Revised: February 27, 2008
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About Coffee: Fundamentals


Espresso is several things at once. It is a unique method of brewing in which hot water is forced under pressure through tightly packed coffee, a cup at a time. It is a roast of coffee, darker brown than the normal American roast but not quite black. In a larger sense, it is an entire approach to coffee cuisine, involving not only roast and brewing method, but grind and grinder, a technique of heating milk, and a traditional menu of drinks. In the largest sense of all, it is an atmosphere or mystique: The espresso brewing machine is the spiritual heart and esthetic centerpiece of the European-style cafe.

A Remarkable Cup of Coffee

Good espresso is rich, heavy-bodied, and almost syrupy; furthermore, it has the characteristic bittersweet bite of dark-roast coffee. The sharp flavor and heavy body make it an ideal coffee to be drunk with milk and sugar, but hardly the sort of beverage to be consumed unsweetened or in large quantities. Most espresso drinkers outside Italy prefer cappuccino, a drink made of about one-third espresso and two-thirds hot milk and foam, or caffe latte, an even milkier drink. In either case, the milk dilutes and mellows the strong, sharp coffee.

Espresso Brewing Fundamentals

Coffee and Roast

Café espresso is brewed using a coffee roasted dark brown, but not black. This roast is called Espresso, Italian, or French in stores.

There are two requirements for making good espresso. First, you need to grind the coffee just fine enough, and tamp it down in the filter basket just hard enough, so that the barrier of ground coffee resists the pressure of the hot water sufficiently to produce a slow dribble of dark, rich liquid. Second, you need to stop the dribble at just the right moment, before the oils in the coffee are exhausted.


The best grind for espresso is very fine and gritty, but not a dusty powder.

Filling and Tamping

Fill the filter basket with coffee to the point just below the brim, spread it evenly, then lightly tamp it down. Never use less than the minimum volume of ground coffee recommended for your machine, even if you are brewing a single cup.


Timing is everything in espresso brewing. The richest and most flavorful coffee issues out right at the beginning; as brewing continues, the coffee becomes progressively thinner and more bitter. Consequently, collect only as much coffee as you will actually serve.

Frothed Milk

Espresso is a strong, concentrated coffee, and, in accordance with European tradition, many of the drinks in espresso cuisine combine it with large quantities of frothed milk.

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