Everything You Need to Know to Brew a Great Espresso Shot - Try Coffee
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Everything You Need to Know to Brew a Great Espresso Shot

Everyone has heard of espresso and tons of people are drinking it every single day. That said, not everyone is aware of what espresso actually is and how it is different from other coffee. Essentially, espresso is a specific kind of coffee beverage that is created using an espresso machine. The machine is created specifically for the purpose of making espresso.

Some people enjoy drinking espresso all on its own for the right, deep coffee flavor. However, espresso is also a crucial ingredient in tons of coffee drinks, including everything from a latte to a cappuccino. In most cases, if you step into a coffeehouse, the majority of the drinks on the menu start with espresso. Macchiato? Espresso. Americano? Espresso. Red eye? Also made with espresso.

We’re going to look at what exactly espresso is, where it started, how to drink it, brew it, and more. There’s a fair bit of history behind this drink, more than most people would expect. But first, we want to look a bit deeper into what this powerful coffee is that gives you a true experience with the flavor and aroma of a coffee bean.

What Espresso Actually Is

So first off, let’s get rid of some of the misinformation behind what espresso is. Many people are not aware of what espresso is and a large part of that is because the way it can be marketed is extremely confusing. If you’ve ever walked into a grocery store and perused the coffee beans, you may have seen that some are labeled as espresso.

The reality is that espresso is not a type of coffee bean. Any bean that you can buy at the supermarket can be used in other ways, including brewing a simple black pot of coffee. The reason some of the bags might be labeled this way is because the people who roasted the coffee have come up with a certain blend that tends to taste really good when made into espresso.

On the same coin, espresso also is not a roasting style. When you’re starting at that same wall of bags with coffee beans, you might notice that most of the ones marked “espresso” are dark roasts. However, that doesn’t mean there is an actual espresso roast. Any sort of bean can be used for espresso, it just happens that darker roasts are known for offering a better consistency in espresso than a lighter roast. Since espresso is a complex thing, that consistency can be a huge bonus.

Now that you know what espresso is not, let’s consider what it actually is. If you look at the definition from the Specialty Association of America, it notes that espresso is “a 25-35ml (.85-1.2 ounce) beverage prepared from 7-9 grams (14-18 grams for a double) of coffee through which clean water of 195 °-205 °F (92 °-95°C) has been forced at 9-10 atmospheres of pressure, and where the grind of the coffee is such that the brew time is 20-30 seconds.”

Notice what the entire definition relates to? That’s right, espresso is a brewing process. It isn’t defined by the bean and it certainly isn’t defined by the style of roasting. It’s a specific way to brew coffee. That being said, the definition above is super specific. There are plenty of coffee shops that pull espresso shots who don’t adhere to the requirements by the Specialty Association of America.

The reality is that espresso is a very concentrated type of coffee that is made by forcing hot water through fine coffee grounds at a certain rate of pressure. When you step into a coffeehouse and order a shot of espresso, that’s exactly what you are going to get.

What Espresso Tastes Like

There’s also a lot of conflicting information out there about what espresso tastes like. There are many people out there who have heard that it’s bitter, so they’ve never taken a chance and given it a shot. That’s a shame because espresso isn’t always bitter any more than a regular cup of black coffee. If the person making the coffee is skilled and has reliable equipment, espresso can be smooth, bright, and extremely tasty.

However, there probably is a lot of bitter espresso out there. It has nothing to do with the fact that espresso is always bitter, it relates to the fact that many individuals and even coffee shops choose to use beans that are low-quality and over roasted. If the coffee you use isn’t great, the espresso isn’t going to be any better. However, that isn’t something unique to espresso. It applies to any brewing style from French press to Chemex and even your standard coffee machine. If you’re using fresh quality beans, you’re going to get a tastier espresso.

One thing to be aware of is that even when the flavor is great, espresso can pack a serious punch. That’s because all the flavor you have in a cup of coffee is being condensed down into a one-ounce shot. Those who are new to espresso will find the richness of the flavors overpowering in many cases. The same person, however, who drinks a few more espresso shots will stop being as shocked by it. This is when the nuanced flavors can really be tasted.

A great brewed espresso is going to be full of clean flavors. There’s plenty of acidity but it’s well-balanced with a tinge of bitterness. Equally rich aromas will enter your nasal passages. If the espresso is brewing quite well, you will even taste a bit of sweetness that rounds the shot out. It takes time to learn to taste espresso, but it’s something that can be deeply rewarding.

