I remember walking down the coffee aisle when I was young (like 20 years old) and wondering what made certain coffees “espresso” and some not. It’s an understandable question. Most coffee packaging we see in grocery stores poorly communicates what it means when a certain coffee is labeled “Espresso”. Unfortunately, many of the businesses behind those coffees don’t care to make it any clearer.

Things are different at Yellow House Coffee. We believe that when we empower our customers with knowledge and skills, they become our friends. We have nothing to hide and are not big on misleading marketing, so let’s burst this question that most of us ask at one time or another.


What Espresso Is Not

Espresso is not a coffee bean. Coffee beans are coffee beans are coffee beans. Any coffee can become espresso, and ‘espresso beans’ don’t have to become espresso. All coffee roasters do have a special blend that they tailor towards espresso brewing, however. This doesn’t mean those beans are inherently espresso, just that they may shine more brightly as espresso.

Espresso is not a roasting style. The darker beans we often see in bags labeled espresso are not labeled that way because they are roasted in a particular style. Darker does not mean ‘espresso’. Many coffee roasters like to roast their signature espresso blends darker than normal.

As bad as it sounds, if you train your customers to expect espresso to be bitter, you won’t have train your staff as much. Super dark, bitter beans for espresso make more sense financially, but it tastes terrible and is a poor use of the coffee.

What Espresso Is

The Specialty Association of America defines espresso as…

… a 25-35ml (.85-1.2 ounce) beverage prepared from 7-9 grams (14-18 grams for a double) of coffee through which clean water of 195 °-205 °F (92 °-95°C) has been forced at 9-10 atmospheres of pressure, and where the grind of the coffee is such that the brew time is 20-30 seconds.

Espresso is a process. Not a roast style. Not a coffee bean. It is a method for brewing coffee.

The SCAA definition is pretty specific, but many specialty coffee shops are breaking down the walls of that definition. I’ve heard of a shop that pulls shots for nearly 60 seconds (twice the SCAA defined time limit). I’ve heard of some of another that uses 20g of coffee to brew 20ml of espresso in 20 seconds total – also a departure from the SCAA definition.


Here’s a definition that more accurately fits the current specialty coffee marketplace in the US:

A concentrated shot of coffee created by forcing hot water through super-fine coffee grounds at 7-10 atmospheres of pressure (through an espresso machine).

That definition is less specific, but it leaves more room for experimentation and adventure. The boundaries of espresso are being tested around the world, and this definition leaves plenty of wiggle room for new trends and types of shots.

What Does Espresso Actually Taste Like?

I cannot tell you how often I hear people reject espresso because it is “bitter”. In reality, espresso doesn’t have to be any more bitter than regular brewed coffee. All it takes is a competent barista and some great coffee beans.

Overroasted coffee tastes bitter and ashy. If you start with coffee of this type (think most grocery coffee or Sbux), you won’t be able to avoid burned and bitter coffee, no matter how you brew it. Since espresso is a concentrated beverage, that bitterness will be more intense if it is present in the coffee.

Great espresso can be sweet, bright, floral, chocolatey, fruity, and citrusy. The only limiter is the coffee bean itself, which means most of the magic comes from the origin country, the skills of the farmers, and the work of the roaster.

The barista is the final stage of a long journey, though it is an important one. Pulling balanced shots over and over again can be a frustrating experience, but we value that experience when eyes widen and minds open to the flavor possibilities that can be found in espresso shots, so we push through (rather than settling for bad espresso and a more stress-free shift).

Let’s Recap

  • Espresso is not a coffee bean.
  • Espresso is not a roast style.
  • Espresso is a method that uses hot water, finely ground coffee, and a ton of pressure.
  • Espresso can be extremely sweet and flavorful.

So are you ready to try a shot of espresso all by itself? You may be surprised at how much you like it.

Any other questions Come see us at the shop and we’ll let you in on all of our secrets (because they’re not really secrets).