Culture Guide Int'l Drink

Hold Your Local Coffee Shop’s Espresso to these 7 Standards

Forget the popularity of latte art for a moment, and let’s explore the famed art of espresso. It’s considered the real coffee art in many parts of the world, especially in European countries, but to a degree seldom known or knowingly experienced by the everyday Joe—or cup thereof in the US. For American coffee aficionados in-the-know however, the difference of taste in filtered home brewed coffee versus the delicate intricacies of perfectly prepared espresso is like comparing hurried pencil scribbles with the distinction of a Monet—for the discerning eye, nose, and taste buds, the senses beholding espresso should be as discerning.


For those who don’t know espresso beyond its place on a shelf or a menu, the first difference is in the extraction: espresso coffee is extracted by forcing steam through a basket of tightly-packed, finely-ground coffee. To be consumed properly, espresso coffee is also served in small demitasse-style cups and most popularly as single or double shot dosages.

Unlike its filter-brewed counterpart, drinking espresso coffee shouldn’t be about snuffing out a bad night’s rest, getting a caffeine fix or maintaining a kind of coffee high, but rather about maximizing flavor.

Here are seven things your taste buds should know when ordering or making your next espresso shot. Peer over your barista’s shoulder, or ask questions, but don’t settle for a bad espresso.

  1. The origin of the coffee bean.

    Find out how long your beans been roasted for in order to get the best flavor tones. If you like complex flavors like chocolate or caramel, then dark beans are for you, but if your palette prefers floral or fruit, then go for light roast espresso.

  2. The age of the roast.

    Who loves a day-old brew? You know, the kind you make and put in the fridge for later. Yeah, no one really. The same goes for weeks- or day-old roasted beans. Make sure you’re using freshly roasted coffee beans or capsules, whether you do it yourself, or trust your favorite local coffee spot to use quality beans.

  3. The age of the grind.

    If the beans can’t be roasted fresh, then the grind should be. Whether you’re making espresso at home or ordering somewhere local, it’s always best to grind the beans just before pulling the shot to get the freshest flavor. If you’re using espresso capsules at home, then the grind has been pretty much perfected for you.

  4. The texture of the grind.

    No one likes weak, watery anything so mind the grind. A grind that’s too coarse can result in a badly extracted espresso with sour aftertaste. Likewise, a shot that’s pulled from a grind that’s too fine can become over-extracted and result in a burnt and pretty bitter flavor. If you’re preparing a shot at home, then just make sure to check your settings on your own machine.

  5. The ratio of espresso to water.

    Illy, for example, holds x gram dose of espresso. You’ll need X ml to make a double—or dopio, as the Italians say—shot of espresso. For a home brew machine, make sure to fill the water reservoir as instructed. Make sure the filter has warmed up and a cup is preheated to ensure the best flavor.

  6. The cleanliness of the basket.

    Nothing taints the flavor of an espresso like an oily spout. If you’re watching your espresso come out like water in a kinked hose, then the portafilter basket probably needs cleaning. A well-kept local espresso spot will know to clean their baskets frequently to maintain a high-quality product. When it comes to your own machine, take note that your basket is clean and dry.

  7. The cherry crema on top.

    When pouring an espresso, you’ll want the crema, the peace crème de la resistance, the foamy grand finale of a perfectly brewed espresso to taste smooth and sweet. It’s recommended to keep your brewing time to about 30 seconds to achieve the best result.

Lastly, don’t forget a glass of water to cleanse your palette. When considering a place to have an espresso, whether at your table or in the neighborhood, proper technique is as much part of reputation as it is taste.  Most people would accept a refund for a bad espresso, because hey, some places promise to ‘make it right’ or it’s F-R-E-E. But, if you really want an authentically prepared espresso shot, then you may not want to go to those places. Here’s a hint: if the espresso machine is displayed like a work of art rather than hidden behind a counter, then you’re probably in the right place.