The Rich History of Espresso

Back in the 19th century, coffee was everywhere in Europe. There are cafes across the entire continent and people loved to enjoy coffee and conversate with others around them. However, brewing coffee took a lot of time so customers would have to hang out and wait for their coffee to be done. This led to inventors in Europe attempting to find a way to use steam machines to make a quicker cup of coffee. Many people tried their hand at this but the invention of the machine that would lead to the popular espresso goes to Angelo Moriondo, who was from Turin, Italy. In 1884, Moriondo was granted a patent for “new steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage.

This wasn’t the espresso machine of today, but it was the precursor to it. The machine had a large boiler that pressed water through a large amount of coffee grounds on demand. There was also a second boiler which was used to flash the coffee and finish the process. While this was the first iteration of an espresso machine, it was created to show at the Turin General Exposition. However, there’s not much more known about the man who created it.

A few decades later, a man named Luigi Bezzera built his own espresso machine. It consisted of a boiler with four divisions that forced boiling water and steam through coffee grounds. The machine could quickly and easily brew a concentrated cup of coffee. After that the machine was patented and quickly took off to offer the espresso drink so many know and love today. At this time, espresso was largely consumed by individuals in the working class who enjoyed spending time at coffee bars.

In the late 1920s, espresso took off in the United States. However, there are complaints that the coffee was too bitter and had an unpalatable aftertaste. About 10 years later, a technician named M. Cremonesi made changes to the espresso machine and fitted a spring piston pump which got rid of the burnt aftertaste. This also added a creamier finish to the espresso shot and was the beginning of espresso having foam.

Further changes were made as the years went on to make the espresso machine even better. An electrical pump was first used in 1961, which is what our modern espresso machines are now based on. Today an espresso machine is able to brew a shot of espresso instantly to be enjoyed by a customer or made into one of the many other drinks that use espresso as a critical ingredient.

Different Types of Espresso Machines

If you are looking to make your own espresso, you’ll need to purchase an espresso machine. However, there are tons of options out there and choosing the right one can be challenging. Unfortunately, you can’t make a real macchiato, cappuccino, or latte without one. The good news is that there are four types of espresso machines and what makes them distinct largely relates to how difficult they are to use. Your choices are a manual espresso machine, semi-automatic espresso machine, fully automatic espresso machine, and super automatic espresso machine.

Manual Espresso Makers

If you want to get your hands dirty and don’t mind putting in a bit of work to get espresso, this might be the version for you. One of the benefits of a manual espresso maker is that you have control over every aspect of the brewing of an espresso shot. That means that you can build a shot that is absolutely perfect for yourself. On the other hand, it’s also pretty easy to make a bad espresso with the machine. In either case, the machine has a distinct learning curve and will take some time to get used to.

When you buy a manual espresso maker, you can choose between two levers: spring piston lever or direct lever. The second will add more work to the process. Many manual espresso makers are aesthetically appealing and can be used decoratively as well as functionally. They also tend to be pretty pricy and tend to be used by only coffee connoisseurs and experienced baristas. While expensive, these machines can last a good long time in the right hands.

Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine

With the semi-automatic, you get an electric pump. This alone makes the iteration easier to use than a manual espresso maker. You still have quite a bit of control over the espresso you make, but they are a lot easier to use. If you are looking for a machine that is popular on the market, this is the right one for you. It is the most sold type of espresso maker out there. These machines can still be fairly pricy but are less so than a manual espresso maker.

Fully Automatic Espresso Maker

With a fully automatic espresso maker, you get the electronic pump like the semi-automatic. What makes them unique is that the delivery and amount of water is also fully automated during the espresso making process. Because of this, the fully automatic is even more easy to use. However, you have even less control over your final espresso shot. If you are someone who is pretty particular about your espresso, this might mean a fully automatic isn’t for you. There is a large range of prices for this type of machine, but some are fairly inexpensive.

Super Automatic Espresso Machine

As you might expect, this type of machine is the most automated out there and it makes it nearly effortless to make espresso. The idea behind the super automatic is to make brewing a shot of espresso as simple as using a traditional coffee maker. You add grounds and push a button. That’s the entire process. Those who prefer not to do any work to make their espresso are most likely to choose this machine. This is most often when the nuances of the flavor are less important than convenience. Those who drink espresso all day long may find this is the perfect espresso maker for you.

