How to Drink Espresso

Espresso. It’s possibly the least understood and most mispronounced way of making coffee. Most people seem to think it’s just for adrenaline junkies or art history professors. But when Luigi Bezzera invented the first espresso machine in Milan in 1901, he wasn’t trying to fuel frat parties or help the literati feel refined. He just wanted to make a really fast cup of coffee.  His initial design was dramatically improved by Achille Gaggia in the 1940s, who introduced manual levers to the espresso machine, hence “pulling a shot”.

vintage espresso poster
espresso stereotype #2

Nine Bar Blues

Slayer. It’s the hot rod of espresso machines. Photo by Brian Moats

Technically speaking, espresso is both a beverage and a brew method. Near-boiling water is forced over finely ground coffee at around nine bars of pressure; i.e. nine times the normal amount of atmospheric pressure. The whole process takes under a minute with most espresso machines, meaning you’ll likely finish your ‘spro before your buddy’s pour-over is done blooming.

Although espresso should be accessible to the everyman, aforementioned stereotypes and misinformation create a certain amount of intimidation when ordering a shot from the smug lit major behind the bar of your local craft coffee shop. Lucky for you, we’ve compiled a step-by-step process explaining how to drink espresso.

How to Drink Espresso: 5 Easy Steps

  • Order your espresso: “One espresso for here please.” should be sufficient. Most shops worth visiting only serve espresso in ceramic, but asking for the demitasse identifies yourself as a serious customer. You might be asked, “Single or a double?” Unless you’ve already had too much caffeine, make it a double.
  • Drink your water. The barista will probably serve you a glass of sparkling water. This is to cleanse your pallet. You’re paying a lot for that ounce of liquid, you want to taste it!
  • Skim the crema (optional). A freshly pulled espresso should have some nice, rich crema floating on top- a by product of escaping co2 and nine bars of pressure. Although thick, reddish crema often designates a good shot, it doesn’t actually taste very good. Some espresso aficionados recommend skimming it off with your spoon. This barista usually can’t wait that long to dig in though!
  • Give the espresso a stir. Espresso is not homogenous, the thick, syrupy part of the shot tends to sink to the bottom while the brighter notes float on top. To get a balanced tasting experience, give the espresso a good stir with the little spoon. Your taste buds will thank you later.
  • Take a sip. Let the coffee cover your tongue. Does it taste sweet? sour? Pay attention to the aftertaste. What lingering flavors are still in your mouth? Don’t be afraid to slurp!

Remember, espresso is like a magnifying glass, it accentuates certain characteristics of the coffee. The concentrated flavors may taste overbearing at first, but over time you’ll grow to love it.

So don’t be afraid or embarrassed to order an espresso. Any barista worth their apron will be ecstatic to pull you a shot.

Recommended reading for coffee professionals: Espresso Extraction: Measurement and Mastery by Scott Rao.


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17 thoughts on “How to Drink Espresso

  1. Agreed, can’t wait to skim. Don’t have a good shop near me, so I’ll stick with my pour-over or aeropress.

  2. Great post, and thanks for the info. I only recently learned about sparkling water with espresso. But a comment for you: you cleanse your palate, not your pallet…

  3. i googled on how to drink espresso and yours popped up! been nervous after ordering one, and while it tasted quite bitter on my tongue, after 2nd sip, somehow the bitterness seeps through.. haha what am i talking about.. Thanks for your article tho!

    1. Well I’m not a batista and I don’t own my own coffee bar. At home I’d have to say “Sorry, I only have a french press, but I can make it extra strong if you want.” At work there is only a drip coffee maker and it’s not a restaurant-quality machine but it does have an all-steel water resovoiur so it is not making anything resembling espresso but it could be worse, it could be an all-plastic low’end pile of garbage dripulator.

      Incidentaly, I’m reading this blog because I’m sitting in the Broadway Roastery on 8th in Saskatoon (a local 3-store outfit that roasts & grinds coffee from a wide variety of beans… they’very got at least 40 varieties available fore custom roasting and grinding) sipping a double espresso. Next time I have one I’ll have to ask for the Crema slimed off and see what the batista does. Thanks for the tip!

  4. Being an Espresso lover myself, I would like to draw your attention to a new variation of “espresso like” products. Since a few years you can find so called RedEspresso, made of real South African Rooibos. This is a delicious and healthy espresso drink for people who want to reduce their caffein intake.
    You can make a cup of RedEspresso with every espresso machine on the market, including the modern machines with the well known cups. The taste of RedEspresso is slightly different from the regular espresso. It’s worth to give it a try. I love it!

  5. I truly enjoyed my espresso, that being said the best best ever was my first Ristretto ( the barista cutted it short) while visiting my friend in Italy. It was bold and amazing, an better yet the place was waliking distace from the appartment.

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