If you’re an espresso fan, you’ve probably noticed that espresso usually comes in small cups of between two and four ounces (58 and 118 ml) rather than larger cup sizes. Naturally, you may have wondered why this is the case.
Espresso cups are so small primarily because the beverage is very concentrated in comparison to brewed coffee. The cup’s size preserves the espresso’s flavor and discourages you from taking big gulps, as espresso is meant to be sipped.
Today we’ll talk about why espresso cups are so small and how their size makes a difference in the flavor and composition of this caffeinated delight. Let’s start with reason number one.
1. Espresso is More Concentrated Than Regular Coffee
The main reason why espresso gets served in smaller cups is that it’s significantly more concentrated than brewed coffee. One espresso shot, which measures at around 1.5 ounces (44 ml), contains 64 milligrams of caffeine. On the other hand, an eight-ounce (236 ml) cup of brewed coffee contains 96 milligrams.
At first glance, these numbers may make it appear that brewed coffee has more caffeine, but you have to keep in mind that the coffee is spread out over eight ounces, whereas the espresso has 64 milligrams packed into less than two ounces.
Can you imagine drinking eight ounces of espresso? Well, a few people out there have, but at this point, the espresso stops being a treat and becomes dangerous. Too much caffeine does all kinds of terrible things for your body.
If you’re wondering what can happen with too much caffeine, here’s a quick rundown. You may become less alert. Since coffee is supposed to wake you up, that’s not a good sign.
You may also experience agitation, confusion, and hallucinations. Sometimes we forget that caffeine is a form of a drug in a lot of ways, and while it’s enormously popular, it does hold some danger when consumed in too high of quantities.
Too much caffeine can even lead to breathing problems. However, I will note that caffeine overdose is rare, but maybe it’s rare because we have small espresso cups. Who knows?
The point is that espresso is extremely concentrated and needs to be served in smaller portions.
2. Larger Cups Will Cause the Crema To Dissolve
Let’s talk about crema. If you aren’t sure what the crema is, you probably don’t drink straight espresso very often.
The crema sits on top of the espresso. It’s the last part of a shot and, as the name suggests, is extra creamy and flavorful. In fact, the crema is what holds almost all of the aroma and flavor of the espresso. It’s also responsible for the lingering aftertaste that espresso leaves in your mouth.
The crema gets formed when the air bubbles at the end of the espresso shot combine with the ground coffee’s soluble oils. It’s actually a very similar effect to what happens with certain beers.
Normally, the crema indicates that espresso is high quality and has been brewed correctly.
The crema cannot spread out and dissolve when espresso gets poured into a smaller cup. Instead, it sits beautifully on the top of the espresso shot, waiting to lend its powerful flavor to your taste buds with each delicious sip.
On the other hand, when espresso is poured into a larger cup, the crema immediately spreads and intermixes with the rest of the espresso shot. Hypothetically, you’re still only having a shot or two, not eight ounces worth like we previously discussed.
Okay, moving on. So, you, unfortunately, lose flavor when the crema dissolves into the rest of the espresso shot. If you’re wondering why the flavor of the crema wouldn’t just intermix with the rest of the shot, the answer is that it would intermix. The problem is that the crema is most packed with flavor when it’s concentrated.
Once it dissolves, the flavor just kind of dissipates into the rest of the drink. Of course, crema only sits on the espresso shot for about ten or fifteen minutes anyway, and that’s with a really decent shot of espresso. Still, it’s better to get the most flavor possible, right?
3. Smaller Cups Limit Access To Air
Air ruins the flavor of coffee. It’s just a fact of life. This is the reason why when you leave your coffee beans in the open air for any length of time, the flavor gets completely ruined. More on that topic here.
The point is the longer something is exposed to air, the amount of air exposure matters. Smaller espresso cups keep the espresso contained, relatively cut off from the majority of air it has the potential to encounter.
This means a couple of different things.
One, your espresso remains at its optimal flavor. No one wants to drink espresso that has turned bitter from exposure to too much air.
Two, it helps the espresso to stay hot. Yes, I realize there are a ton of cold espresso-based drinks out there, and while they are delicious, straight espresso is meant to be enjoyed hot. Plus, it wouldn’t turn cold if exposed to too much air. It would turn to room temperature. Does anyone drink room temperature coffee?
4. The Preparation Process is Different
If you’ve watched an espresso shot poured, you know it’s a completely different process.
While regular ground coffee can be sent through any old machine and brewed, espresso is refined. It is pressed coffee. It is pressurized coffee.
So, what does this mean? The basics are that espresso and regular coffee both come from the same plant – the coffee plant. The difference lies in the way that the coffee beans are ground.
Regularly ground coffee grains are all different sizes. The grind is usually somewhere at a medium size. Smaller grain sizes tend to allow more flavor to be extracted. This is exactly why espresso grinds are ultra-fine.
Since the grind on espresso is so fine, that means that maximum flavor can be extracted. So, what about the preparation process?
Normal coffee is made by placing loose grounds in a filter and pushing hot water through it to extract the flavor and caffeine, thus resulting in delicious coffee. Espresso, on the other hand, is all about the pressure.
First of all, espresso is pressed. This means that the filter is packed completely with coffee grounds. That’s the reason why espresso contains more caffeine than regular brewed coffee.
Secondly, espresso is made with high pressure. When the water is pushed through the grounds, it goes through them at extremely high pressure. The pressure is necessary because the grounds are so tightly packed.
This preparation process ends in a drink inherently different from brewed coffee. Espresso is thicker and more flavorful. It also contains significantly less water than regular coffee. That said, it’s best if espresso is served in smaller cups. Otherwise, it would probably be really overwhelming.
If you use an espresso machine, remember to clean it properly. I’ve written a step-by-step guide to help you remove coffee grounds from your espresso machine. [How to Remove Coffee Grounds from an Espresso Machine]
5. Standard Serving Sizes Necessitate Smaller Cups
A ton of drinks are made with a base of espresso. Every latte, macchiato, and cappuccino you’ve ever drunk has had espresso as the base.
That said, how do baristas know how much espresso to use if there’s not a standard serving size used? Since espresso is poured in what is known as shots, the smaller cups make it much easier to tell how much is being used.
Let’s imagine that espresso cups weren’t smaller than others. If you ordered a latte, perhaps you’d get one shot of espresso in it, or perhaps you’d end up with five shots of espresso. When a barista usually refers back to a “shot of espresso” in their mind, they think about how an espresso cup looks.
This is also useful if you’re brewing espresso differently compared to the typical machine. For example, some machines will pour multiple shots at a time. The cup sizes allow you to gauge how much you’re getting rather than measuring with a measuring device. If you’ve filled up a standard-size espresso cup, you know that you have about two ounces of espresso.
6. Smaller Cups Encourage You To Sip Rather Than Gulp
To be honest, how often are you drinking your morning coffee in huge gulps rather than small sips?
Espresso originated in Italy and is designed to be drunk in small sips rather than gulps. Really, you probably should be drinking all coffee in this manner, but that doesn’t happen for any of us.
The reason that espresso should be drunk in sips rather than gulps is that it preserves the flavor of the espresso. Because espresso contains crema, which again is packed with tons of flavor, it almost needs to be sipped to enjoy its flavor.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you gulp your espresso. In that case, most likely, all of the crema has gone down at once, leaving you with a relatively flavorless drink. Siping on espresso is important because it allows you to get small tastes of the crema with each sip.
Unfortunately, with larger cups, people are prone to gulping or taking significantly larger drinks. Smaller espresso cups discourage this, allowing you to enjoy your beverage to the max.