In this article, we’ll look at the basic process of making espresso coffee drinks, and why they’re so difficult to perfect. For me, finding great coffee shops is usually an important part of my travel planning. If great coffee is important to you, it helps to have a bit of background on quality espresso drinks since names and styles can vary from country to country.
What are Traditional Espresso Drinks
What is a “traditional espresso drink”? A traditional espresso coffee drink, when made in its original form, is a small drink composed of excellent espresso and perfectly steamed whole milk. These drinks come in a few different forms, such as
Examples of traditional espresso drinks:
• Single espresso (or single espresso shot)
• Double espresso (or double shot)
• Macchiato (or espresso macchiato)
• Latte (aka Caffe Latte)
The difference between them are not the components, but the varying amounts of espresso and steamed milk. It may seem like a simple task to make something that only contains two ingredients, but if you want to make a traditional espresso drink correctly, there are a lot of factors to consider.
Learning how espresso drinks are made
I have worked in the coffee industry for about 6 years. Before I started working in the coffee industry, I had no idea how much was involved in making the “perfect cup of coffee”. All I knew was that there was a huge market for coffee in America and across the world, but I didn’t understand it.
Once I started working in a small, independently-owned coffee shop in my hometown, I started to realize how big of a deal “good” coffee was to the people that I worked with, and the people that would come into our shop every single day and spend from $4-$7 on every single drink.
Before I started working at the aforementioned coffee shop, I thought I liked coffee, but I soon realized that the “coffee” I knew was not the same coffee that my coffee shop focused on perfecting. The “coffees” that I liked were flavored lattes, which are basically just large cups of steamed milk with syrup that covers up the flavor of the coffee and a smidge of espresso (side note – I said espresso incorrectly when I first started working with coffee too, I called it “eXpresso” which is very wrong, and I had to correct that mispronunciation quickly).
The coffee that the coffee shop that I worked at focused on perfecting was straight shots of espresso, traditional-style macchiatos, cortados, and cappuccinos, unflavored lattes, iced coffee, drip coffee, and french press coffee. I had a lot to learn when I first started working with coffee, but I slowly began to try actual good coffee, and I started to understand what all the hub-bub was about.
Key elements of great espresso drinks
There is so much involved in creating a delicious, non-sour, non-bitter, smooth shot of espresso, and so much involved in even making a simple cup of drip coffee. In this article, although I would LOVE to tell you how to make every single type of coffee, I’m going to tell you how to make a few of my favorite traditional espresso drinks, and everything that goes into making them taste as delightful as possible.
Selecting the right coffee beans
So, when you start thinking about making a shot of espresso, you might think first about which type of coffee machine to use. Well, you actually want to start by thinking about what type of coffee beans you want to use first. If you start this process with the wrong type of coffee, you’re already starting off on the wrong foot.
When you’re looking for the appropriate coffee to use, you want to consider these 3 factors: Country of Origin, Roast, and Freshness. A lot of people think that espresso is actually a different type of coffee from normal coffee beans, but the truth is, they’re both the same thing! It’s just the process of making the coffee that makes it different. A lot of coffee shops use blends of coffee beans to make their espresso unique, but in the end, it’s all just plain old coffee beans.
Country of Origin
The country of origin of your coffee beans is going to be what determines the flavor notes of your espresso. If your coffee beans are from a region in Africa, they’re going to taste lighter and fruitier, and they’re going to be roasted more lightly for this reason. Alternatively, if your coffee beans are from a region in South America, they’re going to be more full-bodied and chocolatey and they will be roasted darker than the African beans. I like darker and richer coffees, so I would probably start with beans from South America, or at least purchase a blend that included beans from that region.
The roast of your coffee beans is very important to the flavor of your espresso. If the roast is too dark or too light, your espresso will not taste good. There are some coffee shops that roast all of their beans very, very dark so they taste the same all of the time, but the truth is, coffee bean taste is going to vary all of the time because they come from fruits, and fruits aren’t always consistent in flavor. For espresso, you’re aiming to make a strong few ounces of coffee, so I usually recommend going with medium to dark roast. However, you can tell that beans are over-roasted if they are almost black in color, and if they are overly oily, because over-roasting beans will cause them to extract the natural oils inside of them. Try to avoid buying beans that look like that.
