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Why is Espresso Different, and What Does Espresso Taste Like?

Dave Carter

May 12, 2021

Every avid coffee lover knows that espresso is a 'special' type of coffee. However, what makes it so different? Espresso drinks use the same coffee beans as any other coffee variation—but espresso beans generally get roasted for a more extended period than those meant for drip coffee. These coffee beans are also ground finer, resembling sand than the gravel-like texture of regular coffee grounds. Plus, they undergo a unique brewing method that forces steam through the finely-ground beans. Because of this, the resulting brew is more potent and concentrated. So, you may be wondering—what does espresso taste like?

Generally, conventional espresso coffee boasts a well-rounded, full-bodied, and 'roasted' flavor that many people consider to be much bolder than the taste of brewed coffee. Besides its unique brewing technique and 'finer' grounds, some espresso-lovers suggest that paper filters used for brewing drip coffee sap some of the ground coffee flavors, further causing its evident difference in espresso's taste. There are also many distinct 'espresso-based' drinks offering different flavors.

If you are curious to know more about espresso's unique taste and how you can make a great espresso shot at home—this guide will help you explore more about the famous coffee drink.

Dark and Deep: What Does Espresso Taste Like?

We've established that espresso tastes like dark and deep roasted coffees with a dollop of luxuriously creamy crema and a lingering aftertaste of bitterness. These things embody what an 'espresso roast' is, including the good and bad ones. But beyond that, you can use what you're tasting to improve things like grounds and water usage. Plus, it gives you the ability to determine the quality of an espresso shot in a cafe or restaurant or ones you make on the go using a portable espresso maker.

Here are the most notable 'features' of a good espresso.

  • Bitterness
    Bitterness is the first thing that most people experience when trying espressos for the first time. Although it may be something that can be unpleasant for you in the first place, over time, you'll recognize the complexity and depth it adds to your brew. Eventually, you'll begin to 'crave' for it in small amounts—making it a standard feature that most 'good' shots provide.
  • Acidity
    Acidity is another feature that most people associate with espressos, and it typically gets 'heightened' during espresso extraction. Think of it as the 'sparkling' sensation of a zesty lemon juice or crisp green apple leaves. The finest specialty coffees are prized for their subtle acidity levels, bringing more life to your brews. That's why most coffee lovers in the United States like having espresso in their sweeter brews, adding the much-needed 'zing' to start the day right.
  • Sweetness
    The perfect espresso provides subtle sweetness to balance out the bitter notes and acidity. Since coffee technically comes from a tropical fruit, your brew should have a bit of 'sweetness' to it. The roasting process the beans go through enhances this more, resulting in caramelization that makes coffee brown and brewable. However, if you did try it and the brew was too sweet for you, a piece of advice to remember is to go for doppio as it's more concentrated.
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Does Espresso Taste Like Coffee?

Drip coffee typically has a clean body with a rounded and simple taste. Compared to a shot of espresso, standard coffee is less intense. For instance, if you're using golden ratios, it takes 16 grams of coffee beans to make a regular-sized cup of coffee while a double shot gets pulled with 16 to 22 grams of coffee, but the resulting drink is a mere ⅛ the volume of a regular cuppa. Imagine the taste of your standard coffee multiplied eight times, so no, regular coffee doesn't taste like espresso. But that shouldn't deter you from trying espressos. Whether you brew the drinks using the best automatic espresso machine you can find on the market or through your humble Moka pot, it can be a great 'pick me up' brew for busy mornings.

Drinking espressos is a fun way to experience what coffee has to offer. However, most individuals aren't too fond of their first espresso shots as our taste buds aren't accustomed to tasing some things that are so intense, so many reject it at first. But if you drink a lot of the brew over time, your mouth and palate will eventually overcome the intensity and enjoy the drink to the fullest.

Is Espresso Stronger than Coffee?

