What Are Espresso Shots? Explained

You are probably familiar with the term “shots” when discussing tequila, but if you’re wondering, “What are espresso shots?” this article explains more.

What are espresso shots
Espresso shots are small cups of concentrated coffee, and they require a different brewing method

Espresso is the basis of most of our favorite coffee drinks, from the simple Americano to the creamy latte or cappuccino. So, what are espresso shots? In short, espresso shots are small cups of concentrated coffee. Although espresso is made from the same beans you use to make regular coffee, it requires a different brewing method.

We will walk you through everything you need to know about espresso shots, from the history of this drink, how to brew it, and even the different varieties. Learn more in our under extracted espresso explainer.

Understanding Espresso Shots

The name espresso comes from the Italian word for fast. Although it’s unclear where the term shot originated, it is believed to have been picked up from bartending lingo. Since a shot of alcohol is used as a base for drinks like cocktails, the term is also appropriate for espresso.

It’s the high-pressure brewing method that makes espresso special. The water is quickly forced through the grounds to brew an undiluted serving of Joe. Other brewing methods, like drip coffee or French press java, are brewed when the coffee is allowed to slowly infuse with the water, whether by allowing the water to pass through a filter or steeping the grounds all at once.

Espresso is made from finely ground coffee beans, generally medium or dark-roast coffee, while other methods use larger grounds to accommodate the slower process.

One shot of espresso is one ounce in size and contains seven to nine grams of coffee. A double shot is two ounces and will contain 14 to 18 grams of coffee; you’ll also hear this referred to as a doppio shot.

Most coffee shops use two shots of espresso in their drinks. So, if you want less caffeine, you’ll have to ask your barista for a single shot of espresso. You might also be interested in our Doppio coffee guide.

The History Of Espresso Shots

Espresso originated in Italy. In the late 1800s, Angelo Moriondo laid the groundwork for what would become espresso when he patented a machine that used water and steam to brew coffee.

However, this device was intended to prepare bigger batches of coffee. Luigi Bezzera is who we can attribute espresso to after he made changes to Moriondo’s machine, such as adding a portafilter.

He later teamed up with Desiderio Pavoni to secure funding and to improve the brewer further. In 1906, the duo showcased espresso at the Milan Fair.  

However, the pressure on these original brewers was low. It wasn’t until after World War II that Achille Gaggia invented a machine that could reach eight to 10 bars of pressure. Gaggia’s machine is also why an espresso shot is one ounce in size, as the area where the pressurized water was forced into could only hold this amount of liquid.

Before the invention of the espresso machine, it took approximately five minutes to brew a cup of coffee. Italians quickly grew fond of this quick brewing method, and it began to spread when tourists tried Italian coffee.

The Art Of Pulling An Espresso Shot

Pulling a shot of espresso
Pulling a shot is when a lever was pulled during the brewing process

Gaggia’s espresso machine set the standard for espresso as we know it today. His brewers had a lever that was pulled during the brewing process; this is where the term “pulling a shot” comes from.

To make the perfect espresso, you must remember the correct combination of bar pressure, water temperature, and grind size. When any of these variables are out of sync, you may end up with an over-extracted or under-extracted brew.

How To Pull An Espresso Shot

Step 1: Grind The Beans

As mentioned earlier, espresso is brewed with fine coffee grounds. The grinds are small because the water is only briefly in contact with them. Larger grounds would be under-extracted as the water wouldn’t be in contact with them long enough to draw out the flavors.

Most coffee shops will have an electric grinder. So, all your barista needs to do is attach the portafilter to the brewer, select whether they’re brewing a single or double shot, and let the grinder do the work.

For home espresso, it’s best to use a burr grinder. These grinders have different settings, so you can prepare the correct grinds for different brewing methods, whether you want to make Moka pot coffee or espresso.

Step 2: Tamp

Before tamping the coffee grounds, lightly shake the portafilter to help it distribute evenly. You can also shift them with a spoon to spread the coffee grounds until the surface is flat.

Then, it’s time to tamp. A tamp is a flat tool that fits perfectly into the portafilter to press the coffee into a compact puck. This ensures the grounds are extracted evenly.

Most baristas tamp twice. First, they lightly press down on the grounds, while the second tamping is much firmer. During the second tamp, you can rotate the tamp while pressing down to ensure an even puck is formed.

If you don’t have a tamp, you can use a pestle, but this is tricker as the surface is rounded. A common household alternative is a beer bottle, as it’s small enough to fit in the portafilter and is flat.

Step 3: Inspect The Machine

Before brewing, purge the espresso machine. To do this, push the button that releases the water and allow a small amount to run. This will eliminate any brewed grounds that may have stuck to the machine.

Step 4: Attach The Portafilter To The Brewer

Once you know the machine is good to go, attach the portafilter. This is a delicate step; hitting the portafilter on the machine can shake the grounds, and you will need to re-tamp.

To attach it to the group head, hold the handle to the left side and turn it right until it clicks into place.

Step 5: Brew & Serve

Once your portafilter is attached, press the brew button right away. Place a cup under the spout to catch the espresso.

Step 6: Purge

You can purge the machine right after brewing before starting the process again.

The Science Behind Espresso Shots

Espresso is a precise art; the correct grind size, water temperature, and bars of pressure are all required to pull the perfect shot. The ideal water temperature for espresso is between 195-205°F. Boiling water will burn the coffee and leave it tasting bitter and smoky, while cooler water brews sour espresso.