Freshness is another factor to consider when making a high-quality shot of espresso. If your coffee beans were roasted more than a month ago, they will not taste nearly as good as they would if they were roasted a week ago. The fresher the beans you buy, the clearer you can taste all of the flavor notes, and the creamier the crema on your espresso will be. When you have the beans for over a month after they were roasted, they will still taste okay, but they will start to have a stale flavor to them.
Grinding the Coffee
Now that you have all of the information you need to choose the correct coffee, let’s talk about the process of making the espresso. To make espresso perfectly, you’re going to need a high-quality grinder with adjustable settings, and a manual espresso machine. This is something that may only be available to you if you work at a coffee shop, or if you have access to machines like this.
The reason you need a grinder with adjustable settings, is because you will typically need to pull a few espresso shots before they taste good. To make the perfect shot of espresso, you will grind about 16 grams of fairly finely ground coffee. You’ll try it first and then adjust as needed.
Understanding Espresso Machines
There are many types of espresso machines, but if you’re learning to make traditional espresso drinks at home you may be using a manual espresso machine.
So before I talk about how to adjust the grind on your espresso, let’s talk about what I mean by a manual espresso machine. A typical manual espresso machine will have a portafilter, a filter head, and a lever to pull down and pressurize the coffee in the portafilter once it is in the filter head, and that will slowly release pressure on the filter head as it expels the espresso. This is what that would look like:
Pulling a shot of espresso
Now, let’s go back to explaining how to adjust your espresso grinds correctly. First, pull your first shot of espresso so you have a starting taste before making adjustments. To do this, you will grind about 16 grams of espresso, put it into your portafilter, and tamp it down with one of these handy tamps with a significant amount of pressure:
Once you have tamped down the espresso in the portafilter, put the portafilter into the filter head of the espresso machine, pull down the lever, and let your espresso machine do the rest of the work. There are a few things you need to observe as you watch the espresso machine work its magic: Time, Consistency, and color.
Timing for a proper espresso shot
When it comes to time, the espresso should take about 25-30 seconds to pull the shot of espresso. If it takes more or less time, you will have to adjust your grind. If the shot takes 35-45 seconds to pull a shot, you need to make your grind more coarse. This is because the espresso is too fine, and it is over-pressurizing. You can do this by adjusting the settings on your grinder. If your shot takes 10-20 seconds to pull, you will need to make your grind finer. This is because the espresso is too coarse, and the espresso is under-pressurizing.
Now for the consistency of the espresso. Your espresso should look creamy on the top, with a layer of a foam-like substance. This substance is called “crema”. You want there to be crema present on your espresso. If there isn’t crema, either your espresso is old, or is too coarsely ground.
As for the color of the espresso, the crema on the top will be your best indicator. The color shouldn’t be too pale or too dark. It should have a rich caramel color on the top. If the top looks almost white, the grind is too coarse, if the top is dark and has black splotches in it, the grind is too fine. This is what it should look like:
Adjusting grind for sour or bitter espresso
Once your espresso looks right, pull another shot and taste it. You may have to adjust your grind if your espresso tastes “sour” which is too acidic and citrusy tasting, or “bitter” which will have a bite to it and will have no flavor notes. If the espresso is sour, make your grind more fine, because if the espresso is sour, it didn’t have enough time to brew. If the espresso is bitter, make your grind more coarse, because if the espresso is too bitter, it is likely over-extracted.
