10 Things You Don't Understand About Espresso

Dan Gentile/Thrillist
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

A coffee snob will happily write you a poem about the flavor profile of their favorite espresso, talking about rose hips and stone fruits and glorious hints of chocolate. But odds are if you walk into a coffee shop and order espresso, you'll get a tiny steaming cup of something that looks like motor oil, smells like a car ashtray, and tastes like an airbag.

Even espresso lovers will admit that it can be a terrible, but much of the drink's bitter rep is due to misunderstandings on the part of both consumers and professionals. To clear up some common misconceptions, we spoke with Jesse Kahn and Jake Robinson from Counter Culture Coffee, which happens to be the country's No. 1 roaster according to coffee geeks. Read on to learn about why it might be easier to blow up the Death Star than pull a decent shot.

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When it was invented, speed was the priority

Although you'll get the stink eye from a barista for pronouncing it with an “x,” espresso was indeed developed as an Italian Futurist version of the K-Cup. Brewing time changes based on both the equipment and the coffee, but most shots of espresso are brewed in under 30 seconds.

It's actually a terribly ineffective way to make coffee

Making good espresso isn't rocket science, it's more like blowing up the Death Star. It's no coincidence the word "espresso's" Latin roots translate roughly to “the force.” The barista is piloting a complex machine in tight quarters while a never-ending stream of orders fire at you and that laser stream of water needs to blast at the absolute perfect timing, temperature, and pressure or your espresso will turn to the dark side.

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There's no set way it should taste

If you go into a bar and just ask for “a beer,” you could get a thick malty porter or a crisp lager or IPA that tastes like bougie garbage water. Your taste buds don't know what to expect, so even a great beer is potentially disappointing. Same goes for espresso: the term just means a general style of preparation that applies to a wide range of different possibilities.

You can use any coffee beans to make espresso

Roasters often develop a signature blend that they suggest using in espresso machines, but no bean is off limits. Sometimes shops offer more than one choice of espresso in order to highlight different flavor profiles (usually one chocolatey and one fruity), but it's uncommon to see more than two or three options because every bean requires slightly different brewing parameters.

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It's often a clearing house for crappy beans

It's so hard to make a decent cup of espresso given the tools and training available that roasters tend to use older or lower-quality beans for the espresso blends, knowing that their unique characteristics are less likely to make it into the cup (just like with crappy iced coffee). The beans are often roasted darker to account for the expectation of a more bitter flavor profile. That said, as espresso becomes more popular, you're seeing many lighter-roasted, single-origin espressos available.

You should stir it

Sometimes you'll see a creamy, caramel-looking layer on top of your espresso. That's called crema, which results from coffee oils emulsifying under the pressure of hot water. There are too many variables involved to say if crema is a sign of a great shot or not, but it's usually more bitter than the rest of the shot, so be sure to stir it.

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You don't need to shoot it, but most people drink it quickly

Some baristas swear that you only have 15 seconds before espresso becomes stale, but the folks at Counter Culture stressed that it's not important to chug your shot. If the espresso is too hot, you actually won't taste the full flavor, so letting it cool for a minute isn't going to ruin it.

It's not a popular order, but a very popular ingredient

Straight espresso is a tiny part of most shops' business -- usually only 1-3% of orders -- but its quality affects more than just espresso drinkers because it's a building block for milk-based drinks like lattes and cappuccinos. The sweetness and fattiness of milk can help mask a bad shot, but foul espresso is tough to ignore even with a pump of chocolate or vanilla.

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Not all coffee professionals like it

As a method of preparation, espresso is more like a magnifying glass than a window into the soul. It exaggerates certain characteristics of a coffee and leaves out others, making for an intense but inaccurate representation of a beans' potential. Factor in how difficult it is to prepare correctly, and you'll find that plenty of coffee professionals don't order it.

You'll enjoy it more if you ask a barista what it tastes like

A good barista knows when a customer doesn't want a flavor wheel monologue, so they might not immediately jump to offer up their thoughts, but it can't hurt to ask. If the dude looks at you funny or give a snarky reply, it's a tell that they don't actually know what they're serving and are in fact poser baristas. If they tell you that it's supposed to taste like a ripe crab apple rolled in coconut flakes or a landslide of Amazon rainforest mud, at least you know if they're achieving their goal. But if they can't give you any hint of what it should taste like, odds are its not something you'd want to put in your mouth.

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Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's national food and drink team. He is more likely to trust a random barista with his car keys than with an order of espresso. Follow him to filing a police report about his Honda Element at @Dannosphere.