As for pressure, the ideal amount of pressure is nine bars – meaning nine times the pressure at sea level. You will see brewers advertised as able to brew between seven to 11 bars of pressure, with others going up to 15 or higher.

It’s not advised to go beneath seven bars of pressure when brewing espresso. Seven bars will still get you that delicious layer of crema and a decently extracted shot, but to get the full robust flavor, it’s best to stick to nine bars.

The pressure also influences how long the brewing process takes; the lower the pressure, the slower the brewing time is. The ideal brewing time for espresso is 25 to 30 seconds.

While you might be impressed to see an espresso machine advertised as having 18 bars of pressure, it doesn’t mean this will make great espresso. It’s likely the espresso will be burnt and over-extracted. Many machines also have a built-in valve that keeps the brewer from using more than nine bars.

Many baristas like to experiment with pressure, grind size, and water temperature, but for that classic espresso profile, it’s best to stick to the tried and true method.

The roast is also vital in creating a perfect espresso. You might see coffee beans in the grocery store labeled as espresso beans, but these are simply medium or dark-roasted coffee.

You can use light roast for espresso, but it often ends up flat and sour. Darker roasts are more soluble, making it easier to extract the flavors from the grounds to create the beautiful espresso experience we know and love.

Generally, an espresso shot contains 63 milligrams of caffeine. This amount can vary, depending on the coffee used and the brewing time, as a slower brewing process extracts more caffeine.

You might have heard people say lighter roasted coffee is more caffeinated than dark roast, but this is an oversimplification. Both beans will contain more or less the same amount of caffeine, but because the light and medium roasts are denser, there is more mass and, therefore, more caffeine if you’re using a scoop to measure your coffee. If you use a weighing scale to measure your coffee, the caffeine level will be the same as you end up using the same amount of coffee to brew each roast.

Varieties Of Espresso Shots

As mentioned earlier, a double espresso shot is called a doppio shot. However, there is much more to the espresso world than double and single shots.

A ristretto is a short shot. The name comes from the Italian word for restricted.

It uses the same amount of coffee as a standard espresso shot but only half the water. It is brewed with grinds even finer than those used for regular espresso, and the process is quicker.

Most espresso machines can be programmed to brew ristretto, but you use a short-pull technique if you have one with a lever. The result is a strong but sweet shot of coffee with little bitterness. It has slightly less caffeine than a regular espresso shot due to the shorter brewing time.

A lungo shot is a long espresso shot. It is also brewed using the same amount of coffee as a standard espresso shot but with double the amount of water. Of all the kinds of espresso, it is the most bitter-tasting and caffeinated since it takes the longest to brew.

You can enjoy all kinds of espresso as they are. For example, ristretto is traditionally enjoyed in a small cup called a demitasse. In particular, the larger serving size makes Lungo coffee great to sip on.

Types Of Coffee Made From Espresso

The following are popular espresso drinks:

  • Americano
  • Latte
  • Cappuccino
  • Flat white
  • Mocha
  • Cortado
  • Macchiato

Most of these drinks are created with double espresso shots, but some coffee lovers will swap in ristretto or lungo coffee to alter the flavor profile. For example, since the ristretto is less astringent, replacing a single espresso shot with a double ristretto in a flat white will make for an even smoother drinking experience.

An Americano is simply espresso topped with hot water; the other drinks are made using different ratios of frothed milk to coffee and other ingredients. A caffé latte is one part espresso to three parts milk, with light foam on the top, while a cappuccino has a 1:1:1 ratio for espresso, steamed milk, and froth.

Tips And Tricks For Enjoying Espresso Shots

Glamour shot of a Ristretto coffee
New espresso drinkers can ease themselves by starting with sweeter ristretto shots

To make the most of your espresso, cleanse your palate before drinking. You can do this by drinking some sparkling water before your coffee.

Once you have your coffee, stir the espresso and allow yourself to savor the aroma. When drinking your espresso, allow it to sit on your tongue for a moment before swallowing.

While it’s a small drink, espresso is intended to be savored. Although espresso typically contains both bitterness and tartness, you should be left with a semi-sweet aftertaste on your tongue.

If you like to have a treat with your espresso, bread and baked goods are a classic option. Chocolate and coffee are also a match made in heaven as the sweetness counteracts the sharp espresso.

For something lighter, fruit pairs well with coffee. Bananas can cancel the bitterness of the coffee, while berries and stone fruit have a tangy flavor that helps to invigorate the senses when enjoyed with espresso. Learn more in our guide on snacks that go with coffee.

Coffee is an acquired taste; new coffee drinkers tend to struggle with espresso’s bitterness. Those new to espresso can ease themselves into it by starting with sweeter ristretto shots. After getting accustomed to the taste, they can try a medium-roast espresso before moving on to the bolder, dark-roast espresso.


Espresso is often described as coffee in its purest form; it’s a no-nonsense drink that captures the essence of coffee without additional ingredients. It’s incredibly versatile as it can be enjoyed alone or as the base for some of the most popular coffee drinks. Plus, if you’re sick of standard espresso coffee, you can always opt for ristretto or lungo coffee.

If you have a coffee maker, you can experiment in your kitchen and create your perfect cup of coffee. It can also save you money by whipping up café-quality creations from the comfort of your own kitchen.

Let us know if you have ever brewed espresso at home or if there’s anything else you’d like to learn about this type of coffee. If you liked this post, you might also be interested in our round-up of the types of espresso drinks.


  • Aisling O'Connor

    Aisling is an Irish food and drinks writer and journalist fueled by coffee and herbal tea. She followed up her journalism degree with nutrition studies. Find Aisling on LinkedIn.