Everything you always wanted to know about espresso but were too afraid to ask

Let’s be honest: most of our coffee knowledge probably begins and ends with Starbucks. We know talls, grandes, ventis, but familiarity with some great espresso-based drinks like macchiatos, cortados, americanos which feature very little to no milk and prepared in the traditional way is probably minimal in comparison to lattes and cappuccinos. These espresso-based drinks are meticulously prepared with freshly roasted and ground beans, specific ratios of milk to espresso and traditionally served in cups ranging from 2.5 to 8 ounces, nothing larger.

We’re in the middle of a great coffee revolution here in Philadelphia, in the past two years a slew of new coffee shops have setup shop on our streets, we’ve even get our first mobile coffee truck serving artisanal coffee courtesy of Rival Bros. Coffee. These shops have slowly started to change our drinking habits and enlighten us to the Third Wave coffee movement which focuses on ethical sourcing from small farms, sustainability, roasting in small batches and appreciating coffee as culinary product like wine, wherein we pay attention to the complexities and variations in flavor.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be taking you on a coffee journey covering hand pours, local roasters, different brewing methods you can try at home and so forth. By the end you’ll know more about what goes into making you that perfect cup of coffee and where it comes from. In the mean time don’t be afraid to chat up your favorite barista and ask them some questions if you’re curious.

Click to hear the sound of espresso ingredients being prepped.

The basis of a good espresso depends on the type of ground coffee, water temperature and pressure along with rate of extraction. Coffee can be very temperamental so if one variable is off, the extraction can be compromised and the espresso won’t taste as great as it could be. Good baristas pull test extractions throughout the day, so they sometimes end up drinking about 10 or 11 shots in the name of quality control.

An Americano is perfect for those who love traditional drip black coffee. Since it’s made with freshly ground beans you’ll get a good feel for how rich and sometimes chocolatey or fruity the notes of coffee can be. The reddish-brown foam on top is called crema, it lends a nice texture to the drink and releases the delicious aromas we associate with great coffee. If the crema is pale in color it means your espresso was under-extracted, if the crema is too dark or burnt looking then its been over-extracted.

The traditional 8 oz latte was invented by an Italian-American in California as a long form version of a cappuccino since it featured less foam. It’s safe to say that pretty much everyone loves a latte especially with some sort of syrup flavor, and that was my go-to drink for many years until I tried a traditional cappuccino from Spruce St. Espresso. The cappuccinos I consumed there last winter really opened my palette up to how smooth and delicious great coffee can be with steamed milk acting as the only sweetener. Cappuccinos are traditionally served in 6 oz cups as opposed to the 8 oz and higher cups you find at Starbucks.

The macchiato is the most straight up, it’s a shot of espresso ‘stained’ with a bit of milk served in a 2.5 oz cup; that’s it, no syrups or extra milk.

You won’t see cortado listed on most menus however most of the coffee shops from Bodhi to Elixr would be happy to prepare you one. A cortado (always served in a 5-7 oz glass) can be described as a great mix between a macchiato and a cappuccino, it’s an espresso ‘cut’ with a small amount of milk to reduce acidity.

Ideally the milk acts as the sweetener in these coffees so you don’t have to add anything extra to them. A well prepared espresso drink will taste smooth, rich, complex and delicious. Your palette might take a bit to get used to drinking them without any additives, however once you start drinking coffee that way you’ll gain a whole new appreciation for it. Then you’ll be ready to jump into the even more delicious world of hand pours, where you’ll get an even more clean taste of the wonderful notes that coffee can deliver!