3 July 2013

Coffee Series Part 1: What is the difference between an Espresso, an Americano and a Long Black?

Amazingly, after having run my coffee shop for ten years now, I still get asked this question every now and again.  But it doesn't bother me really.... well, not anymore; after all, I'm constantly reminded each day that I'm not exactly operating in Nice or Milan - and at the end of the day, it remains my job to answer such enquiries.  This prompted me to write this blog post to share with everyone the difference between the three beverages.  Now, I know there are already countless blogs written on this subject but nonetheless I'm writing my own piece because, if anything, I'm privileged enough to have YOU - my own readers - to share this with.  Who knows?... some of you may even find this post enlightening.

This is the first of a three-part "Coffee" series which I have planned for my blog.  In a couple of days, I'll be posting Part 2 in which I'll be talking about three more gourmet coffee recipes; so watch this space.  I'll try to be as succinct and un-technical as possible; but if you find some of the things I write here confusing or hard to understand, please feel free to leave your feedback at the end of the post and I'll get right back to you.  Let's start with espresso.

An espresso is a concentrated, often thick coffee beverage whose ingredients are exclusively coffee and water, created with an espresso machine that forces hot water through a filter basket of compacted, finely-ground coffee at very high pressure.  The resultant dark, syrupy beverage that comes out - ready for consumption - is known as espresso.  "Espresso" is also the general term for the process that creates this beverage.  A "single" espresso is typically 1oz (or 30ml) of beverage, using approximately 8 grams of ground coffee.  A double espresso is a 2oz serving (not two cups as some believe), using twice the amount of ground coffee.  (Note: Espresso is also used as the base for other coffee recipes, e.g. cappuccinos and lattes, where milk is added).

A single "pull" (or "shot") of espresso, if done right, should ideally last between 22 and 26 seconds; likewise a double.  Anything less will result in what we call "under-extraction" with the coffee tasting intense, acidic and sometimes "harsh".  On the other hand, if the extraction takes too long (i.e. more than 30 seconds), the resultant coffee will taste weak and bitter.  Pulled correctly, an espresso is pleasantly (but not overly) strong and sweet-ish, and features a layer of rich, dark golden cream - or "crema" - on the surface.  This crema is an indicator of a quality, well-prepared espresso - generally the thicker the better, provided always that the coffee isn't under- or over-extracted.  Pulling good espresso shots takes a wee bit of mastery although it's hardly rocket science.  With time, practice and (I gotta say this) the right passion, anyone can do it.

Single shot of espresso being "pulled"

So, how best to enjoy an espresso?  Well, there really is no right or wrong method but it's usually consumed in 3 or 4 quick gulps.  Whilst adding sugar is accepted practice, a truly great espresso is a joy to drink without any additives.

A Caffe Americano (or just "Americano") is a black coffee recipe prepared by adding hot water to espresso - giving a similar strength but different flavour from regular drip coffee.  Having said that, how strong an Americano depends really on the number of shots of espresso used and the amount of water added to dilute the coffee; but, typically, a regular serving consists of a single 1oz (30ml) shot of espresso combined with 5oz (150ml) of hot water.  Personally, I prefer mine with two shots of espresso and 4oz of water.  This lends greater intensity to my coffee.  The beverage's name has its origins from the Second World War when American GI's serving in Europe would pour hot water into coffee to approximate the coffee to which they were more accustomed.

Caffe Americano

If you find espresso too strong and an Americano too weak, then a "long black" is probably what you seek.  It's really like an Americano, except that the preparation process is reversed and slightly less water used.  In making a long black, hot water is first poured into a cup, followed by the espresso (which is added directly onto the water).  This is to ensure that some of the espresso's crema remain intact when the beverage is served.  So apart from its slightly stronger taste, you can also distinguish a long black from an Americano by the presence of this crema.  Made well, this is a truly balanced beverage - perfect for those of you who prefer your coffee black but find espressos too intense for your liking.

Long black espresso; crema is more
pronounced compared to an Americano

So here I've explained the difference between an espresso, an Americano and a long black.  In Part 2, I'll tell you what a cappuccino is; likewise a caffe latte and a flat white.  I hope you find this post useful - or at least, informative.  If you have a feedback or question that you'd like to ask, please feel free to drop me a line in the "Post a Comment" field at the end of this blog post; I'll revert to you as soon as I can.... promise.

Are you a coffee drinker?  Which of these three coffee recipes do you like most?

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  1. I'm a latte lover and I find long black seems...delicious from the way you describe it :) will give it a try some time after this.

    1. You should, Jaclyn. If you like your coffee strong, ask for a long black with a double shot of espresso. Thank you for dropping in; most appreciated.

  2. Definitely an enlightening piece, thanks for sharing your knowledge. I'm sorry you're a Liverpool supporter, Vincent, I wish you were Man U... :D Having said that, I must express how impressed I am with your coffee-knowledge and your writing skills. I distinctly remember my first experience with espresso (at that time I only knew kopi & nescafe) - I nearly choked! I have a question, if you don't mind, does double espresso means 2 'single espresso'?

    1. Thank you for your kind comments, Ismail. In a way, you're right with regards double espresso; only that the two singles are served in ONE cup (or demitasse). It's made of two shots of espresso instead of one in the case a single espresso. The amount of ground coffee and water used is double compared to that of a single. Hope this helps.