What exactly is espresso? this may seem like a rhetorical question, but to many uninitiated coffee drinkers it remains cloaked in mystery as the more potent relative of drip coffee. Teenage boys no doubt boast to their friends about how much of it they drink while retirees sip on it with a twist of lemon at country clubs. But that doesn’t exactly answer the question does it? Espresso, as you may or may not know, is a beverage made out of the same ingredients as a regular cup of drip coffee - hot water and ground coffee. Espresso distinguishes itself however, with the drastically different method by which it is made. Espresso is prepared by forcing hot water through finely ground coffee at high pressure. The temperature and pressure of the water emulsify flavorful oils from the coffee. Additionally, because the environment is highly pressurized, the espresso becomes supersaturated with micro bubbles of carbon dioxide extracted from the grounds, some of the oils cling to these bubbles and become crema. It’s as simple as that, but let’s examine some of the common stumbling blocks that trip people up when trying to understand the beverage.
Espresso Beans: This is a term you may have seen before, which suggests that espresso is made from a different ingredient than drip coffee. In truth, there are no such thing as an “espresso bean.” Espresso is made out of the same coffee beans that regular drip is made from. I suppose people might think of espresso sort of like liquor to explain its taste and potency. For example, gin derives its unique taste from being made with juniper berries, or rum because it’s made from sugarcane. This is not the case with espresso. Espresso tastes the way it does simply because it is prepared differently. End of story.
Espresso Blends: In addition to the roast characteristics, another key factor that plays a role in determining the flavor of your coffee is the beans themselves. Now, while I mentioned above that there are no such things as espresso beans, there are two key varieties of coffee grown in the world, Arabica and Robusta. Arabica beans tend to brew less bitter and less caffeinated coffee than Robusta beans and vice versa. Most coffees you drink, whether they’re drip or espresso, are often a blend of these two kinds of coffee. However, some roasters choose specific ratios of one variety to the other for a flavor balance that works best when brewed as espresso, an “espresso blend” if you will. Experienced tasters of coffee known as “cuppers” have even trained themselves to discern the unique tastes of a coffee’s origin (the country where the coffee was grown). Certain blends take advantage of these unique flavor characteristics as well.
Espresso Roasts: Another term that you’re likely to have encountered, “espresso roast” is more of a marketing term than anything else. After being harvested, green coffee beans are roasted to give them the distinct flavors and aromas that we associate with our beloved beverage. That being said, not all roasts are the same. Based on the degree to which the beans are roasted, their flavors and characteristics can vary quite a bit. More lightly roasted coffee is generally sweeter as less of the sugar in the beans has caramelized, while darker roasted coffee tends to be more bittersweet. Additionally, the darker the coffee, the flavor will begin to be defined by the roast as opposed to the beans’ origin. The body of the coffee will also be lighter as the oils and other solids inside the beans will be burned away. When a coffee is labeled “espresso roast,” the roaster is telling you that the beans have been roasted in a way that makes the flavors you extract from them more palatable in espresso than drip coffee.
So you may be wondering, “how does all of this factor into my shopping experience?” Well, a while back, we went to the trouble of sorting all of the different coffees on our website into different categories to make it easier for you to select the correct variety. If you scroll over the “coffee” tab in our navigation bar, the number of options that appear might seem a little intimidating. If you scroll down the list, you’ll see that our coffee is primarily broken down into three categories: Whole Bean, Ground, and Single-Serve. Beyond the major categories, we’ve broken things down even further by indicating if the coffee is suitable for: Espresso, Drip & Pour Over, or all three.