Espresso is a bold, concentrated beverage with over a century of coffee sector heritage. It can be traced back to 19th century Italy, and is today enjoyed around the world in various forms by millions of people.
Making quality espresso is also a core part of the role of the barista. It is one of the main points on which a barista’s skill is judged in coffee competitions like the World Barista Championship.
While tasting espresso often comes down to identifying the acidity, complexity, and sweetness for judges and experts, it can be a little more daunting for beginners. So, to better understand how you should start tasting espresso, I spoke with two specialty coffee baristas. Read on to find out what they told me.
You might enjoy reading our guide to dialling in espresso.
What should you look for when tasting espresso?
The aroma of an espresso is the first thing you experience when you lift your cup. Evangelos “Vag” Koulougousidis is the Lead Barista and part of the competition team at WatchHouse in London. He came third in the 2020 UK Barista Championships.
“Aroma is one of the key indicators of whether the espresso is going to taste good or bad,” Evangelos explains. He says that it also hints whether you’ll be experiencing familiar or slightly more unusual flavours.
It’s also important to note that the human senses of smell and taste are closely linked. The human tongue actually only has receptors for the more fundamental tastes (bitterness, sweetness, and mouthfeel) you experience. Many of coffee’s more complex and subtle flavours are actually derived from your sense of smell.
Evangelos recommends taking your time to truly enjoy your espresso’s aroma. “With espresso, we have it in our mind that it’s something you [drink quickly] and go to work,” he says. “You never spend the time to fully enjoy it [and] have the full experience.
“Aroma is a magical moment that can bring back memories or can lead you to unexplored territory.”
So next time you taste espresso, breathe in its aroma and have a think. Is it unusual? Does it have a particular flavour, or does it remind you of a certain food? This can inform how you interpret the rest of the espresso.
Tyler Hickmott is a barista and cafe manager at Mojo Coffee in Auckland, New Zealand. “The body is basically the density of coffee on your tongue,” he says. Also known as texture or mouthfeel, an espresso’s body can be light and airy, almost like a tea, or dense and heavy, like warm honey.
An espresso’s body can vary massively; it might be oily, creamy, juicy, or syrupy.
“If you want a [lighter] body, go for beans with a more floral flavour, like [a washed] Ethiopian coffee from Yirgacheffe, for instance,” he says. “You’ll get a more pleasant linger.”
Tyler adds that a lighter body is often preferable for those who like the flavours of citrus fruits in their coffee, for instance.
To really evaluate an espresso’s body, let it stay on your tongue a while before you swallow. You might even want to swirl it around your mouth. In that time, feel the texture and think about what it reminds you of.
What do you taste when you sip? An espresso’s flavour depends on a number of things, including the roast profile of the coffee and the origin of the beans.
Darker roasts typically have roastier and more “traditional” flavours, while lighter roasts will showcase the origin more and typically have more delicate tasting notes, with better acidity. Origin will change what you taste, too; for example, Indonesian coffee is often associated with smoky or earthy notes, while Ethiopian coffee is commonly described as bright, fruity, or floral.
Learning more about your beans, how they’re processed, and where they come from can give you more insight into what you’re likely to taste.
When it comes to figuring out what exactly you’re tasting, don’t be overly specific. Don’t immediately jump to strawberries or bergamot, for instance.
Start with a broad category. Is it a fruity flavour that you can taste? If so, is it more citrusy or a berry-like? You might want to use a flavour wheel (such as the one published by the Specialty Coffee Association) as a reference, too. Identifying new flavours you didn’t associate with espresso previously can help you improve your palate.
An espresso’s finish is the aftertaste that lingers on your tongue and the back of your mouth after the drink has been swallowed.
Evangelos says: “A good finish is something that is long-lasting and reminds you of something [you like], such as sweet fruit.” With a good finish, you enjoy the lingering taste in your mouth, savouring it as it slowly fades.
“Finish is the one I really pay attention to when I dial in my espresso,” he adds. “I want the customer, when they have their last sip, to have something positive.”
He says that since the finish is the last thing you remember when you taste espresso, it has the opportunity to leave customers with a good final impression.
Sweetness is often regarded as desirable for an espresso’s finish, whereas dryness and overpowering acidity are less preferable. You shouldn’t want to “wash an espresso down”; you want to enjoy the sensations lingering in your mouth.
These four components are not completely distinct. They are closely linked, and form a full experience from start to finish. As you taste your espresso, try to identify each of them. See if you can label each individually, but recognise that they are intricately tied together.
