Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

True espresso is made very quickly, in about 30 seconds. A piston or spring or electrical pump drives 200°F/93°C water through finely ground coffee at 9 atmospheres of pressure. (Inexpensive household machines rely on excessively hot steam, develop far less pressure, and take longer to brew, so the result is relatively thin and harsh.) The proportion of ground coffee is three to four times the amount used in unpressurized brewing, and deposits three to four times the concentration of coffee materials in the brew, creating a substantial, velvety body and intense flavor. These extracted materials include a relatively large amount of coffee oils, which the high pressure forces from the bean particles to form a creamy emulsion of tiny droplets, and which contribute to the slow, prolonged release of coffee flavor in the mouth, long after the last sip. Another unique feature of espresso is the crema, the remarkably stable, creamy foam that develops from the brew and covers its surface. It’s the product of carbon dioxide gas still trapped in the ground coffee, and the mixture of dissolved and suspended carbohydrates, proteins, phenolic materials, and large pigment aggregates, all of which bond in one way or another to each other and hold the bubble walls together. (For the milk foams often served with coffee.)