Ristretto vs Espresso: So Easily Confused, Or Not?
We know ristretto and espresso seem like the same thing, just with different names. But is that really the case? The short answer is no because there is a pretty big difference between them. But that only answers the biggest question.
In this article, we’ll answer the ristretto vs espresso difference. I’ll run through each of them and then put them head-to-head.
Let’s dive right in!
What Exactly Is An Espresso?
Espresso is a concentrated coffee. Imagine taking all the flavors, texture, and aroma from a regular cup of coffee and packing it into a 1-1.5 fl oz. That’s what an espresso drink is. Typically, you use a standard dose of 18 grams of finely ground coffee beans with about double that in water. The end result is a flavor bomb of 1-1.5 fl oz espresso (1). To make it, you should have an espresso machine or a manual espresso maker, and some wisely picked coffee beans.
The defining feature of espresso is the crema.
The crema is the light brown, kind of foamy bit at the top of an espresso shot. The crema is all the tasty oils that are extracted from the coffee ground during the brewing process. A good espresso should have a rich, colorful, and thick crema.
Espresso vs Coffee is an interesting thing to keep in mind. It’s like rectangles and squares. Each coffee drink has its own name. Going through our coffee drinks chart will help keep all the names straight!
- Traditional, espresso is the base for the most popular coffee drinks around the world
- Easy to make, pretty much every consumer espresso machine is programmed for traditional espresso
- Delicious and balanced, good espresso is one of the purest ways to taste and experience coffee
- Can get boring, there isn’t much wiggle room to experiment when pulling traditional espresso
What is Ristretto Espresso?
The most basic question to answer here is what does ristretto mean? “Ristretto” in Italian means “restricted.” So, you can think of a ristretto espresso as a restricted shot. That basically means that the amount of water allowed through the coffee grounds when pulling the shot is restricted. So, a ristretto shot has the same ingredients as espresso but with a tweaked brew method.
We already know that a regular espresso is anywhere between 1 and 2 oz of coffee. With a ristretto shot, you’re aiming for anywhere between 0.75 and 1.5 oz. Essentially half or ¾ the volume of a regular espresso. That’s because if we restrict the amount of water going through our coffee grounds, we will get less coffee. Ristretto is the opposite of espresso lungo, where the shot is extended and more water is allowed through the grounds.
The shorter beverage weight and shot time, usually at a ratio of between 1:1 and 1:1.67, is how we define a ristretto.
Remember that coffee extracts in three parts and in a particular order: sour, sweet, and then bitter. Pulling a ristretto means taking away a lot of the bitter extraction. You should have a shot that is slightly sweeter and brighter (2).
- Sweeter and smaller than espresso
- More interesting flavors
- Better for experimentation
- Not as versatile, because the flavors are so unique.
Ristretto Vs Espresso: Head-To-Head
Let’s take a bit of a closer look to find the difference between ristretto and espresso. And let’s declare a winner for each section.
Espresso tastes like coffee. But that’s not quite a satisfying answer. Since it’s such a small coffee, it has a super intense and rich flavor. Imagine packing all the flavor of a regular cup of coffee into a few mouthfuls. As intense as espresso is, it’s also balanced. And while it might not seem like it to a new coffee drinker, espresso has elements of sour, sweet, and bitter to create a smooth and delicious coffee.
Ristretto also is also a pretty intense experience, but without the bitter notes. Since ristretto shots are stopped before full extraction from the coffee grounds, ristretto shots don’t extract as many bitter flavors from the coffee. Ristretto should taste sweeter, punchier, and more acidic. Think pink lemonade.
There is a pretty big gap between good ristretto and good espresso. How your barista chooses to brew each shot will change its taste. But in general, traditional espresso has a more balanced profile while ristretto leans towards acidity and sweetness.
Winner: Regular espresso. They are simply more versatile and useful than a ristretto.
What Are They Used For
A regular espresso is the base for the most popular coffee drinks around the world. Things like lattes, cappuccinos, or mochas. They are the base because they have a bold, rounded, and intense flavor. Because espresso has such an intense flavor, diluting the coffee with steamed milk or syrups doesn’t have as much of an effect as it would with ristretto.
Ristretto shots are typically consumed on their own. That’s because they are unique in their flavor profile and have a sweeter, more acidic taste. However, I still enjoy them in smaller coffee drinks like cortados or traditional macchiatos. There isn’t as much milk to dilute the ristretto and the flavor can still shine.
The milk exaggerates that sweetness even more in a ristretto-based drink than it does in an espresso-based one.
But keep in mind that both ristretto and regular espresso shots can be used in any drink. They will just have slightly different flavors.
Winner: Ristretto. Using ristretto shots in smaller drinks like traditional macchiatos or cortados makes them really interesting and unique.
How They Are Made
Traditional espresso shots are made by forcing hot water through finely-ground coffee. You’ll end up with 1-1.5 fl oz of coffee per shot after 25-30 seconds. That’s using a standard 18-gram dose.
A ristretto is made with the same dose, 18 grams, as a regular espresso, but with only half to ¾ the amount of water. So, you’ll end up with a smaller shot, anywhere between 0.75 and 1 fl oz. And the shot will take less time, around 15-20 seconds. Since less water runs through the coffee, the ristretto doesn’t extract as much flavor and you get a sweeter experience.
Espresso shots are pretty easy to make. Ristretto shots are a little tougher and certainly require a good espresso machine for a home barista.
Winner: Regular espresso. They are easy to make, easier to get consistent, and don’t require a super deep understanding of coffee extraction.
You’ll find ristretto and espresso in all coffee shops around the world. So you’re sure to test both options and see which one works best for you. Until then:
Opt for a Ristretto if:
- You want a slightly sweeter coffee
- You want a more concentrated coffee
- You want a smaller drink
Opt for a regular espresso if:
- You want a rounded and more balanced coffee
- You want the full caffeine content of a shot
- You want a traditional coffee drink like a cappuccino or latte
Yes, ristretto is stronger than espresso because it is a smaller and more concentrated version of the coffee. However, it will be a little sweeter than a regular espresso.
Ristretto has a touch less caffeine than regular espresso. But that difference is only a few mg, so it’s an insignificant difference.
Order by asking your barista for a ristretto drink. For example, you can order a “ristretto latte” or “ristretto cappuccino.”
- SCA. (2021, July 8). Defining the ever-changing espresso – 25 Magazine: Issue 3. Specialty Coffee Association. Retrieved February 2023, from https://sca.coffee/sca-news/25-magazine/issue-3/defining-ever-changing-espresso-25-magazine-issue-3/
- Barista Hustle. (2018, October 31). ACM 4.09 – Ristretto, Lungo and Café (caffè) crema. Barista Hustle. Retrieved February 2023, from https://www.baristahustle.com/lesson/acm-4-09-ristretto-lungo-and-cafe-caffe-crema/