I'm a firm believer that we should enjoy our beverages the way we want. At the same time, I see learning to enjoy the most classic versions of our favourite drinks as something of great importance. Learning to savour (and hopefully distinguish) elements of their complex chemical structures makes us appreciate it more, probably simply because we took our time to understand it.

Today, I'd like to take you on a dangerous adventure filled with coffee, more coffee and then some more coffee. Shall we begin? I'll meet you on the other side, if we survive that is.

What is an espresso?

An espresso is a cup of espresso.

And this is probably the single best explanation I've ever given. Inspired by an English-native friend of mine, whom I asked about using the correct article with the word 'espresso' before I sat down to write this piece. But jokes aside.

Espresso is an Italian coffee-brewing method during which a small amount of nearly boiling water is forced through ground coffee beans under 9 bars of pressure.

How strong is 9 bars of pressure?

The best real equivalent I could think of is comparing it to going underwater. 9 bars of pressure is like diving roughly 86m (281ft) deep. Pretty much nearly an entire height of the Statue of Liberty (including the pedestal), which is 93m (305ft) tall. The pressure under which the cup of perfect espresso is being made is thus rather immense.

History of espresso certification

Unique chemical characteristics of this marvellous drink made it likely one of the most prominent symbols of coffee-making craftsmanship, gaining worldwide popularity and making Italy – the land of espresso. What comes with such popularity, though, are issues with quality assurance.

Since Italy and espresso were pretty much inseparable, every badly brewed cup could once-and-for-all stain the reputation of the beverage in the eyes of every person who tried it. That's precisely when Italians went:

and founded in 1998 the Italian Espresso National Institute (Instituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano) – the official guardians and promotors of espresso.

After three years of research, together with the International Institute of Coffee Tasters and the Taster Study Center (Centro Studi Assaggiatori), they managed to define the profile of a high-quality espresso. A year later, the Institute obtained certification for their espresso coffee, proudly marking it – Espresso Italiano.

Espresso Italiano (Certified Italian Espresso)

To be deemed Espresso Italiano, an espresso drink needs to meet rigorous brewing specifications issued by the Institute and approved by a third-party supervision body in accordance with ISO 45011 standard. The exact process is not public, for obvious reasons, but it consists of four fundamental elements:

  1. a certified blend of coffee beans;
  2. a certified espresso machine;
  3. a certified grinder-dispenser; and
  4. the entire process must be conducted by a certified barista.

At the very end of this meticulous procedure, we receive the perfect Italian espresso. Below, you can see a radar chart of the official characteristics of high-quality espresso, produced as a combined result of consumer and laboratory tests.

Espresso Italiano characteristics
Espresso Italiano characteristics

To put it into a more descriptive format:

  • hazelnut-coloured froth, bordering on dark brown with tawny hinges;
  • the cream is fine in texture, with no small or large bubbles visible;
  • an intensive scent, filled with flowery, fruity, chocolaty and/or bready notes;
  • round and smooth in taste, with neither acidity nor bitterness overpowering the flavour;
  • astringency is absent or barely perceptible; and
  • after swallowing, the finish lasts for at leasts a couple of seconds or even minutes.

How to make the best espresso at home

Okay, but since we're not a coffee shop, and we're not going to undergo the certification process to be able to brew Espresso Italiano at home, we can still strive for perfection.

To do the latter, we need to comply with the following parameters in order to brew the perfect cup of espresso:

Espresso brewing requirements Ideal values
Required amount of ground coffee: 7g ± 0.5g
Water temperature in an espresso machine: 88°C ± 2°C
Water pressure in an espresso machine: 9 bars ± 1 bar
Brewing time: 25s ± 5s
Temperature of the drink in the cup: 67°C ± 3°C
Produced ml of espresso in the cup (including froth): 25ml ± 2.5ml

The ideal espresso cup

Obviously, the cup for our perfect espresso is also standardized, although less rigorously than the brewing process. It has to be a white china cup with no inside decorations, elliptical in shape with a maximum capacity of 50-100ml.

