Espresso 101: The Basics

Espresso 101: The Basics

What, exactly, is espresso?  We know it’s mispronounced regularly, there is no “X” in espresso.  We know that we see it served on movies in white linen tablecloth restaurants and European bistros. And maybe, just maybe, you have ordered it at your local coffee shop but weren’t really sure what you were getting.

Espresso, at it’s core, is concentrated coffee. It’s a method of making coffee that is Italian in it’s origin but is served in some form all across the world.  The basic brewing process revolves around using a small amount of water that is nearly boiling and forcing it, under pressure, through some very finely ground coffee beans.  This brewing process results in a thicker coffee and a much more concentrated flavor.  You also end up with a foamy substance on the top of the drink called crema.

Brewing Espresso

Some Espresso Misconceptions

Despite its popularity, espresso is misunderstood and many people have some very wrong ideas about it.  First of all, espresso is not a type of coffee.  While there are plenty of ground and single cup coffees that call themselves espresso, you can use any type of coffee for espresso.  Because espresso drinkers usually prefer a richer, more concentrated coffee taste, coffee distributors will use darker roasts for espresso blends.  However, there is not a specific type of coffee that is called espresso.

Another idea that seems popular is that espresso is a blend or mix of coffee.  Again, the name comes from the brewing process, not the coffee itself.  Don’t pay extra for a coffee that labels itself as espresso or claims that it uses an espresso bean.  There is no such thing as a specific espresso coffee bean, all coffee beans can be used for espresso.

How To Make Espresso

Making a great espresso is similar to making a great cup of coffee.  You need to start out with a high quality coffee, ground properly, fresh water and a good machine.  Instead of making a pot of coffee, you will be making your espresso in small batches, with each cup being only 1 t0 2 ounces.

Start with a good coffee.  Usually an espresso drinker appreciates a strong, concentrated coffee so you will probably want to use dark roast beans, but any coffee bean will do.  You will need a special coffee grinder for espresso as you will need a very finely ground coffee.  Look for a grinder with a conical burr setting, you will be very disappointed with your beverage if you don’t grind the coffee finely enough.

JavaPress Coffee GrinderAs with any beverage that uses water, you will want to make sure that your water source is clean.  Hard water is best but follow the directions that your espresso maker has.  Don’t let water stand for a long time in your coffee maker, it will begin to taste stale and you will notice it when you sip your drink.

Brewing an espresso is a fairly quick process but it will, again, depend on your espresso machine.  Usually it will take only 20-30 seconds, about the same amount of time that a Keurig coffee maker takes for a traditional cup of coffee.  A properly made espresso will always have a rich, golden cream layer on the top.  This delicious layer is called a crema and is a sign that the espresso is properly made.

Some Espresso Terms

Burr Grinder

A burr grinder is the recommended type of grinder to ensure that you will make a proper cup of espresso. This type of grinder features two disks, one that is stationary and one that is rotating.  These disks work together to grind the coffee beans into a very fine grind.


Demitasse is the delicate, small cup that is used with traditional espresso.  These cups can be made of glass, ceramic, stainless steel or stone and are used just for espresso.  Most espresso fans prefer heavier materials, they want to keep their drink as warm as is possible.

Demitasse Cups For Espresso

Frothing Tip

Every good espresso machine has a steaming wand and the frothing tip refers to the perforated tip.  This tip plays an important role in allowing steam from the espresso machine agitate and heat up the milk.  It also adds air to the milk, adding some bulk and froth to the drink.  A good barista is a wizard with the frothing tip.


This term is misused a lot in coffee shops.  A shot of espresso is another way to describe a cup of brewed espresso. When a shot of espresso is added to a latte or another coffee drink, it is the brewed espresso that is made separately.

Espresso Makers And Espresso Machines

Espresso does require a special machine or maker.  You can’t make espresso with your Mr. Coffee.  While there are K-cups and ground coffees that call themselves espresso, these are just dark roast coffees with more product in them to give a more concentrated taste.

To make espresso you need an espresso maker.  Also called an espresso machine, these devices will super heat water quickly (to just below boiling) and then force it through very tight packed, finely ground coffee.  They will have a steaming wand to help steam milk and create a foam for coffee drinks.

Calphalon Espresso Maker

There are 5 types of espresso makers that are the most commonly used.  All can be used at home or in commercial settings and can range in price from less than $50 to a few thousand dollars.  Which one you use is a decision that you will need to make based on your coffee usage and your budget.

Super Automatic Espresso Maker

These are the beasts of espresso machines.  While they can be used at home, they are better designed for high use situations.  They tend to be larger in size and cost more and are probably not a good choice for casual espresso drinkers.

Super automatics are just what the title says.  Almost every step of the process is automatic, from the bean grinding to the brewing to the frothing.  The machine will make a perfect cup of espresso with the pressing of a button.

Semi Automatic Espresso Machine

This is a very common type of espresso maker for home kitchens.  They are not quite as automatic as super automatic makers, they do require a bit more work on your part.  While a good deal of the process is still automatic, you will have to grind the beans, clean the unit and work the steaming wand.  Still, these are great units to have at home and are not as large as super automatic makers.  They are also a lot less expensive.

Manuel Espresso Makers

Old school all of the way!  Many espresso drinkers love these machines, they feel very involved in the entire drink making process.  These machines tend to be sturdy and small in size.  As the name implies, you manually do all of the steps while making your espresso.  Espresso snobs will only use manual machines.

Stove Top Espresso Makers

Just like our grandmothers used to brew regular coffee on the stove top, espresso used to be brewed on the stove top as well.  Usually very inexpensive, these espresso makers don’t need electricity, meaning you can use it on your patio or while camping.

K Cup Brewers

True espresso lovers will shudder if you tell them that you make your espresso with your Keurig or other k-cup brewer but you can get a decent cup of espresso with most k-cup machines as long as you use espresso pods.  These are very dark roast beans and are packed tighter into the pod.  Still, duck and cover if you ever admit to using k-cups around a true espresso lover.

Espresso is very versatile, it can be consumed for breakfast, lunch or dinner and is a great companion with any dessert.  Just remember:  quality coffee beans and a really good espresso machine will result in good espresso.

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