Espresso… sweet, tempestuous mistress of the mouth — how I adore thee.
There’s no drink nor culinary fancy that arouses my senses quite like a well-crafted pull of dark, full-bodied, heavenly espresso. When executed with care, the espresso shot is a brief and beautiful, glorious yet fleeting experience that encapsulates the vast nuances of coffee in a single, intense moment.
Enjoyed perfectly alone, it is equally comfortable working in collaboration with milk to create elegant drinks that have endured for generations the world over.
But espresso can be incredibly allusive, and temperamental to work with in even the most well-intentioned hands. Great espresso — and hence, great espresso drinks — requires careful attention to detail in all aspects of its preparation. The talented and lovely staff at DC’s Peregrine Espresso understand this, and execute as well as anyone the classics of espresso beverages. For that reason, I paid a visit to the 14th Street NW cafe to indulge in a few staples of espresso-based drinks.
You may already be familiar with the following beverages. Indeed, they are classics. But, by taking a closer look you may find cause to expand your horizons, or at least elevate your consumer knowledge of these fine drinks. We’ll start with the espresso itself, demystify drinks like the macchiato, and cover favorites like the cappuccino and latte.
Simply put, espresso is finely ground coffee that is brewed with a small amount of water that passes through at a very high pressure for a brief time. A typical “double-shot” of espresso takes only 20 to 25 seconds to produce 1.5 to 2 ounces. It is the foundation of espresso drink preparation, and skilled baristas don’t overlook its importance to the overall character, even when infused with steamed milk.
Extraction is a term used by coffee professionals to describe the amount of dissolved solubles in coffee. Its specifics can get rather technical and jargony but, in plain terms, extraction is the difference between a good shot and a bad one.
An under-extracted espresso can be excessively acidic or sour, while an over-extracted shot can taste unpleasantly bitter. Somewhere in the middle is the figurative and literal sweet spot, which speaks to well-extracted espresso that brings out sweetness, thick body and an array of yummy flavors, from smoky to fruity to spicey and beyond.
In Italian, macchiato translates into “spotted.” It also tells us a bit about how this oft-misinterpreted drink should appear. The espresso macchiato is an espresso shot marked, or spotted, by a small amount of steam-textured milk. And although some corporate coffee purveyors find it appropriate to market this drink in a 16-ounce up, e’hem, a true macchiato is roughly one-to-one espresso and milk. In the example below, the macchiato is marked with a heart design.
Interestingly, this legendary espresso beverage is thought to be named for its resemblance in color to the robes used by the Capuchin friars. The cappuccino is heralded in much of the espresso-consuming world for its balance of steamed milk and espresso. In all, the drink measures 6 ounces, which leaves room for velvety steamed milk, while not masking the exquisite flavors found in the espresso itself.
While the cappuccino is the quintessential espresso and milk drink worldwide, Americans traditionally prefer the cafe latte, or latte for short. This drink is prepared with a larger volume of steamed milk than the cappuccino, and the resulting drink typically measures 12 ounces. When the milk is perfectly textured, the skilled barista has ample room to create rosettes, hearts, tulips and other designs. In the photo below you can spot a double rosetta in the latte.
(A quick note on terminology — while the latte is a beloved espresso beverage in America, requesting a “latte” in Italy will get you a glass of milk! Take care when traveling abroad.)
Though cow’s milk is true-to-form for espresso drinks, these classic beverages can also be prepared with soy milk, and, in some cases, almond milk. Or you can opt for non-milk alternatives, like an Americano, a shot of espresso poured over hot water. If you can, explore them all! You can find skillfully crafted beverages such as these throughout Borderstan, including at Peregrine Espresso at 1718 14th Street NW.