There is no shortage of options available if you want espresso. Light or dark blend, coarse or fine grinds, the world of espresso comes in many shapes and sizes.
Trouble is, no two cups taste the same. Whether you get your daily morning jolt from your nearby Starbucks, order one at the airport lounge while waiting for your flight to take off, or prepare coffee at home, you are bound to get a different taste every time.
So what should an ideal cup of espresso taste like?
A perfect shot of espresso has a delicate balance of bitterness, sweetness, and sourness. The beans, acids, and roasting process should all contribute to a bold but not overpowering flavor with a velvety texture and a lingering aftertaste. Ideally, the bitterness should be complemented by a natural sweet tone and a subtle acidity, resulting in a nuanced flavor.
Too mouthful (pun intended) for this home barista? Let’s make it simpler for you!
The Four Qualities of a Perfect Espresso Shot
To fully understand what makes a perfect espresso shot, it's important to understand the four key qualities that contribute to its flavor profile. These characteristics – bitterness, sourness (or acidity), sweetness, and the aftertaste – work together to create a truly authentic and flavorful cup of espresso.
All coffees taste bitter. But for espresso – which is already a very concentrated coffee blend – the perceived bitterness can be especially powerful.
This bitterness is a result of the high phenylindanes and caffeine content you get during the roasting process of some coffee beans, which can further be elevated by how you brew a cup of espresso at home.
How bitter is too bitter for a perfect espresso shot, though?
A perfect espresso shot should have some bitterness, but too much of it can be unpleasant and overpowering. The ideal level of bitterness may vary based on personal preference, but it should not be the predominant taste. To better understand the ideal amount, you can think of the bitterness found in dark chocolate as a good comparison.
Why does an espresso sometimes get too bitter?
Espresso can become too bitter due to over-extraction, where the coffee is brewed too long or with too fine a grind. Other factors, such as using old, low-quality, or dark roasted beans (as discussed above) can also result in a bitter taste. Properly adjusting the grind, water temperature, brew time, and using fresh and the right type of coffee beans can help prevent an overly bitter espresso shot.
Can you add sugar to your espresso if it tastes bitter?
Some coffee enthusiasts may consider it weird to put sugar in espresso. However, you can always add a small amount of sugar if you like your coffee that way. Just remember that adding sugar can mask some of the nuances of the original espresso flavor, so use it sparingly.
If you’re adding sugar to make your cup of espresso palatable, you’re serving the wrong coffee in the first place.
Acidity is one of the key components that make up the flavor profile of a perfect espresso shot. It complements and enhances the other flavors, creating a well-rounded and nuanced taste. Think of it as adding lemon juice to your salad, a slight amount complements your bowl of fresh greens, but too much of it makes the salad overly tart. You need to avoid the latter.
If your espresso shot tastes too sour, it may be due to under-extraction during the brewing process—which occurs when the coffee is not extracted enough, resulting in a too acidic and sour shot.
Why are coffee shop's espresso sour, in particular?
Sometimes, a cuppa from an espresso coffee shop may taste sourer than at home. That’s largely due to them using overly-roasted beans, which have a higher acid content and taste grassy and sour. This is usually true for the coffee that you have at Starbucks. Some shops also coat tannic acid on their coffee beans as an insecticide under high temperatures. This acid can cause a sour taste in your coffee.
Espresso derives its sweetness from the natural sugars present in the coffee bean. As coffee ripens, its fruit becomes sweeter; the same applies to the seed or beans inside. The roasting process then brings out these sugars and enhances the natural sweetness, creating a balanced and flavorful cup of coffee.
An espresso shot should have enough sweetness to be felt as a nutty or chocolaty base in your mouth as soon as you take a sip and, later, fade away when the bitterness starts to kick in. It should be sweet enough to leave a sticky feel on your lips, however, not too sweet to overshadow other flavors, such as acidity and bitterness.
The aftertaste of coffee refers to the lingering sensation left in your mouth after you finish it. It is distinct from the initial flavor and provides a final impression of the coffee's overall flavor profile, also called the mouthfeel. A well-balanced espresso shot should leave an aftertaste containing a combination of bitter, acidic, and sweet flavors.
The duration of the espresso aftertaste once again depends on various factors, such as the quality of beans, roast level, and brewing time. A well-brewed espresso leaves a satisfying aftertaste for up to 20 minutes. However, in under or over-extraction, the time and flavor are compromised.
