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If you order “black coffee” in most Western European coffee shops or cafés – unless you’re in Scandinavia or the Netherlands – you’ll probably get a blank stare in return.
From Great Britain and France in the north, to Portugal and Italy in the south, the coffee of choice is espresso. Sure, it might be mixed with milk to make a cappuccino, latte or café au lait (or a cortado in Spain). It might be mixed with hot water to make a caffe Americano. But until you go further east and reach Germany, Greece or Turkey, you won’t find many cafés or restaurants serving drip coffee.
Brewed coffee is served throughout America, of course. But there are two big reasons that Americans drink espresso.
For some, it’s more – to put it honestly – European. They see it as continental, cultured and sophisticated, and they believe it makes a statement about them. They don’t drink coffee…they drink espresso.
That’s the last thing on the mind of most espresso drinkers. They drink it for the intense flavor and aroma, not to mention the caffeine punch it packs. It’s also the perfect base for the coffee drinks that Starbucks popularized in America and are now consumed around the world.
And if you think that only snobs drink espresso, or if you think that paying a lot of money for a tiny cup of coffee is foolish – you’ve probably never tried this amazing brew.
Let’s stimulate your taste buds.
This traditionally-European beverage is quickly becoming almost as American as it is European.
The first rudimentary espresso coffee maker was patented in Italy nearly 150 years ago. It was called “steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage” and it wasn’t like the espresso machines we’re familiar with today. It made the brew in bulk rather than in single servings.
It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that Luigi Bezzerra and then Desiderio Pavoni vastly improved the original machine so it would produce much better espresso, added a steam wand, and showed it at the 1906 Milan Fair. This new type of coffee was a huge hit, and elaborate espresso machines began popping up in coffee shops all over Italy.
There was a big issue, though: despite continuing technological improvements, there wasn’t enough pressure in those early machines to create the high-quality espresso we now know. It was only after World War II that Achille Gaggia designed an espresso maker that used a spring-piston lever to create 4-5 times the pressure that Pavoni-style machines could generate. The new, high pressure models could only hold an ounce of water – and the concept of an “espresso shot” was born.
Gagglia’s espresso maker produced a superior, intense coffee with something that had never been seen before: the crema that floated on top. Later innovations included the use of motorized pumps to generate pressure and heat exchanges to maintain the proper brewing temperature.
Italian espresso became more popular than ever during the 1940s and 50s. Thanks largely to the “creation” of the cappuccino, it was soon served throughout Western Europe. And it came to America by way of Seattle a few years later, where cappuccinos gave way to lattes – and eventually led to the creation of the voluminous Starbucks menu.
How popular is espresso coffee in America these days? The National Coffee Association reports that consumption of espresso, cappuccinos, lattes and flat whites has increased by 50% in just the last five years, while consumption of “traditional coffee” has dropped by 10%.
An even better way to judge espresso’s popularity may be the fact that Starbucks – which primarily serves espresso and espresso drinks – dominates the American market with a 40% market share.
That leads to an important question.
In truth, espresso is coffee. It’s made from the same coffee beans harvested from the same coffee plants, and it’s roasted the same way. Espresso is simply more concentrated.
Three things differentiate espresso from “regular” brewed coffee: the grind of the beans, the way that the grounds and water are used to create the final product, and the crema that winds up on top of a properly-pulled espresso shot.
Let’s take them one at a time.
The ground coffee used to make espresso must be fine and consistent, somewhat like fine beach sand. The coarser grinds used for drip coffee machines and percolators aren’t suitable for espresso; water will just pour quickly through the portafilter that holds the grounds without extracting much of the good stuff.
On the other hand, a powdery grind that’s too fine will clump up and block the portafilter. A so-called “burr” grinder is the best choice; on most home coffee grinders, the setting will be somewhere between numbers 3 and 8.
When espresso is made, the machine forces pressurized hot water through the coffee grounds. That’s a different brewing method than one used in a regular drip coffee maker which, obviously, lets the water drip through the grounds. Water pressure is measured in “bars,” a measurement related to the way that barometric pressure is measured; the ideal pressure for making espresso is approximately nine bars.
Also important: the way the grounds are packed, or “tamped,” into the portafilter. The goal is to create some resistance for the water, so it has to “work” to get through the grounds and into the cup. The proper tamping technique isn’t difficult; it simply requires a tamper and some elbow grease. However, some trial and error will be necessary before you can create the perfect “puck” of espresso grounds.
