Espresso drinks have become about as mainstream in the US as Coca Cola and Budweiser, thanks in large part to coffee giants like Starbucks.
But actual Italian espresso is unlike anything we can find in most American coffee shops. Whether you want to make your own at home or you’re up for the challenge of finding the best around, there are some characteristics to know about what makes a true Italian espresso. Read on to find out what you need to look for.
There are two things you can use to make real espresso: a three-chambered mokka pot that you heat on the stovetop, or an espresso machine that runs on electricity. Most restaurants and cafes will invest in machines to press their espressos, and the stovetop pot is generally more affordable for at-home users.
To make an actual espresso, the coffee beans should be roasted and ground especially for an espresso machine or mokka pot. This means a coarser ground and a roast that Goldilocks would appreciate: not too light nor not too dark. In general, medium roast will suffice. Darker roasts will have a burnt taste coming out of the espresso-making process, whereas lighter roasts won’t provide enough flavor. Italians traditionally use blends of coffee beans for their espresso, while many American baristas choose single-origin beans. Either option is fine, as long as the grind is coarse enough for the machine or maker and the roast is correct.
Much as New Yorkers view their pizzas’ perfection as a product of the water used to make the crust, many Italians see water purity as a key ingredient in the perfect espresso. You may not be able to get your hands on Neapolitan tap water to make your own espresso at home, but bottled or purified water should do the trick. The water should not be heated for too long while the espresso brews, or else the drink will taste burnt. If you notice a pattern by now, it’s true—espresso is all about balance.
Among the factors constituting espresso perfection are the ratios of ingredients and timing that go into the production process. The traditional formula is one ounce of water for every 7 to 8.5 grams of coffee, heated to around 200 degrees Fahrenheit. The espresso should take no more than 30 seconds to be extracted from the bottom chamber of a three-chambered pot or pulled from an espresso machine.
When it is made properly, an espresso will feel and taste balanced on the tongue. It should be a little bit bitter, but at the same time a little sour and a little sweet. You should be able to feel that the espresso is full-bodied, which is of course a product of proper preparation of the correct beans. A good espresso should also have a nice aroma that is strong, but not burnt.
The layer of foam on top of an espresso is called the crema, and it is yet another indicator of a properly pulled shot. The crema should be a creamy, pale brown color, and the bubbles should be very small.
There are many ways to consume espresso in American, but there are really only two in Italy. The first is a small grass of straight espresso, similar to the “shots” we know in the US. There is no milk or water added to this serving style. The second is a 6- to 10-ounce cup of espresso with just enough milk added to carry the coffee’s perfume out into the air. Called a macchiato in Italy, this is similar to—but smaller than—an American café latte.
Now you know the difference between an Italian espresso and an American espresso. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but it doesn’t hurt to know the roots of the newest all-American beverage—and be able to judge a good one when you taste it.