sad news is that you cannot recreate the cappuccino experience using an old drip coffee maker; for that you will need to visit your favorite local cafe, unless you are ready to invest in an espresso machine of your own. Cheaper models start around $150, with professional grade espresso machines easily running up to $7500 or more. While espresso can be endlessly fascinating to explore and experiment with, proper maintenance and repair for these machines is costly and time consuming. As a final tip, do not buy beans pre-ground for espresso unless you have an espresso machine; espresso is meant to be extremely fine and all other brewing methods will benefit from a coarser grind.
As part of the Van. Isle Coffee Tour, Drumroaster Coffee in Cobble Hill features not only amazing locally roasted coffee but also a free display of rare and antique espresso machines! In fact, Drumroaster patriarch Geir Oglend entered Vancouver Island's coffee scene in the 1970s as a cafe owner famed for his expertise in fixing these rebellious devices. Check out Geir's collection the next time you head up or down the island and, wherever your journey takes you, travel safe and brew on!
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About the Curator
Joshua Gillingham is an author, board game designer, and coffee lover from Vancouver Island. He curates the Vancouver Island Coffee Tour. For questions or comments about VICT, map updates, or roaster openings and closures, send him a note via the community contact form.