Espresso: It's Just Another Word for Coffee
If espresso gets an unparalleled amount of attention in these columns, it's probably because pros and drinkers alike treat it like it's the Loch Ness Monster of coffee: Mysterious and elusive, a little bit wild, and seemingly uncatchable. You need a completely separate set of skills in order to wrangle it, and having those skills sets you apart from all other coffee makers, like some kind of caffeinated Navy SEAL.
Much of that is true about espresso in an exaggerated way, but we often forget one simple, fundamental fact about it: It's also still just coffee.
"Espresso" is simply the name for the tiny cup of concentrated liquid one receives in a demitasse at a bar or table in a café, just like "caffè au lait" is the name for a bowl of coffee tempered with gently frothed hot milk, or "regular" is New Yorkese for a cup of drip-brewed coffee topped up with milk and sugar.
In fact, the word espresso simply implies that the coffee was made quickly (or "express," though drop the "x" when requesting one), and individually ("expressly" for the person who ordered it).
Beyond that speed, personalization, and the specialized machines needed to perform the task, however, to make an espresso coffee is do to the same thing one does when making, say, a pour-over or a siphon pot: Pulling flavoring material out of a coffee bean and mixing it with hot water so that it may be drunk. Same two basic ingredients—ground coffee, water—and the same basic end result of something warm, stimulating, and satisfying on physical even if not a sensual level.
Why, then, do we always put espresso in a category all its own, acting like "espresso" is from Mars and "coffee" is from Venus? It's time to challenge (and perhaps change) the way we perceive those potent little caffeinated shots, and put espresso back into context.
Part of what cements, in most people's minds, the idea that there is espresso in one corner and every other type of coffee in another is that there's so much about espresso coffee that is specifically marketed as such. You don't go into a store looking for a bag of beans labeled "French press blend," and yet certain coffees are exclusively called "espresso blends," often on the basis of tradition.
Italian espresso purists have long insisted that certain beans are necessary for the brewing method, either for reasons of flavor or quality or cost, or all three and then some. Brazilian coffees, for instance, are often included for their classically heavy bodies and nutty characteristics; washed Latin American beans contribute sweetness and chocolate tones; Robusta coffees boost crema; and so on. Baristas today are looking outside of that blend box and seeking new flavors, new tactile experiences, and new coffee expressions in their espresso machines, and the beans they use might be blends or single origins, depending.
(This brings up the essential point that "espresso beans," contrary to belief more widespread than one might expect, do not have to come from Italy—nor can they, in a way, since no coffee is grown in the country. Coffee can only grow in frost-free areas, typically between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.)
Neither need coffees be roasted a particular way in order to make espresso. Yes, the highly pressurized extraction process that espresso utilizes can really emphasize and highlight certain flavors inherent in a coffee bean—acidity or fruit-like brightness in particular, which can be an overwhelming tongue-bomb if not dialed in and dialed down. And yes, roasting that coffee darker or longer can often mute some of that acidity, which is why many espresso-specific coffee blends follow a different roast curve or profile. A skilled and sophisticated barista, however, should know how to alter the recipe or preparation technique to counter, compliment, or emphasize certain flavors when making any coffee into espresso, just as he or she uses those skills and that sophistication to alter his or her recipe when making any coffee as a pour-over, or when calibrating an electric brewer.
What does that mean? Well, frankly it means that we don't have to be a prisoner to the labels on the coffee bag: Just because something is stamped as an "espresso" blend doesn't mean it can't possibly taste great brewed in a Chemex, and just because something isn't stamped with the word "espresso" doesn't mean we can't put it in our hoppers and dial it in that way. Thankfully, there are no coffee police to come storming in on a raid through our kitchens, confiscating our tamper and locking us up for breach of brewing method.
All this is to say that espresso is delicious and certainly distinct as a flavor and sensory experience, but remember that it's still just coffee, and it's open to your own interpretation and experimentation as a coffee maker and/or coffee drinker. After all, you can poach, scramble, fry, or boil an egg for use in different dishes and applications, but an egg is an egg is an egg no matter which way you cook it. (And now I just have a hankering for breakfast.)
About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista, an audacious eater, and a smiling runner, but she remains a Nervous Cook.