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Factors to Think About When Purchasing an Espresso Machine

Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to what they would like to see in an espresso machine, which means everyone is going to have a different idea of what the perfect machine will offer. The good news is that there are tons of options out there. We’re going to look at some of the main features and factors that may be worth considering while you shop, so you can make the right decision for yourself.

How Easy it is to Use

As you read through the types of espresso makers above and how they work, you probably noticed that a lot comes down to how convenient the brewing process is. If you want an espresso maker where you push a button and you’re done, those are out there. Some of them even have push button options for other drinks like cappuccinos to add even more convenience. Look for one of the more automated machines if convenience is key for you. If it has programmable settings, that’s even better. Make sure to do some research to find out what all the features and buttons are before you make a purchase.

The Price Tag

Another thing that can have a huge impact on which espresso making is right for you is cost. The reality is that espresso machines come at all sorts of price points from a couple hundred dollars up to many thousands of dollars. Sometimes when you choose a high-end model, the cost is going toward quality of material and durability more than any special features. Others are going to be packed with features and command a higher price.  With one machine, you might be paying for convenient and with another you might be paying for the best tasting espresso. The more expensive models typically combine several of these items.

If you are someone who has a particular taste when it comes to espresso itself or you care deeply about how long it takes to make, you may find that one of the most expensive models is worth it for you. Those who are not as particular about easy of use or don’t have a distinct flavor that matters to you may be completely happy with an espresso maker that costs much less.

Ease of Cleaning

If you end up with a great espresso machine that is simple to use but it turns out that it’s a serious pain to clean, you’ll find that it’s less convenient than you first thought. It’s a good idea to be aware of what the cleaning process will be before making a purchase. If you just have to have an espresso machine with tons of features and extra parts, you’ll likely spend more time cleaning it than you would a simpler model.

Types of Drinks

There are tons of things that factor in when it comes to the flavor of your espresso. Those who are new to brewing espresso may not need to worry much about this aspect. The same goes for those who prefer drinks like cappuccinos or mochas. The espresso taste will play a role in how those drinks taste, but not nearly as much as it does for the person who prefers a straight espresso shot. Those who care more about the quality of the flavor will have additional things to consider.

How many boilers a machine has is one thing that you’ll want to look at. The same applies to whether stream pressure is used to make the espresso. You’ll also want to consider the temperature the machine goes to and how well it keeps to that temperature. Taste is a seriously involved thing and it’s also subjective, which can make it difficult to decide which machine offers the best quality. If you aren’t sure where your taste is just yet, a mid-range model is a great place to start your journey.

Level of Customer Service

When you shell out cash for an espresso machine, you want to know that it’s going to stay in good shape and be around for a while. In order to ensure that, you may find yourself in contact with the manufacturer from time to time for repairs or parts. This is why being aware of the level of customer service is so crucial. Take a look at what people are saying in reviews about their experiences with customer service with various brands. Nobody wants to buy a machine and then find it unusable because the customer service isn’t up to par.

Strength and Durability

If you choose to go with a more expensive model of espresso machine, many of them will come with a warranty. This can offer an idea of what to expect in terms of durability of the machine. Checking out brand reviews and reputation can clear up even more what your expectations should be for a specific model. You also will find that the materials used in a machine make a huge difference. If you get a model that is made mostly of metal, it’s going to last longer than a plastic espresso maker. It’s also likely to be better at maintaining a specific temperature. In addition, models with lots of electric parts and automated features will often need more repairs than a manual model might.

Size of Espresso Maker

If you are like many people, you may have limited space available for the espresso maker you choose. Some espresso machines can be gigantic, so you’d want to avoid this if you need to consider space. Going with a large model may mean you have to sacrifice something else in your kitchen being accessible to accommodate the espresso machine. However, the larger models can be convenient and may be able to make two shots of espresso at once or offer great features, so you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons.

Additional Features

Another thing to think about are the extra features offered by some models. There are numerous options, and some are more important than others. While you’re shopping, you may find yourself persuaded by a machine with all the bells and whistles since it can be more convenient and remove the need to buy additional tools for your espresso. Below are some of the most common features you may want to be on the lookout for.