Steaming and adding the right amount of milk
Now that your espresso is perfected, let’s talk about steaming milk correctly for each type of drink. I will write a separate article explaining how to steam milk, but the bottom line is that you want your milk to look glossy on the top whenever it is finished. This means that it’s not overly foamy and not too watery. It will look like this when it’s perfectly steamed:
Congratulations! Once you have completed all of these steps, you can assemble your traditional espresso drinks! Sometimes people vary on how they make these drinks a little bit, but these are the measurements people usually use when making these drinks:
2 oz. Of Espresso with a Dollop of Foam
2 oz. Of Espresso with 2 oz. Of Steamed Milk
2 oz. Of Espresso with 4 – 6 oz. Of Steamed Milk
2 oz. of Espresso with 10 oz. Of Steamed Milk
One important reason I emphasize the drink sizes is that a lot of coffee shops do not make these drinks the traditional espresso sizes. For example you might see coffee drinks like this around:
Generic Coffee Shop Macchiato:
A 12-24 oz. drink with 2-3 shots of espresso, 10-21oz. of steamed milk, vanilla syrup, and caramel drizzle. They call it a macchiato, but in reality it is a flavored latte made backward.
Generic Coffee Shop Cappuccino:
A 12-24 oz. drink with 2-3 shots of espresso and 10-21 oz. of dry foam made from steaming as much air as possible into a certain amount of milk. These drinks are essentially made up of a small amount of espresso, a small amount of milk, and a whole lot of air.
Generic Coffee Shop Latte:
A 12-24 oz drink with 2-3 shots of espresso and 10-21 oz. of steamed milk with around a half inch of dry foam. Most generic coffee shops do not make steamed milk correctly, so instead of getting a thin layer of wet foam like I described how to make earlier, you get a layer of dry foam which is less pleasant.
As you can see, many generic coffee shops don’t make these coffee drinks in the traditionally correct way. Therefore, they can’t be considered “traditional espresso drinks”, and don’t emphasize the coffee in the same way.
Finding a coffee shop with good espresso drinks
Also, you may have noticed that I didn’t write an example of a “generic coffee shop cortado.” That is because those are not common. Most of the time you will know if you’re at a reputable coffee shop if they have a cortado on their menu, or at least if they offer an equivalent drink with a 2 shot to 2 oz. of steamed milk ratio. If you are trying to figure out if a coffee shop has traditional espresso drinks, just ask for espresso to milk ratios. If they match what I wrote above the generic coffee shop drink examples, you’re in a good place.
The journey of learning about coffee
After reading all of that, you might be a little overwhelmed. I know I was at first. I didn’t know 75% of that terminology when I first started working at a coffee shop, and nor did I know how much was involved in making what seemed like such a simple drink!
All of these factors may seem a little bit meticulous, but they are definitely worth the effort and make such a difference! Thankfully, there are a lot of coffee shops around that will do all of the work for you if you don’t want to bother with all of this stuff but want a really good cup of espresso coffee.
If you want to make sure you’re at a good coffee shop before you order a drink though, a good indicator is how they make their cappuccinos. Ask the barista on shift how they make their cappuccinos, and if they offer you a 12 oz. drink with dry milk foam,that would not be a traditional cappuccino. I would recommend to keep looking for another coffee shop. When you find one that makes 6 – 8 oz. cappuccinos like the one I described, you’ve probably found yourself a good one. If you want to know more about choosing a great coffee shop, check out this related article.
Variations on the traditional drinks
There are a ton of variations on the traditional drinks that go beyond the scope of this article, but one of my favorite examples would be the affogato.
An affogato is a shot of espresso poured over vanilla ice cream (or, preferably, vanilla gelato). It’s a common dessert in Italy.
This is a variation on the cappuccino and is basically a cappuccino with chocolate syrup added. It is sometimes called a mocaccino or mochaccino, but the name ‘mocha’ is usually used for short.
Espresso con panna
Another variation is the espresso con panna, which basically means espresso with cream. It’s a shot of espresso with a dollop of whipped cream on top.
For the milk lovers out there, another variation is the latte macchiato. Instead of focusing on the coffee, this drink focuses on the milk and is mainly foamed milk with a small amount of espresso, sometimes even half a shot.