For example, Evangelos says flavour is heavily dependent on aroma. “It plays a big part. If the aroma reminds you of something, you will generally find that in the flavour as well.”Well-extracted espresso will be rich and complex, with its flavours linked to the aroma.
This is also something that will change as you continue to sip. In filter coffee, as the temperature drops, drinkers note that the aroma and flavours they experience change.
The same is true of espresso. As you go down the cup, you will start to notice different scents and flavours. If you rush your tasting or abandon it after the first sip, you can easily miss them.
That’s why Evangelos recommends taking the time to enjoy tasting your espresso. One tip he notes is to continuously take in the espresso’s aroma; not just in the beginning, but after each sip, too.
Crema: What do you do?
There are several schools of thought on what you should do with the layer of crema on top of your espresso. Some suggest swirling the cup, some stir the crema in, and others scoop it out entirely. Which one works best? Should the crema be broken or preserved?
Evangelos says: “I stir it a lot, like 9 [or] 10 times, to make sure everything is properly mixed. Then, when I bring it up to my nose, I swirl it to get all those aromas.”
He recommends stirring the crema when the cup is close to your nose. This way, the crema acts as a barrier between the air and the espresso. “When you break the crema, you allow the aroma to come out all [at once].”
Tyler says that your approach should vary depending on how the espresso is served. “It depends on the cup. If it’s a tulip [cup], swirl it. But if it’s in a demitasse, then stir it. If you try swirling it in such a small cup, it’s gonna spill.”
However, he encourages experimentation. “If you’re a first-time espresso drinker, try all three and see which one you like best.”
Read more about crema in our article on how it’s formed and what it tells us.
A personal experience
Tyler goes on to explain the importance of finding your own favourite method when it comes to tasting espresso.
“It’s all about personal preference,” he says. “Order it in a tulip cup, if you can. Sip the espresso, and then see how you like it. Then [maybe] add water. Try it as a small long black.
“Maybe add a bit of [steamed] milk if you’re more used to lattes and flat whites. It adds body and gives it a different texture.”
You shouldn’t be fixated on one “true” method for tasting espresso. Experimentation can allow you to uncover new or unusual aromas and flavours; tasting in different ways yields different results.
Some other things you can try:
- Extract the espresso into a carafe and swirl it vigorously.
- Extract two single shots with a spouted portafilter. Keep the crema on one, and break the other. Sample them side by side.
- Shake the espresso to aerate it slightly. See how it tastes different from slurping it.
Evangelos notes that he has even seen participants in barista competitions remove the crema using a paper filter. It’s really about what works best for you.
Final tips for tasting espresso
Taste more foods. The more flavours you can identify, the better equipped you will be to taste the more nuanced flavours of espresso. Eat fruits and candies, drink juices, and even wine if you can.
By tasting these “reference flavours”, you’ll expand your palate and be better equipped to pin down a certain aroma and flavour from experience.
Comparative tasting is another tip. Taste different espressos with different origins and roast profiles side by side. This will allow you to make an immediate comparison right away, rather than leaving and forgetting certain notes after you finish each one.
And finally, when you’re tasting multiple espressos in a row, have a glass of water to hand. Take a small sip to cleanse your palate between each.
Espresso is a highly personal thing, and everyone’s mileage will vary when it comes to tasting it.
However, with these tips, you can start identifying some of the key components that make espresso good, and maybe notice a few flavours or traits you didn’t before. There’s only one way to find out – keep on drinking espresso, and keep on experimenting.
Enjoyed this? Then try our coffee tasting exercises to improve your palate.
Photo credits: WatchHouse
Special thanks to Sean Yew of The Hearty Brew for his work on this article.
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How would you describe the taste of espresso? ›
Though most people would describe the taste of espresso as 'bitter. ' However, this is highly due to the actual bean and process of brewing the espresso. Generally speaking, a 'good' shot of espresso should be well-balanced, have a chocolatey or nutty base, and a smooth finish.What are the 4 qualities of a perfect espresso shot? ›
The 5 most important factors to pulling perfect espresso shots are: Water Pressure, Extraction Time, Water Temperature, Grind Consistency, and Tamping. If any one of these are off, your shots will lose a lot of flavor and you won't enjoy your end espresso drink.How would you describe an espresso body? ›
Also known as texture or mouthfeel, an espresso's body can be light and airy, almost like a tea, or dense and heavy, like warm honey. An espresso's body can vary massively; it might be oily, creamy, juicy, or syrupy.Why do people like the taste of espresso? ›
Espresso is special because of the special brewing method that pushes pressurized hot water through finely ground coffee to extract flavors and aromas that are not found in other coffees. The special brewing method creates a coffee drink that is appreciated for its unique and intense flavor profile.Is espresso stronger than coffee? ›
Espresso typically has 63 mg of caffeine in 1 ounce (the amount in one shot), according to Department of Agriculture nutrition data. Regular coffee, by contrast, has 12 to 16 mg of caffeine in every ounce, on average. That means that ounce for ounce, espresso has more caffeine.Why does my espresso not taste good? ›
Diagnosis: When your espresso comes out tasting bitter, it usually means that the extraction or pour time is too long. Commonly, you'll see a pale yellow/white stream of coffee that wobbles and spirals towards the end of the shot. Remedy: Adjust your brew time. A good pour will be somewhere between 25 – 35 secs.How do you drink espresso like a pro? ›
- First – Warm Your Espresso Cup.