One of the most common questions about coffee and espresso is that—what is the 'stronger' brew? The answer to that is, it depends. That's because if you take an equal amount of espresso and coffee, then espresso is 'stronger' or has more caffeine than coffee. It's no secret that espressos contain several things that make them more concentrated than your regular brewed coffee, regardless if you brew your espresso using an espresso machine commercial or for home-use. But if you consider the 'typical serving sizes,' you'll find that a standard 8-ounce cup of coffee is more robust than your regular espresso shots.

Besides that, other things you need to consider are the beans you're using, the brewing method, water temperature, and brewing time. However, generally, a typical coffee serving has between 80 to 100 mg of caffeine—while a shot of espresso can yield around 60 mg of caffeine. All in all, espresso and brewed coffee contains varying amounts of caffeine and 'strengths, but both can have more than the other, depending on several things mentioned earlier. If you're looking for something that is more robust, it'll depend on the amount of the brew you'll make or order at your favorite coffee shop.

The Espresso Flavor Takes Some Getting Used to

There's a lot of misconception about espresso flavor and what it tastes like, leading many individuals to miss out on a great shot. Although a considerable portion of espressos out there is bitter, it's because most of these people use over-roasted espresso beans. So, if you begin with a poorly sourced and roasted coffee bean bag, you'll end up with a less-than-ideal shot of espresso. However, the fact is that with fresh beans, reliable espresso machines, and a skilled barista, you'll get espressos that are vibrant, smooth, and satisfying.

However, remember that espresso boasts flavors of a full mug of coffee packed into 1-ounce shots. For many individuals, that concentration can be so intense that their taste buds get overwhelmed by the vibrant notings, making it a coffee-taste that takes some time to get used to. Plus, it's how everyone starts with the drink—nobody tastes the beverage for the first time, thinking, "That was a good shot of espresso." However, drinking espresso several times allows your palate to calm down and enjoy it.

Remember that espresso is like a magnifying glass, accentuating specific characteristics of coffee, and the concentrated flavors may taste overbearing at first—but as you keep making espresso, you'll grow accustomed to it over time.

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Why Does Espresso Taste so Bad?

Coffee provides a natural bitterness thanks to its high caffeine content, but only around 10% to 15% of its bitter notes are due to the substance. A low level of bitterness can tame coffee acidity. But it's known that overpowering bitterness or unbalanced brews can lead to an overall 'bad' brew. So, why does espresso taste bad, and how do you fix them?

There are several reasons why your espressos may be leaving distinct bitter notes in your mouth, but here are the most notable ones.

  • Over Extraction or Under Extraction
    When making espresso, either through a semi-automatic Gaggia espresso machine or fully automatic espresso machines, the taste hinges on the extraction of solids from the grounds—determining just how good your espresso tastes. To perfect this, you need to know the correct brew ratio or brewing parameters, which refers to the balance between the coffee grounds and water used. Not enough water can result in sour acidity or under-extracted coffees, while too much water can lead to bitter brews.

    Weigh your dose to avoid under or over-extraction when making an espresso drink.

  • Coffee Grounds Size
    Using grind settings that are too 'fine' or coarse affects the taste of your espresso coffee. If your brew pours too fast, that's one sign of under extraction, while if it flows slower than usual, it'll be bitter. Espresso should be poured between 20 to 30 seconds—with the best results found between 27 to 33 seconds.
  • Dirty Espresso Machine and Equipment
    If you don't remove oils from your espresso machine, they'll go rancid, leaving metallic, bitter, and astringent notes in your brew. If the brewer's net showers and group head assembly gets blocked with coffee oils, water flow can get restricted, leading to channeling and uneven espresso extraction. This factor results in bitter-tasting espressos even if you use pre-portioned Nespresso capsules of high-quality grounds. So a piece of advice to remember is to practice proper care and maintenance of your machines.

How Do You Make Espresso Taste Good?