  • Frothing Wand – This is included on most espresso machines but there are some exceptions. If you enjoy espresso drinks that make use of steamed milk, this is something you do not want to go without.
  • Coffee Grinder – When you grind your own coffee, it can make the flavor of your espresso much better. If you don’t already own a coffee grinder, having one built in is convenient. This is a feature to look for if you have little extra space or don’t feel like purchasing a separate coffee grinder.
  • Programmable Settings – After you decide what settings make the espresso you enjoy the most, programmable settings allow you to program that in to make an easier shot. Some of these machines even allow multiple settings so everyone in the home can make what they prefer.
  • Water Filter – The quality of the water you use in your coffee has a huge effect on the flavor of the espresso. A built-in water filter will help ensure that any additional flavor in the water won’t negatively affect your beverages.
  • Cup Warmer – Just like a traditional coffee maker, some espresso machines over a mug warmer. This will keep your cup warm when you step away from the machine and can be a convenient feature for many people.


How to Make Perfect Espresso

So, you have a machine and you’re ready to make an amazing espresso shot. Great! There are a few things you want to be sure you have on hand before you start. We’ll list those below:

  • An espresso machines
  • A coffee grinder
  • A coffee scales
  • A portafilter
  • A tamper
  • Filtered water
  • A cup or mug
  • Fresh high-quality coffee beans
  • A kitchen timer

The first thing you are going to want to do is preheat the machine, the portafilter, and the cup you will be using. This is done easily by pulling a blank shot. A blank shot is made by running water through the portafilter and cup without adding any coffee. The model of your machine will affect how long this may take. You can expect it to require anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to get everything fully heated.

The next step is grinding your coffee beans. For the best espresso, you will want to grind whole beans just before you brew. This isn’t unique to espresso, it applies to any brewing method you choose. However, the grind texture is also important to get just right. If the grind is overly fine, it might over extract the coffee and result in a burnt or bitter tasking shot. If the grind is too course, it can under extract the coffee and lead to a watery, sour, or weak shot. The grind you want to go for is going to look similar to granulated sugar. This can be up to personal taste, so don’t be afraid to experiment.

At this point you move on to the dose. This means that amount of coffee that will go into the portafilter to make the shot. If you are making a single shot, this can be anywhere from about six to eight grams of coffee, for a double shot, 15 is a average dose.

Tamping goes next and it ensure uniformity by packing and leveling the grounds. This ensures that consistent and equal water contact is going through the coffee. The tamp method that is suggested involved putting your elbow at a 90-degree angle, resting your portafilter on a surface that is level, and pressing on the coffee until it is polished and even when you look at it. If you’re using courser grounds, it will require a firmer tamp.

The fun part starts now before you get to brew the coffee itself. You’ll put the portafilter back into the espresso maker’s brew head and rest the preheated mug underneath of it. Make sure you have a timer ready and time the shot. This part can be one of the more frustrating areas of the learning curve so don’t be upset if it takes you some time to get it right. Start the pull and carefully watch as the espresso is made.

Assuming everything was done perfectly from dosing, grinding, and tamping, you’ll see that the first bit of the espresso will be dark. However, it will begin to turn into a foamy golden-brown color that comes into the cup in a thin unyielding stream. If you’re making a single shot, stop the shot at one ounce. If you chose a double shot, stop at two ounces. This is when you want to check your timer. If you get something between 20 and 30 seconds, you are within the ideal brewing time. However, if that isn’t the case, adjust your grind, tamp, and dose and try against next time.

Espresso Drinks to Try

Now that you are ready to brew some great espresso, why not try out a new beverage while you’re at it? There are tons of drinks out there and many of them are quite tasty. Every one of the options below uses espresso along with various other ingredients to offer a distinct beverage. You may even find your favorite while trying some of them out. These are the most popular drinks out there, so once you find your match, you can also find the drink at most coffee shops if you’re out and about when you need caffeine.


If you like drip coffee but also like espresso, the Americano might be the perfect drink for you. It’s also super simple to make, which is also an advantage on mornings when you’re running late. All you need to do is pull a double shot of espresso and then mix with six ounces of water. You’ll have a nice cup of coffee to start off your day with the flavors of high-quality espresso to make it even more satisfying.


If you enjoy coffee with milk, this is going to be perfect for your taste buds. Start out with a double espresso shot and add a large amount of steamed milk. It will have the same taste as espresso but be softer and creamier. The most used ratio for a latte is 1/3 espresso and 2/3 steamed milk.