- Next – Sip Your Sparkling Water.
- Now Skim Away the Crema and Stir.
- Finally – Sip and Enjoy.
- Now You Know How To Drink Espresso.
It takes 10 seconds for an espresso shot to “go bad”. That is, for the heart, body and crema to blend together into a big black bitter mess. If you're drinking espresso straight, it doesn't matter.What are the 3 types of espresso? ›
Common espresso drinks: Without dairy include: Espresso (single), Doppio, Ristretto, Lungo, Americano, Con Hielo, or Rocket (aka Shot in the Dark, Red Eye, or Black Eye). With dairy include: Macchiato, Crème, Noisette, Cortado, Cappuccino, Breve, Mocha, Affogato, Viennois, Con Panna, Flat White or Latte.What are the three 3 parts of espresso? ›
Espresso has three major flavor components: acids, carbonized sugars, and whole sugars. These whole sugars (combined with volatile aromatics and oils) are what gives espresso its unique and intense flavor. However, it requires a skilled barista to extract these sugars from the coffee.
What are the 3 key elements to a great coffee? ›
Get these items dialed in and you'll be drinking a perfect cup each and every time. There are 3 elements to control regarding the water; temperature, flavor and volume.What are the 3 steps to make the best tasting coffee? ›
What are the 3 steps to make coffee taste better? The 3 most important steps to making great coffee is quality coffee beans, soft water, and a good burr grinder. The rest is just practice and technique. In this article, we'll explain everything you need to know.What tastes best in coffee? ›
- Cinnamon. If you love sugar in your coffee, this could be the one for you. ...
- Cardamom. This Turkish tradition adds an exotic, floral taste to your brew. ...
- Mint. ...
- Cocoa Powder. ...
- Salt. ...
- Vanilla Extract. ...
- Ginger. ...
Espresso lovers are found to be natural leaders, goal-driven, confident, organized, and efficient kinds of individuals. They are usually so engrossed in working and then planning their work or lives ahead of time that they lose track of time for themselves.How does espresso make you feel? ›
Drinking espresso gives you a boost of energy. This energy can make it a lot easier for your brain to focus on your day-to-day responsibilities. Espresso kick starts the dopamine in your brain, helping to aid in concentration.Why does espresso make me feel so good? ›
Espresso positively impacts your mood
When you drink espresso, your brain sends signals to release dopamine which helps you feel happier. Espresso can also help those who suffer from depression. It boosts brain activity, takes away exhaustion, and stimulates a positive mood through the caffeine.
Espresso coffee is not only loved for its intense taste, for the variety of preparations, or because it is an energizing drink. In Italy, drinking coffee is a real ritual gesture that embraces both the gustatory dimension and the emotional sphere of consumers.Why does espresso taste better in Italy? ›
In summary, Italian espresso tastes better because it is always made from a fresh roast, which is never more than eight days old. In America, it is hard to find a fresh roasted coffee because there are not enough small-scale, local roasters and there are not enough coffee shops.What is the difference between coffee and espresso? ›
WHAT MAKES ESPRESSO DIFFERENT FROM COFFEE? Espresso is thicker and more intense than coffee because of the lower grounds to water ratio, the finer grind, and the pressurized brewing method. Regular coffee uses a coarser grind, more water and gravity to extract the final brew.Is espresso healthier than coffee? ›
Many people think espresso and coffee are two distinct beverages, but they're actually just different brewing methods. Both types of drinks have similar benefits, although light- to medium-roasted coffee has a slight edge over espresso for supporting heart health, cognitive health, metabolic health, and more.
