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What is Espresso?

Espresso coffee

If you asked for an espresso at your favourite restaurant or Café you would probably be served a small, strong shot of black coffee with a rich brown crema (or cream) on top. In broad terms, this is what an espresso is. The real substance of what an espresso is, however, lies far beyond just this basic idea.

History of Espresso

The roots of Espresso can be traced to a Frenchman, Louis Bernard Rabaut. In 1822, he made the prototype of the first espresso machine. In the years that followed, others also worked on similar coffee brewing technologies. The essence of modern espresso truly began to be seen in Turin, Italy in the late 1800s. Angelo Moriondo invented a steam-driven machine which was said to produce coffee “instantaneously.” Unlike modern espresso machines this device was a bulk brewer. The word ‘espresso’ really referred to the fact that he could offer a fresh coffee to his customers quickly, without the wait-time of traditional infusion methods. He was proud to be able to serve a fresh cup of coffee within a few minutes. He was primarily interested in finding a solution to make ‘instant coffee’ for his customers in the hospitality business, which is why he never commercialised the equipment. Although the machine was patented internationally, Moriondo limited production to only a few hand-built models.

Bezzera Coffee
Early Bezzera Coffee Machines (Source: www.bezzera.it)

True modern espresso coffee was born in 1901. Luigi Bezzera from Milan, Italy designed and patented various improvements to espresso technology. These developments were bought by Desiderio Pavoni, who founded the La Pavoni company. He then began to mass produce these machines. Since then espresso machines have continued to be produced and upgraded. Today there are many manufacturers around the world. Many of these offer state of the art espresso machines complete with various new pieces of technology to help produce espresso.

Most modern espresso is produced by passing hot, pressurized water through a compressed bed of finely ground coffee. It is this specific brew method which creates the coffee we know as “espresso.”

Modern Espresso

Espresso Extraction, Espresso Coffee
Espresso Extraction

While traditional espresso recipes tended to be vague: x grams of coffee in, x ml of coffee out. Modern espresso is becoming increasingly more specific. Today espresso is often produced following a recipe which accounts for factors such as dosage of ground coffee, weight of liquid coffee out, grind size, pressure, and temperature. Some may include extraction time in this list, but it is not a factor used to decide a recipe. We won’t be going into extraction theory in much detail here. There are many videos and articles available explaining this. The WillowBrew team particularly enjoys James Hoffmann’s “Understanding Espresso” series on Youtube.

Most modern baristas or espresso enthusiasts use Espresso Ratios as a basic way of communicating an espresso recipe. Most concur that a good general guideline is an espresso ratio of 1:2. That is, the liquid coffee weighs double what the ground coffee weighed. In many cases, this produces a well balanced, well extracted espresso. It is worth noting that each coffee is different, so coffee beans from different roasters or origins will be best suited to different ratios and recipes. There are many factors at play. True modern espresso, is a product of a fine tuning process.

Nespresso
Nespresso Machine

Modern espresso equipment also plays a big part in the end result. Espresso ratios, as mentioned above, don’t account for recipe factors such as temperature or pressure, but most modern espresso equipment is made within specifications which produce good espresso without tampering with those factors. Today it is possible to have high quality espresso, which is at the level of the best Italian coffee bars, in the comfort of your home. Modern technological advancements make it possible to fine tune espresso coffee by adjusting most or all of the factors in an espresso recipe. Other machines and devices allow one to create espresso or espresso-like drinks at home without going into the complicated theory of recipes. Some of these advancements in convenience can be seen in the popularity of coffee capsule machines. Nespresso® and Dolce Gusto® have taken the world, and the South African home coffee market by storm. These user-friendly pods are super convenient, and deliver consistent espresso each time.

Regardless of the exact recipe or equipment a good espresso is one which delivers complex flavour notes, intensity, and aroma. The taste of espresso should be well balanced with both bitter and sweet flavours combined to create a complex taste experience. Good espresso is not overwhelmingly bitter. Neither should an espresso be sour. This balance also means that the espresso is neither too watery (like filter coffee), nor too rich (like a Ristretto).

Which Coffee is best for Espresso?

Coffee Beans
Dark roasted coffee beans.

Coffee is a very personal thing. Every individual has their own personal taste preferences. Single origin, specialty, blends, 100% Arabica, Robusta, light roasts, medium roasts, dark roasts; there are so many options to choose from. Some select coffees branded as “Espresso blend,” but this branding is usually just a way in which the producer communicates that this blend has been created to easily deliver balanced Espresso, not necessarily that it is only for espresso or better than coffee not given this label.
The flavours, intensities and aromas available make it possible for every coffee lover to find something which suits them. Whether you buy Coffee Beans, Ground Coffee, or Coffee Capsules, you can have great espresso.

At WillowBrew Coffee Merchants, we stock Italian coffee. With Italy being the home of espresso, we believe that the years of experience, tradition, and practice leads to an exceptionally high quality espresso. Our roasters have been in the world of coffee for generations, and we are happy to deliver the results of that tradition and experience to South African coffee lovers who would like to enjoy it. Many other South African roasters have been working hard to produce fine quality espresso as well. Today it is possible to benefit from both the tradition and experience of international roasters, and the creativity, dedication and skill of local roasters. There is a place for everyone in the world of coffee!

Are you an espresso lover? Coffee brewing enthusiasts and coffee professionals have developed a love for good espresso. It is a passion shared by many South African coffee lovers. With espresso, there is always more to learn, and more to experience. Now that you’re done reading about the espresso basics! Go out there and get some coffee, find what you love, and share it with a friend.

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