Learning to taste espresso better helps you make higher-quality espresso shots too. That's because when you're dialing in, you're looking for that 'sweet spot,' the combinations of variables that make a good espresso shot. Although, for many people, the idea that coffee is supposed to be 'sweet' can be baffling, after all, making genuinely great espresso can be challenging—but not impossible.

If you're learning how to make espresso at home, whether with a Nespresso machine or standard espresso machines, here's how you can make espresso taste good.

  • Adjust the Coffee Grind - If you feel like your espresso is too bitter, it's probably over-extracted. If this is the case, coarsen the coffee grounds a bit more. Meanwhile, if your brew tastes like it's too 'sour,' it's under-extracted. When this happens, decrease your grind size.
  • Adjust the 'Wet' Dose - This is an efficient technique of adjusting your espresso shot's flavor without worrying about perfecting the grind size. The ideal starting ratio for coffee to wet dose is 1:2. Increase the 'wet dose' if you think the drink is too concentrated and decrease it if it tastes weak.
  • Adjust the 'Dry' Dose - If the first methods didn't work, the next best thing to do is adjust your 'dry' dose or the ground coffee. Add more grounds if the brew tastes weak or reduce it if its bitterness is prominent.

How to Enjoy an Espresso Tasting

We've established to achieve the best espresso flavor possible—you need to find that "sweet spot." The best way to accomplish that is by practicing espresso tasting. It lets you discover what the best way to replicate espresso drinks is. Doing this exposes you to a spectrum of flavors possible for this brew is. The best way to discover this pinnacle of espresso flavor is to practice—and have a bit of fun along the way.

Whether you're brewing espresso at home with stainless steel Moka pots or ordering one from your local coffee shops, here's how you can make your tasting espresso session more fun.

  • Drink Your Water - When you order a classic espresso shot, baristas will likely give you a glass of sparkling water with it. Drinking this before you taste espresso cleanses your palate, allowing you to enjoy the very depths of the drink, from the coffee crema down to its brew.
  • Skim the Crema - A freshly pulled espresso usually has a rich crema floating on top. Although this thick crema layer often indicates you got a good shot, it isn't as good and doesn't have any sort of espresso-like flavor to it—so it's best to skim it off with your spoon.
  • Stir It - Espresso isn't a homogenous drink. The thick and 'syrupy' part of a 'good' shot usually sinks to the bottom while the 'vibrant' tasting notes float on top. It's best to stir it with a small spoon to get a balanced version of the brew. Your taste buds will be delighted.
  • Dig In - When drinking espresso, make sure it covers your tongue and linger to see what it tastes like and what flavor notings stick to your mouth.

Learning the proper way of 'tasting' espresso can be challenging, but the rewards make it worthwhile—allowing you to indulge in all the glory of a mug of coffee.

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The Sweet Espresso Variations

If you're looking to enjoy espresso from a unique angle, you need to look at the different sweet espresso coffee drinks available. Espresso drinks are popular worldwide, and there are several 'sweeter' variants worth trying. Whether it's from Starbucks or local coffee shops, these are espressos you should add to your coffee bucket list.

If you're tired from your usual bitter and robust glass of Caffe Americano or standard espresso shots, here are some of the best sweet espressos to try.

Cafe Cubano
Anyone with a sweet tooth will 100% get a 'kick' out of the cafe Cubano. This espresso is the specialty 'sweet' espresso of Cuban, made by adding one to two teaspoons of sugar in a cup, after which a single espresso shot or two are poured over the sugar, served either black or a separate cup of steamed milk.

Affogato is the type of decadent treat that's more of a dessert than a traditional cup of coffee. All you need to do to make this is pour a shot of top-quality espresso over a scoop of your preferred vanilla ice cream in an appropriate container.

Caffe Viennese
If you're looking for a more traditional cup of espresso, Caffe Viennese is the way to go. You can make this by adding a shot of espresso, steamed milk, and whipped cream in a single cup—giving you art and coffee in one.


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