Another delicious beverage that is hugely popular in the United States is the cappuccino. All it needs is espresso and some frothed milk. What makes a cappuccino unique is that it has a nice light microfoam on top. Use 2/3 espresso with 1/3 milk for the perfect beverage.

Flat White

The flat white has some similarities to a latte, but it is its own drink. This drink was first made popular in New Zealand and Australia but is gaining a following in the United States as of late. There are two things that make it unique to a latte. The first is that it’s usually a bit smaller. The second is that it uses less milk so you get a better taste of the espresso.


The ingredients in a macchiato are steamed milk and espresso. However, only a small amount of milk is used. If you enjoy a strong cup of coffee, this can be a great choice. Other options are classic espresso and ristretto.


The cortado is very similar to a macchiato, but what makes it unique is that it has a touch more steamed milk to it. This is a beverage that is currently gaining popularity.


The absolute most concentrated espresso beverage is the ristretto. It is a single shot of espresso but done a bit differently. Only a small amount of water is used, and the coffee is extracted very quickly. This results in a brew that has a strong coffee aroma and flavor. This is an extremely strong coffee that is very popular in Italy.


This is a more complicated beverage due to the use of several ingredients. It uses a double espresso shot, steam milk, whipped cream, and cocoa or chocolate syrup. This is the perfect espresso drink for anyone who loves the taste of chocolate. It also has more calories than other drinks.


If you have a thing for coffee and you also love a nice scoop of ice cream, affogato will be right up your alley. This drink is made with a single or double shot of espresso and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Those who enjoy desserts in drinkable formats are sure to love it.

Espresso Con Panna

Another simple drink is the espresso con panna. This is just espresso with some whipped cream. It’s easy to make but tastes delicious.


One of the most popular variations of the latte is the breve. This drink is made without steamed milk. Instead, half and half is substituted.


We explained that an Americano involves taking a double shot of expresso and adding it to hot water. Lungo is similar except that twice as much water is used. While the two have similarities, the taste is quite different.

Long Black Coffee

A long blank is made by brewing espresso in a mug of hot water. It has the same taste as the Americano, but it can be a bit deeper. This beverage will have a cream on top which makes it easy to spot for what it is.

Red Eye Coffee

For a red eye, you take your espresso shot and pour it into brewed coffee. Some people love it, others aren’t big fans. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, it has a unique name. The espresso has a long history but is the most popular drink in many places, partially due to the taste and partially due to how fast it can be made.

Wrapping Up

There you have it! You can now make a fantastic shot of expresso, as well as several other espresso-based drinks. You also know how to find the right expresso maker for your needs. Espresso is a great subject to explore for a coffee lover and there are so many choices of beverages that nearly everyone will find their favorite. Good luck!

Bonus Questions

1. Is espresso just coffee?

An espresso is a super concentrated coffee that is often thicker than a typical coffee. It is made entirely using coffee and water and has a layer of foam on top.

2. What does an espresso machine do?

An espresso machine makes coffee by pressure force. Water is forced through ground coffee and a filter, which makes the coffee more concentrated and thicker.

3. Does espresso have any health benefits?

Espresso has many antioxidants which can help boost the immune system. Some of these antioxidants help with decreasing the risk of heart disease and liver cirrhosis.

4. Is 500mg of caffeine safe?

Everyone is different, but experts recommend that healthy adults drink no more than 400mg of caffeine a day.

5. Can espresso shots die?

You don’t have to worry about your espresso dying quickly, but over time the flavor of the espresso will change.

6. Does espresso powder have caffeine?

Instant espresso powder does keep its caffeine, even when you use it for baking or cooking. However, there is decaffeinated espresso powder if you prefer to avoid caffeine.

7. Is a latte an espresso drink?

The latte is an espresso drink. It contains espresso, steamed milk, and a thin layer of milk foam.

8. Who invented espresso?

The method and machine for espresso were both invented by Angelo Moriondo of Italy. Moriondo has granted a patent in 1884 for the first espresso machine.

9. How much should a double shot of espresso weigh?

It is going to vary but a single shot will typically use about six to eight grams of espresso, while a double shot uses 15 grams.

10. What is the best milk to use for cappuccino?

For a beginner, skim or non-fat milk is the easiest to froth. It also produces the largest foam bubbles. However, the flavor of the milk is less intense.

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