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Home » How To Drink Espresso (and fully appreciate its flavour)

How To Drink Espresso The Best Way: like an Italian

Have you ever wondered if there is a right way to drink espresso? Come on, admit it. You have. Every coffee lover (who wasn’t born in Italy) probably has! If you have ever had the experience of sitting in a café in Rome, Venice or Florence – it can feel like the Italian coffee culture has a secret: how to properly drink espresso. It's part of la dolce vita – the sweet life.

First: Learn to pronounce espresso properly. Before we get into the specifics of how to drink this beautiful beverage, it’s important to know a few things. One of the most important is how to pronounce espresso.

It might seem like a silly thing, but if you are going to the effort of learning how to drink espresso properly, pronouncing it correctly seems like a good idea. Phonetically, you say it “Eh-spress-o”. Not “EX-press-o”.

First – Warm Your Espresso Cup

You likely know to do this – so this is just a reminder. It makes for a better shot. And, make sure that you are using the right cup.

For the most part, in cafes around the world, espresso is served in an espresso cup that is ceramic and white. Now, if you are at a spot that has that little extra edge when it comes to espresso, you will get a demitasse (pronounced ‘dem-E-tas'). Demitasse is French for ‘half cup” – not sure how a French cup became synonymous with espresso, which comes from Italy, but that’s the way the world works.

In Italy, the Istituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano, or INEI (National Italian Espresso Institute, in English) includes a specification for the specific type of cup in which a Certified Italian Espresso is to be served (1):

It is a white china cup, free of any inside decoration, elliptical in shape, with a capacity of 50-100 millilitres.

Now you know what to look for the next time you're upgrading your china collection!

Next – Sip Your Sparkling Water

While this step is optional, it’s also highly recommended if you want to fully appreciate the hidden flavours of the bean. If you watch some of the best baristas in Italy and other places around the world, they serve a glass or a small bottle of sparkling water with an espresso. You've probably often thought – WTF is this for? (I've been there). Well now you know:

This is to cleanse your palate so you can fully taste the rich, dark liquid gold of your shot. So sip that sparkling acqua minerale and cleanse your palate!

Now Skim Away the Crema and Stir

If you're making your own shot, now's the time to use your espresso machine. If you're in a cafe – forget the menu. No need for wine or food, it's time to order an Italian espresso. Tell the waiter or barista that you want one espresso pronto (remember how we pronounce it?)

Espresso with crema on top

The next part will sound counter-intuitive: Stir your crema.

We spend so much time trying to perfect crema and discussing it to death with other members of the coffee tribe… and it looks beautiful in the cup when done right.

But, it really doesn’t taste that great. It's the result of C02 when brewing, so get a spoon and scoop it off.

For bonus points, if there is anyone drinking instant or decaf coffee nearby: flick the crema into their face and tell them to get lost.

Now give it a stir  Espressos needs a little stir to blend the thicker parts of the shot – which sink to the bottom of the cup – with the lighter notes, which stay on top.

Finally – Sip and Enjoy

Whatever your choice of accompaniments, once prepared, take a moment and appreciate the experience. Let this beautiful, rich dark liquid roll over your tongue. Taste the flavours of the bean, and the texture of the drink. Absorb the fragrance of this little cup of magic.

Certain characteristics of the bean will be magnified, giving you a real sense of its flavour. A good espresso is bitter, but not too bitter. It is rich, but not overpoweringly so. It will have a depth of flavour that is complicated by lighter, brighter notes. And it will have a substantial mouth feel comparable to a soft blanket covering your tongue with love.

Now You Know How To Drink Espresso

What did you think? Do you feel like you have a handle on how to enjoy an espresso shot now? And what your options are if you want to fancy it up?

The espresso culture can feel complicated and a bit intimidating sometimes. Hopefully this tutorial will help you feel more confident in how to properly experience an espresso. One thing to remember is that it’s really not as overwhelming as it feels – and most espresso veterans are happy to help guide you if you ask for advice. The coffee tribe is a kind one.

Let us know what you think in the comments. And if you'd like to make your own espresso read this article.

Frequently Asked Questions

Espresso is or isn’t stronger than regular coffee, depending on what you mean by “stronger.” A typical shot (1 oz, 28 ml) of espresso contains only 62 mg of caffeine on average. A 355 ml cup of brewed coffee contains about 120 mg. So if you mean stronger in caffeine, it's actually about half the strength of a cup of brewed coffee. The flavour of espresso is much stronger, however, because it uses much more coffee for the amount of water used to brew a shot.

If you add milk to an espresso, it becomes a different drink, called a macchiato in Italy. Macchiato means “marked,” and it refers to a shot of espresso with just a dash of steamed milk and foam on top.

Serving a twist of lemon with espresso was often given the exotic-sounding (but apparently meaningless) name “espresso Gheve” in American restaurants in the 1970s. The practice is not followed in Italy. It's not a bad flavour, but you just might be shunned (if not actually chased out of the cafe) if you drink it this way in Italy.
Rather than lemon, many Italian restaurants serve a small amount of an alcoholic beverage, such as grappa or anisette, with an after-meal espresso. This is known as caffe corretto, or “correct coffee.” In France, the practice is to pour a tablespoonful or so of some digestif (any after-dinner spirit thought to aid digestion) such as Pernod or cognac into the empty espresso cup, so that the warm cup infuses the leftover coffee flavour into the drink. This is called a pousse-café, meaning “push coffee,” because the coffee “pushes” the flavour of the alcohol.

You can add sugar to espresso if you enjoy your coffee sweet. Most cafes in Europe serve a sugar cube on the saucer with the demitasse containing your espresso. 

  1. The Certified Italian Espresso and Cappuccino (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.espressoitaliano.org/files/File/istituzionale_inei_hq_en.pdf
Alex Azoury
Alex is an Editor of Home Grounds, who considers himself as a traveling coffee fanatic. He is passionate about brewing amazing coffee while in obscure locations, and teaching others to do the same.

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