Under-extraction results in a short, unfulfilling, sour aftertaste. The mouthfeel is thin and lacks the full-bodied richness of a properly extracted coffee. Over-extraction, on the other hand, can lead to a heavy, dark bitterness that lingers for long. The texture is heavy and syrupy, accompanied by a strong burnt flavor.
Note that although the crema on an espresso does not affect the aftertaste, it can add to the mouthfeel and texture of the drink.
Is Espresso Stronger Than Regular Coffee?
Espresso is generally stronger than regular drip coffee due to its higher concentration of coffee grounds to water ratio. An ounce of espresso usually has more than 63 mg of caffeine, while the same amount of coffee has less than 15 mg.
The two types of coffee also differ in taste. Espresso beans are typically roasted darker than beans used for drip coffee, resulting in a bolder, richer flavor. Ultimately, the battle between espresso taste vs regular coffee’s taste falls down to your personal preference.
How Many Shots of Espresso is a Good Amount?
Espresso shots are highly caffeinated, so they must be consumed in limited amounts. 4-5 shots of espresso are enough to make your mind and body feel refreshed and focused.
However, excessive caffeine consumption can cause insomnia and increased heart rate corresponding to increased health issues. The FDA recommends taking no more than 400 milligrams of espresso daily.
Of course, it’s not just the unique taste that makes espresso special and different from regular coffee, the color, and aroma also add to the overall experience.
What Does the Color of a Good Espresso Look Like?
To identify a good espresso, the crema color should be examined. It should have a dark hue, similar to mahogany or dark oak, and have small bubbles showing the gasses released during the brewing process.
The crema should not have light-colored spots—which is a sign of over-extraction. It should also be thick enough that you can safely sprinkle sugar on it.
What Does Espresso Smell Like?
The aroma of espresso is a combination of earthy, nutty, chocolatey, and caramel-like scents that intermingle and create a rich and intense smell. Some even say they detect floral or fruity notes in their espresso, depending on the origin of the beans used.
In short, the espresso aromatic profile is a sensory delight that coffee enthusiasts can appreciate before even taking a sip.
How to Get the Perfect Cup of Espresso
Making the perfect cup of espresso is a culinary art. There are many things that affect its flavor, color, and aromatic profile.
It all starts with the beans. Choosing the right beans is extremely important. A medium roast will retain the sweetness of the coffee beans while still allowing the natural flavors to shine. Too dark, and your espresso will be overly bitter.
Prioritize freshness above all else and buy in small quantities, just enough that you know you'll be able to consume without running them too old. Arabica beans are best for espresso, but adding 10% to 40% Robusta beans to the blend can increase the shot's crema.
A fine grind is usually the best size for making espresso. For a flavorful brew, use grounds with a texture similar to that of granulated sugar. Finer grinds extract stronger flavor, which can be excessively bitter with a much stronger aroma, while coarse grinds produce a weaker brew.
Once you have the right beans and grind size, it's time to focus on the brewing process. The ideal brew time for espresso is around 25-30 seconds. This allows the water to extract the flavors and aromas from the coffee without over-extracting and creating a bitter taste.
Meanwhile, the brew weight, or the amount of water used to brew the espresso, should be between 1.5 to 2 times the dose of coffee used. The dose is the amount of coffee grounds used to make a single shot of espresso, which is typically around 7 to 9 grams.
While there's no one-size-fits-all recipe for the perfect cup, experimenting with different blends and brewing techniques can help you find the right balance for your taste buds.
Does Tamping Have an Impact on the Flavor Profile of Your Espresso?
Tamping has a significant impact on the flavor profile of your espresso. A proper and consistent tamp ensures even extraction, which contributes to a balanced and delicious shot.
Tamping refers to compressing the coffee grounds into the portafilter basket before brewing. This step is crucial because it helps evenly distribute the coffee grounds, creating a uniform layer that allows for consistent extraction.
Without proper tamping, the water may pass through some parts of the coffee bed too quickly, resulting in under-extraction and weak, sour flavors. On the other hand, over-tamping can lead to slow extraction and over-extracted, bitter flavors.
Investing in a quality tamper can make a big difference in the quality of your espresso. A well-designed tamper helps apply consistent pressure, creating a level and even coffee bed, essential for producing a balanced and flavorful shot.
Our LuxHaus calibrated pressure tamper is a good investment if you want quality espresso. The calibrated spring means your espresso will have a very consistent tamp, and the high-grade stainless steel build ensures it doesn’t bail on you—especially before you’ve had your morning coffee.
Order today and get a nice discount. We look forward to seeing you in-store!