Since the turn of the 20th century, espresso has been considered a delicacy beverage throughout much of the "Western World". Its rich flavor and high concentration of dissolved solids is the reason it is used as the base for other coffee concoctions such as lattes, cappuccino, macchiato and mochas. But how much do people really know about what it takes to "pull" a shot of espresso?
Shortly after espresso's Italian inception, the machines with which to brew the caffeinated treat began to quickly evolve. Some of these machines used steam, just as many of the consumer models do today, while other designs utilized pistons and pumps. Some of these contraptions employed manual levers that were manipulated by the baristas, while other devices are mostly automated.
Regardless of which type of machine is used, their purpose is the same: To force pressurized, heated water through finely ground coffee beans. If we were to use these fine grounds with the traditional drip method of coffee brewing, we would only succeed at making coffee mud. That is why a pressurized process such as that produced by an espresso machine is required for making espresso.
You may be asking yourself "If using finer coffee grounds requires a pressurized machine, then why use finer coffee grounds at all?" The answer is simple. Finer grounds lend to greater potency. More of the coffee ground can be dissolved in the water which not only adds to flavor, but also to consistency and an increased quantity of caffeine. A one-ounce shot of espresso typically has about half the caffeine of a six-ounce cup of drip brewed coffee. That equals three times more caffeine by volume.
How Much Pressure?
Finally, we reach the answer to the title question. How much pressure is needed to force the heated water through the grounds?
Short Answer: Between 8 and 10 bars. This is equivalent to 116 to 145 psi.
Long Answer: The specific pressure utilized in the brewing of the espresso depends on a few variables, most important of which is the desired potency of the end product. A well-trained barista can manipulate the pressure and the ground consistency in order to vary the strength of the brew.
Many people are of the flawed understanding that certain roasts are used to make espresso. But in actuality any roast can be used. In fact, when looking at the birthplace of espresso, we can find that Southern Italy tends to use darker roasts than one will customarily find in Northern Italy. Like other coffee creations, it is all about personal preference. Keep in mind that the espresso process will certainly produce a more powerful beverage than the drip brew process, no matter what roast is used.
When brewing espresso, as well as any other coffee product, be extremely careful, especially if you are brewing for the first time. Take time to familiarize yourself with the process and the machinery required to execute the process. You can never be too safe.
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