Blue Bottle Explains: Espresso

What makes an espresso—espresso?

There is a vigorous purity in an espresso—coffee, water, pressure, time. 
— James Freeman

If you were to compare coffees labeled espresso in the coffee aisle of your grocery store, you’d be hardpressed to identify a single trait that they all share. Some beans are roasted dark; others, tawny and light. Some are blends, while others are single origins. So, what makes an espresso—espresso?

What Makes it Espresso?

Hayes Valley Espresso

Simply put, espresso is a brew method. After World War II, espresso became Italy’s national drink because the extraction method made decent coffee from low-quality beans. The machine’s pressurized environment turned blends of Robusta and Arabica into a thick, concentrated coffee.

The label “espresso” that you see attached to a bag of coffee beans is the roaster’s recommendation, an indication that the coffee has been blended and roasted to best fit the espresso brew method. The label “espresso” is not a different type of coffee in the way, for instance, one can distinguish different varieties of coffee, like Caturra or Typica.

Juliet Han, our head roaster, recounts how “traditional espressos were roasted to be low in acidity, big in body, and on the darker side.” Not all espressos need to conform to this traditional standard, though. Single origins, and blends with more brightness and fruit, have the potential to perform well as espresso, too.

Our Original Espresso: Hayes Valley

Our espresso blend in all of our cafes, Hayes Valley Espresso, is modeled after the Italian standard. We use high-quality beans to make a more nuanced version of the original brooding profile. We pull shots as ristretto, or a short pull, which yields an espresso that’s drinkable in just a few sips.  

This is the kind of coffee that you enjoy standing up. In Italy, coffee counters are designed to encourage this expediency and everyone makes time to enjoy “un po' di caffè.”

At our cafes, we serve a shot of espresso with a sparkling water back, which we recommend drinking first to prepare the palate for the espresso's layered complexities—the pleasantly bitter crema, the syrupy liquor, and lingering aftertaste.

Single Origins as Espresso

single origin espresso

We feature a changing menu of single origin espresso in our cafes that offer guests an entirely different experience than Hayes Valley. When a newly arrived single origin coffee lands on our cupping table for the first time, we consider if its profile could work as espresso. The extraction method amplifies a coffee’s qualities, and not all coffees thrive under these conditions. But some, when roasted for espresso and pulled as a longer shot, push the envelope in ways that are exciting, or just plain delicious.

Take for example our Opascope espresso, currently a single origin from Rwanda. The brightness typical to coffee from that part of the world becomes even more vivid and floral as espresso. Our Colombia Consacá el Triángulo, on the other hand, is balanced with sweeter notes and muted acidity—think Red Delicious rather than Granny Smith.

To bring out the best qualities of single origin espressos, we use the same amount of ground coffee as we do for Hayes Valley Espresso, but experiment with the temperature, length of extraction, and the volume (the water used) of extraction. A greater water-to-coffee ratio emphasizes flavor over mouthfeel. The barista’s task is to tinker with these variables to find the sweet spot, where the espresso becomes the most pleasing expression of itself. 

As Juliet says, “Opascope as a shorter espresso would be more sour than pleasantly bright. If I tried to pull Hayes Valley as a bigger shot, I might end up with a woody, thinner-bodied espresso.”

When we serve espresso, no matter the kind, the beans have been roasted to best fit espresso preparation. This is part of what makes them uniquely espresso in our cafes. We encourage you to try coffee's endless range of flavors in its most focused expression—a well-made espresso. 

Hayes Valley Espresso Dosage

for ristretto

Dose 20 g 

Grouped Temperature 201.5 F

Extraction 32 sec

Yield 20 g 


Opascope Dosage

for "baby Americano" 

Dose 20 g 

Grouped Temperature 200 F

Extraction 30–33 sec

Yield 35 g 

Read more about pulling a delicious shot in our espresso brew guide