After you pull a perfect espresso shot, a light brown foam will magically appear on top. You don’t have to do anything special to create the crema; it’s formed when you do everything right. The crema is a mixture of coffee oils and air bubbles created by water pressure, and it adds richness to the flavor of a good espresso.
Simple answer: because it is.
OK, that was also the smart a** answer. Here’s the more detailed one.
Espresso has essentially the same flavor as black coffee, since any brew will take on the flavor profile of the roasted beans it’s produced from. Espresso, however, is richer than coffee, because the flavor is concentrated by the extreme pressure that forces hot water through the grounds. It’s also creamier than coffee, largely because of the delicious crema floating on top.
Those who choose espresso over black coffee often do so for a different reason: the caffeine. Espresso contains 64 milligrams of caffeine per ounce, while black coffee contains only about 12 mg per ounce.
There’s an important distinction to make, though. An eight-ounce cup of black coffee contains more caffeine (around 100mg) than an espresso shot (64mg). You’ll actually be consuming more caffeine if you drink the entire cup of brewed coffee.
People don’t crunch numbers when they want to wake up quickly or need a fast jolt of energy, of course. Many who choose espresso do so because they can down a shot of espresso and get an immediate energy boost. That’s easier than gulping down two-thirds of an entire cup of coffee to get the same effect.
On the other hand, relaxing with a full cup of coffee for a few minutes – or longer – can be a more enjoyable way to get a caffeine fix.
Needless to say, caffeine isn’t the primary reason that people crowd European cafés and coffee shops. It’s also not the reason why so many coffee drinkers hang out at Starbucks and linger over their espressos, cappuccinos, lattes or mochas.
They do it because espresso is flavorful, powerful and delicious – and because it combines so well with the other ingredients that go into a yummy coffee drink.
Only an accomplished barista could tell you all of the different ways that espresso is used to make coffee drinks, but here’s a brief summary.
There are many more alternatives, and we haven’t even discussed all of the different syrups and flavorings that baristas add to make more exotic espresso coffee drinks.
Then again, who needs a barista? You can make great espresso at home, too.
The best way to start is with a dedicated home espresso machine, because it will simplify the process and turn out the best shot of espresso. If you don’t have one (or don’t want to buy one), don’t worry. We’ll get to alternatives shortly.
But remember: great coffee brewing is art. Give yourself time to perfect it.
Whether you’re making espresso or a regular brew, the highest-quality coffee beans or ground coffee will produce the best coffee. (Lavazza Oro, Lavazza Espresso Italiano, and Illy are good choices if you’re buying packaged grounds.) If you’re buying whole bean coffee from local roasters, the fresher, the better.
You’ll get the finest coffee from Arabica beans, but using robusta beans will create an “Italian espresso” that’s more powerful, has more caffeine and has a thicker crema. A dark roast is usually preferable, but medium roast will work as well. An “espresso roast” is roasted a bit hotter and longer; it’s slightly better than a dark roast, but not by much. You can also use dark roast decaf beans, if you prefer.
Select a fine grind for espresso. If you’re using your own coffee grinder, check the instructions or manual for the proper setting. You’ll need 6-8 grams of ground coffee for a single shot, 13-16 for a doppio.
Tamp the coffee grounds into the machine’s portafilter. As we’ve mentioned, it may take some practice to get the right consistency in your puck.
Briefly run the machine to clear the head, then insert the portafilter and pull your shot. It should take about 25-30 seconds. Machines with pre-programmed settings make the process easier.
If you want to go full-barista and add steamed milk, the wand on an espresso machine is the best option, but the less-expensive milk frothers sold on Amazon work almost as well.
These alternate methods won’t make a shot that’s quite as good as a properly-pulled espresso. But they can come quite close.
Since espresso is really “just” delicious and strong coffee, it provides the same health benefits as brewed coffee.
Espresso contains a number of antioxidants and essential nutrients like vitamin B2, potassium and magnesium; it helps with heart health, brain function and weight loss (and may ease headaches); it’s been shown to help prevent type 2 diabetes, cirrhosis, and cancer.
And studies even show that drinking coffee is linked to a longer life span.
What better reason could there be to buy that espresso machine you’ve had your eye on?
Published: August 17, 2021
Last Updated: October 7, 2021
10 min read
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