What’s with the espresso?

Many of my students ask me why I drink those little cups of espresso. I’m told that there are debates going on outside the classroom. So I thought I’d produce some kind of public explanation to put the speculation to rest. So here it is.

Espresso is a term used only in English-speaking countries. It is short for caffè espresso: coffee made expressly (i.e. upon request). It is made expressly for you when you order it. In Italy, the idea of pre-brewing coffee is unheard of. So ordering a caffè in Italy will always get you what Americans call “espresso”. In other Mediterranean countries you may get something a little different, depending upon the technology used to produce the coffee. But it is generally made to order.

Why the small cup? It’s sometimes called a demitasse. That’s French for “half-cup”, but it’s a particularly Italian style of drinking coffee based on an invention by Luigi Bezzerra by Desiderio Pavoni at the beginning of the twentieth century. Jimmy Stamp at Smithsonian.com describes them as the “the Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs of espresso”. The process used pressure to force hot water through fairly finely ground coffee beans in order to brew quickly and dispense directly into the cup. The result, a very thick, flavourful form of coffee, naturally comes out in small quantities. No wonder it’s served in a demitasse. Is that a rip off? If you’re used to American super-sizing, maybe. But read on, and judge for yourself.

Throughout the twentieth century, Italian inventors continued to tweak the technology. In the 1940s, Achille Gaggia attempted to supplement the use of steam-generated pressure with a hand-pulled lever. The result was a coffee topped with a thin, but dense foam that is now known as the crema (which is actually more creamy than foamy). This is the style of espresso popularised by Starbucks today. As far as I’m concerned, it adds something magical. And I’m happy to drink magic, even in small quantities.

There’s another point worth noting. Espresso tastes best when its made with dark or medium-dark roasted coffee beans. The roasting process causes some of the caffeine to flake off the beans. The darker the roast, the less the caffeine. Although the espresso preparation tends to concentrate caffeine, the small serving compensates. A 2 ounce espresso has approximately 80 to 150 mg of caffeine, compared to the 95-200 mg found in 8 ounces of brewed coffee. Keep in mind that a Starbucks “venti” is 20 ounces! If you drink your coffee for the caffeine, espresso is not a good deal. If you like the espresso flavour, it’s worth it, again, for the magic.

But does Starbucks espresso have that magic? The plethora of technologies has meant that the same beans can give you very different results. Starbucks goes for consistency, but they haven’t eliminated the human equation. The skills of the barrista making the coffee are still important, and I can tell whether the person making the coffee is experienced.

Even if the individual cup is well made, there is still accounting for individual tastes. I don’t really buy the claims made by coffee aficionados that Starbucks coffee is not sufficiently fresh or lacks quality control. For one thing, most of the time they are talking about the drip coffee, not the espresso. I think that whether or not you like espresso in a particular shop will depend partly on the barrista that made it and the style of the coffee. Personally, I like Starbucks, and I don’t like Peet’s.

What’s wrong with Peet’s? Nothing. I don’t accuse them of having bad coffee; it’s just my taste. However, I do have more to say. I think Peet’s aims in part to produce a more authentically Italian style of espresso, which is a bit more syrupy than Starbucks. But Peet’s goes too far for my taste. I also think their style is designed to work in the milky espresso drinks that Americans love: cappuccino and, especially, caffè latte. That’s Italian for coffee with milk. If you order a latte in Italy, you’ll just get a glass of milk. Caffè latte is definitely more popular than cappuccino, I think, due to the American taste for quantity. Regardless, my sense is that the extra syrupy espresso at Peet’s stands up well to immersion in milk. It may be the perfect chemistry, but I wouldn’t know, since I rarely drink milky coffee drinks. Some “boutique” coffee makers actually go even further than Peet’s, creating an espresso that is so syrupy and bitter that it’s nothing like anything I’ve had in Italy (despite some of their claims that they are more authentic).

So how do I drink my espresso? Most of the time, just straight. Italians often take a small spoonful of sugar, but I don’t because I like the bitter flavour and because it’s healthier without sugar. Occasionally, I will change things up by drinking a caffè macchiato. This is an espresso with a small amount of foamed milk on top–just enough to hold a spoonful of sugar, which you then mix in until the foam becomes macchiato (Italian for “speckled”). Even more rarely, I will drink a cappuccino, which is the same, but served in a larger cup with more foam. For some reason, I only crave a caffè latte when I am sick. I think I find them soothing on my throat.

In case you’re wondering, I have a small espresso machine in my office, and my current preferred coffee (as of February 2013) is Allegro Italian Roast, available online or at Whole Foods.

For more information on the history of espresso, check out Stamp’s argument on Smithsonian.com.

  • Jonathan Jarrett

    No wonder it’s served in a demitasse. Is that a rip off? If you’re used to American super-sizing, maybe.

    This difference in cultures really comes out at international conferences in Italy. The size of coffee diminishes the further south in Italy one gets (perhaps because of a long-bred sense that water is not to be wasted). On the street in Naples coffee stalls will sell you paper tumblers of coffee with little more than 50 ml in them, which can be downed in a gulp: “punctuation for the day”, an Italian colleague expressed it to me. But it means that universities there will tend to serve a single flask of coffee at breaks, which will serve 30 Italians or perhaps 4 Americans, Britons or Germans. One has to be aware enough that this will happen to be at the front of the queue, else you’ll be going into the next session uncaffeinated.

    • I have only been to the south of Italy as a tourist, when my activities tend to be highly “punctuated” anyway. I can imagine that having to sit through conference sessions uncaffeinated would be highly problematic, though the flask of coffee wouldn’t really have the magic of espresso anyway. For years I suffered at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo because there did not appear to be a single espresso machine in the city. That finally changed the year I almost broke down and brought a mini electric Bialetti. Now there’s a Starbucks next to my hotel, and I just pick up my espresso on my way to sessions. Of course, I’d still rather suffer in Italy…