What kind of milk do you use for espresso? ›
Skim milk, which contains little to no fat at all, actually retains some sweetness compared to reduced-fat milk. Because of its even lighter body, it doesn't add much density to a brewed coffee. But steamed, skim milk creates a drier and denser head of foam, and allows an espresso's flavor to cut through clearly.How many shots of espresso is too much? ›
The FDA recommends consuming no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day which is about 6 espresso shots. To get the health benefits while staying within the healthy limit, try to stick to less than that. It's important to remember that caffeine tolerance varies from person to person.How long should a single shot of espresso take? ›
But espresso is less forgiving. That's why you should always aim to let your espresso extract for 25 – 30 seconds. The perfect extraction time for an espresso is 25 – 30 seconds. This is true for pressurised and non-pressurised baskets.What makes an espresso bad? ›
An espresso requires a finely ground coffee bean. A coarse grind, fit for a cold brew coffee, is the perfect way to ruin an espresso. If the coffee beans are ground too coarsely, then the water flows too easily between the coffee grounds, giving you a weak, watery espresso.
The most likely reason for the bitter/burnt taste is that Starbucks roasts their beans at a higher temperature then most roasters in order to produce large quantities of beans in a short time.Do Italians put sugar in espresso? ›
Sugar is traditionally added to espresso by Italians, who invented the drink. Not all of them take it this way, but most of them do.Why do you drink water before espresso? ›
The minerals contained in the water cleanse our palate and stimulate the taste buds before the first sip of espresso, which is a sensually saturated and intense drink.Should you drink espresso fast or slow? ›
Drink it quickly
"Espresso needs to be made expressly for you, but it also needs to be drunk very quickly," Di Pietro says, explaining that it needs to be drunk while the "crema" is still on top. The crema is a creamy emulsion of the coffee's oils, and acts as a lid covering the espresso, keeping all the aromas in.
Because espresso is roasted, ground, and brewed differently, it has a unique flavor compared to drip coffee. It usually has a bolder, less acidic taste, with a well-rounded and full-bodied finish. It tastes “stronger,” meaning that it has a rich coffee flavor.How does Starbucks describe espresso? ›
“It's a special blend of beans from Latin America and Asia/Pacific darkly roasted to produce a rich and caramelly sweetness. Because this dense, full-bodied brew has a stout taste that stands up against milk, it's the perfect foundation for making a latte or cappuccino at home.”
Do people like the taste of espresso? ›
Obviously, we love the taste of a shot (or two) of good quality espresso. The great thing about espresso is that it actually tastes like the smell, unlike those misleading coffee drinks that seriously overpromise on fragrance.Which is healthier coffee or espresso? ›
Many people think espresso and coffee are two distinct beverages, but they're actually just different brewing methods. Both types of drinks have similar benefits, although light- to medium-roasted coffee has a slight edge over espresso for supporting heart health, cognitive health, metabolic health, and more.Is espresso healthier than filter coffee? ›
Did You Know? Filtered coffee may be better for you than French press coffee or the espresso version. This is due to cafestol, one of the chemicals present in coffee which is known to raise levels of LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol.Is espresso good for health? ›
Reduces Risk of Diseases
Espressos, in particular, contain antioxidants that boost the immune system. Espresso shots can even reduce the risk of heart diseases and stroke, especially for people who are obese. Diabetes can also be avoided when you drink coffee.
80% of Starbucks employees feel their work environment is positive meaning Starbucks is a happy place to work. Last updated 4 days ago.What is the difference between espresso and espresso coffee? ›
WHAT MAKES ESPRESSO DIFFERENT FROM COFFEE?
|ROAST||Dark||Dark, Medium, Light|
|GRIND SIZE||Very fine||Medium-coarse|
The Quick Answer
Espresso and coffee are not different things. Espresso is a type of coffee. More specifically, it's a method of brewing coffee that uses high water pressure and finely ground beans to make a small, concentrated shot (the term also refers to the shot itself).
Espresso positively impacts your mood
Drinking espresso helps the brain release dopamine. Levels of dopamine in a person's body is what impacts mood. When you drink espresso, your brain sends signals to release dopamine which helps you feel happier. Espresso can also help those who suffer from depression.
It also is a much healthier choice than the normal types of coffee that many people drink throughout the day. Instead of loading up with sugars and creams, espresso can be enjoyed as is, leaving out those extra calories and fats. You can get that energy boost without sacrificing your health.What kind of people drink espresso? ›
Espresso lovers are found to be natural leaders, goal-driven, confident, organized, and efficient kinds of individuals. They are usually so engrossed in working and then planning their work or lives ahead of time that they lose track of time for themselves.
How much espresso is equal to a cup of coffee? ›
Caffeine content in a standard 8-ounce cup of drip coffee is roughly equivalent to one and a half shots of espresso. The strong flavor and intense form of espresso lead the majority of people to believe that it contains more caffeine.