Italian espresso is known to be a strong, concentrated coffee drink that some might say is an acquired taste. To those who are new to the world of espresso coffee, it may come off as bold, bitter, and perhaps overpowering compared to drip coffee. It may make you ask…is that what espresso tastes like?
Well, yes…and no. The truth is, though it does tend to generally have that strong, bitter taste, there can be much more subtle nuances to the flavor and feel of espresso. It can be a lot easier to find these subtle notes once you know what you should be looking for in a quality espresso, and we can help you out with that!
So, how should a good espresso taste? Keep reading for our ultimate guide!
What is an Espresso?
Let us start with what it is not: it is not a type of bean, and it is not a roasting style. If you have seen coffee labeled as “espresso roast” in a store, note that these are just coffee beans. You could easily use these to make a simple cup of regular coffee, no problem. They are labeled as “espresso beans” because that is the recommended brewing method to get the best coffee bean flavor profile.
To brew coffee espresso-style, hot water is forced through the finely ground coffee in the portafilter at high pressure. Most regular coffee makers are unable to force the water through at such a high pressure, so to do this properly you need an espresso coffee machine.
There are lots of different kinds out there, so if you are in the market for one, help narrow down your choices by checking out our lists of the best Mr. Coffee espresso makers and the best stovetop espresso makers.
Espressos are usually made as either 1- or 2-ounce shots and are typically served without any milk, cream, or sugar. Even without anything added, espresso tends to have a creamy and smooth body and is topped with a foamy layer of crema.
How Should a Good Espresso Tastes?
When determining whether or not your barista from the local coffee shop has served you a good espresso, you want to consider the balance of bitterness, acidity, and sweetness in your cup. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
This is likely the strongest taste you will experience when you first start drinking espresso. Now, contrary to what some people may believe, if something is bitter, it does not mean that it is bad. Bitterness is actually a type of flavor.
Alcohol is something that also tends to have a bitter flavor when you first start drinking it, but that certainly hasn’t stopped many of us! If anything, you get used to that bitterness over time, and now may even crave that kind of flavor. The same holds with espresso. Once you get used to that bitterness, it may become what you expect and even want out of a good espresso.
When coffee lovers refer to the “brightness” of a coffee or espresso, they are commonly referring to its acidity. The acidity in these drinks typically has a crisp, almost tart sensation, similar to what you would get from biting into a lemon or pineapple.
Espresso can allow the acidity or brightness of a blend to shine as it is such a concentrated version of the average cup of coffee. You want to find the right balance, though, as too much acidity may make your drink almost sour, but too little may leave it feeling flat.
Thankfully, espresso isn’t all about bitterness and acidity. A good espresso has a little bit of sweetness to help balance everything out. You may not notice it too much when you first start drinking espresso, but once you get used to that strong espresso taste, you may begin to pick up on the hints of sweetness.
There are all sorts of subtle flavors that you can pick up from coffee beans, depending on where they were sourced and the roasting process. You may get hints of fruits, nuts, chocolate, spices, and even more in your cup.
What is the Best Way to Taste an Espresso?
Now that you know what flavors you should be looking for, we’ll go over how to best experience an espresso.
Taste and smell are closely connected, as the human tongue only has receptors for sweetness, bitterness, and texture. If you want to pick up on the more subtle notes in your espresso, then sit back and breathe in its aroma. See if you can identify any hints of flavor that may otherwise be overpowered by the actual taste of your espresso.
The body of the espresso is also commonly known as the texture or mouthfeel. Since there are so many different kinds of coffee beans, there can also be a lot of variation in the body of your espresso. It may be light, oily, creamy, dense, syrupy, heavy, etc.
There are a lot of distinct mouthfeels to experience, and one is not necessarily better than the other. It comes down to personal preference. For example, if you like a lighter body, you may want your espresso made with beans that have a floral or citrus flavor. It may take some experimenting to determine what kind of body you are looking for in your perfect espresso.
To help you determine the body, try keeping the espresso in your mouth for a while, perhaps even swish it around in there before swallowing. This will allow you to experience the texture.
The two most important things that affect an espresso’s taste are the roast and the origin of the beans. For example, you may find more hints of chocolate and nuts in darker roasts, and fruits and florals in lighter roasts. When it comes to origin, you may find that something like Ethiopian coffee is bright and fruity, while Indonesian coffee is more earthy.
It can be difficult to determine exactly what flavor you are tasting due to all of the competing elements in a strong espresso but try and see how much you can narrow it down. As you improve your palate, you may find that identifying espresso taste becomes easier over time. If you are serious about your espresso, you just have to take the time and slow down to get the full experience.
Espresso is known for its lingering aftertaste. A good finish typically lingers long after you have finished your cup and reminds you of the delicious espresso flavor notes. Sweet flavors are often most desirable for the finish, but again this does largely depend on personal preference. Some people like to hold onto the bitterness of an espresso.
How Should a Good Espresso Taste – Final Thoughts
A good espresso should have the right balance of bitterness, acidity, and sweetness. To the beginner espresso coffee drinker, yes, you will likely be experiencing the bitter taste at first. Follow our tips on the best way to taste espresso and you will eventually start to notice the other flavors, feel, and aroma that make up a quality cup.
Ultimately, after a lot of trial and error, you will be able to determine how a good espresso should taste according to your personal preferences. Everyone has their favorite way of making and drinking a cup of coffee, and at the end of the day, espresso is no different.