But. Let's not forget the above is designed with a specific coffee blend in mind, which means the one we'll have at our disposal might have different characteristics. What if the outcome it too sour for our taste? Well, if you had a chance to read my article about the influence of a receptacle's geometry on our perception of flavour, you know we can play with our minds and try to fix our too-acidic cup of coffee that way.

If you didn't have such a chance, here's a link to the mentioned article. Definitely a worthy read.

How a receptacle’s geometry can enhance the taste of your favourite drink
Scientific research shows we can influence beverages’ flavour by utilizing shapes and the reactions they produce in human’s brain.

Utilizing cross-modality of our senses to enhance the taste of espresso

As we already know, we can utilize the intersection of our human senses to change the perceived taste of food and beverages. If our coffee came out either too acidic or too bitter, we have a few possibilities at hand. Obviously, I'm not going to tell you to redecorate your room or repaint your walls in order to reproduce the results of the scientific study we discussed when talking about the influence of interior design on our perception of flavour. We'll focus on more sensible options.

How to decrease acidity of espresso

To make your coffee taste less acidic or sour, you can use a cup with angular shapes present on a cup’s surface. Angular visual stimuli will force your brain to override (to an extent) the perceived flavour, as angularity is visually congruent with bitterness.

How to decrease bitterness of espresso

To make your coffee taste less bitter, you can use a cup with rounded shapes on a cup’s surface. Rounded visual stimuli is seen by our brain as sweet-congruent, and thus it fools itself when processing the taste of the drink, making it somewhat sweeter.

Examples of cups that influence your perceived taste of espresso
Examples of cups that influence your perceived taste of espresso

I know this sounds like madness, but I've cited real scientific studies in my previous articles, which you can freely go and check yourself. I'm not waffling off my head.

Espresso etiquette

Finally, if we're going to relish the moment of drinking our perfectly brewed cup of espresso, why not do it with class?

First, you should be okay with being perceived as a snob. Why? Because we live in a world where 'whatever' became a standard. Somehow, we made striving for perfection a toxic quality. If you'll follow a set of strictly defined rules of etiquette, many may see you as pretentious, simply because you don't agree to abide to the 'whatever mentality'. It honestly baffles me. But if you don't particularly care what others think of you – read on!

If you want to drink espresso following proper espresso etiquette, here's how to do it:

Drink it quickly. As the name implies, it's not meant to be sipped for hours. To be honest, you would rather not sip it for hours anyway. Have you ever tried cold espresso?

Don't drink espresso that doesn't have crema on top. If you order it at a coffee shop, don't order it to the table. By the time it will get to you, it's probably going to be too late.

Savour this brief moment, try to distinguish the flavours. Make mental notes on things you like or dislike. Learn whether the selected coffee beans are to your taste. I'm uncertain if it's just me, but all these little details transform even the simplest actions into fascinating moments.

Hold the cup by its handle, looping your index finger into the handle and placing your thumb on top of it. The rest of the fingers have to be tucked in. And don't stick out your pinkie… You're not Doctor Evil.

Last but not least – don't add milk. By adding it, your espresso becomes espresso macchiato and by the Italian tradition, it shouldn't be drank after 11am.

Epilogue

That's it. Our guide to brewing the best espresso at home in accordance with the Espresso Italiano standard is done and dusted. Hopefully, I managed to convinced you to try to turn your usual act of drinking espresso into a small, special ritual that will only elevate your daily espresso experience.

If you'd like to share with me a picture of your own home-made cup of the perfect espresso, I'd be happy to see it. Send it to me on Twitter – @perfectionistpl. You might as well tag it with #ThePerfectionistEspresso!

Lastly, don't forget to subscribe to my newsletter by clicking the button in your right corner, so I can ping you whenever the next article is out. Until that moment, have a lovely week ahead and… arrivederci!