What is espresso?


<Coffee for the Average Josh, Part 6 of 10>

Pop quiz: Espresso is …

A. Another word for coffee

B. A particular type of coffee bean

C. A way to prepare coffee

D. An Italian method for ironing clothes when you’re late for work

The answer? C. (Though please send ironing tips. Takes me forever.)

While espresso is just another method to brew coffee among dozens, it has become the crema the crop when it comes to coffee consumed outside the home. Most of the staples of a coffeeshop menu have espresso-prepared coffee as their base.

Do you love yourself a cappuccino, americano, latte or mocha? They are all made with shots of espresso.

Where does the word espresso come from?

The word itself has Italian roots, meaning “pressed out.” When you brew coffee espresso-style, that’s exactly what happens — the coffee is pressed out. “Espresso” also has meanings that refer to speed, which makes sense when you consider it shares roots with the English word, “express.”

Pressed out in a hurry? That’s espresso.

How is espresso prepared?

Espresso is a strongly brewed coffee produced by forcing near-boiling water through a bed of finely ground, packed coffee. In fact, the coffee bed is packed so tightly that water won’t make it through without help. With espresso, a machine is used to produce the targeted amount of pressure in the precise amount of time to pull the perfect shot.

How did espresso get its start?

Remember Expo ’84? Probably not, cause the one I’m referring to was held in Turin, Italy, in 1884. Even then, drinking coffee at cafes was all the rage in Europe, but the process for brewing it was slow. Angelo Moriondo wanted to get coffee out to crowds in a hurry, so he invented a way to use steam power to brew coffee more quickly. The processes of producing the appropriate amount of espress-ure have come a long way since then, but Moriondo can rightly be remembered as the father of espresso.  

Why did you tell that lame joke about crema earlier?


One of the popular features of espresso coffee is crema. Italian for “cream,” it refers to the layer of foamy goodness that tops this shot of coffee. This happens because of high pressure and carbon dioxide and blah blah blah.

You know what, let’s not spoil the mystique of crema. It’s a happy miracle.

What else might espresso refer to?

So far, we’ve learned espresso is most officially a method of brewing coffee birthed and popularized in Italy.

But the machines used to make it? Espresso machines.

When a roaster develops a blend meant to be used as espresso? It’s an espresso roast.

And, most notably, that perfect brown liquid pressed out into a small cup? That’s a glorious shot of espresso.

Are there different types of espresso shots?

Basketball has the jumper, the free throw, and the layup. An espresso machine makes different types of shots as well: espresso, ristretto, and lungo.

Espresso is the standard bearer.

Ristretto is Italian for “restrict,” and the idea here is that the amount of water used to produce the shot is restricted — while the amount of coffee remains the same. The goal is to produce a stronger, albeit smaller, brew of coffee.

Lungo is the opposite. Italian for “long,” this shot uses double or more the typical amount of water. The resulting brew is not overly popular as it typically comes across as overdone, spoiling the nuance of the coffee. Lungo does pull more caffeine because of its longer brew time, however, and it’s not without its supporters.  

Next week: Touring the espresso menu

This is the sixth in a 10-part series, “Coffee for the Average Josh,” releasing Fridays this fall. Get your fix of Coffee 101 by signing up to receive an email when the next post drops.


  1. Where do coffee babies come from? (Oct. 2, 2020)
  2. Growing up on the coffee farm (Oct. 9, 2020)
  3. 3 reasons to pay more for your coffee (Oct. 16, 2020)
  4. 5 factors of great-tasting coffee (Oct. 23, 2020)
  5. How do you take your coffee? (Oct. 30, 2020)
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