One term you may have heard loosely tossed around the coffee scene is a ristretto. It is the sort of thing that a hipster walking into a coffee bar with a carefully groomed beard might say; “one ristretto please.”
Now despite the pros or cons of the given hipster, it is at least an interesting order. What is a ristretto? Is it different from a standard espresso drink? Does it taste different? Why would our hipster order such a thing?
Read on to find out.
What is an Espresso?
Before we can progress to the elusive ristretto we must start with the humble espresso. Espresso literally means ‘pressed’ in Italian and refers to the unique brewing process in which the beans are not only ground but then pressed down or tamped.
Espresso can be defined loosely as something like ‘a 30-50ml shot of coffee produced by hot water being forced through compacted finely ground coffee beans at high pressure over a short period.’
The espresso is the OG, the classic coffee drink, and for good reason. When it is done well a good shot of espresso is delicious, balanced, complex, and just interesting. It is a short sharp intense hit of coffee. I have often thought that milky espresso drinks like latte’s are comforting while a straight espresso is more like a punch in the face that is somehow pleasurable.
Espresso can only really be made via an espresso machine (despite the plethora of articles on how to make espresso without an espresso machine!). The reason is that it requires very high pressure to force the hot water through the compacted, finely ground coffee in a short time.
Espresso is also in itself an art form. Doing it well requires skill and precision as well as a sensitivity to the specific beans being used. See our guide on how to make espresso for more tips and tricks.
What is a Ristretto?
So a ristretto espresso is fundamentally a variation on the espresso shot. Ristretto translates ‘restricted’ from Italian and is essentially a restricted espresso shot. It is made via the same process as espresso and uses the same amount of coffee beans but less water to make a smaller and stronger shot. So while espresso shots are around 30-40ml, ristretto shots are typically a lot smaller at around 15-25ml. Ristretto shots are usually made with a 1:1 to 1:1.5 ratio of coffee to water.
However, this doesn’t only create a smaller shot but a shot that has its own unique flavor profile. The reason for this is that different compounds and flavors are extracted from the coffee beans at different stages in the extraction process. Broadly speaking first are fruity and acidic flavors (think fruity, floral, bright), then sweet notes (think nuts, caramel, chocolate), and finally bitterness (ash, malt, tobacco). It is the mixture of these diverse notes that produces the complexity and balance in espresso. However, the ristretto shot cuts off before the more bitter notes are extracted at all. As such it produces a shot that is more concentrated, sweeter, and certainly unique in its own right.
There are various methods as to how to make a ristretto. Probably the most common is to use a finer grind size and have a shorter extraction time (15-20 seconds as opposed to 25-30 seconds for an espresso). So you grind 18 grams of coffee beans slightly finer than you normally would. You then WDT and tamp as per normal. But you only allow the shot to run for say 20 seconds before stopping the shot. The resulting shot is smaller than a typical espresso but still has a good layer of crema and a deep espresso color.
While the ristretto or double espresso can be the base for a milky coffee drink, it is more typically drunk black to appreciate its unique flavor profile. If you desire to add milk it is better to add less and do one of the smaller milky drinks such as a cortado or macchiato.
What is a Lungo?
While this is an article on ristretto vs espresso, it would be incomplete without at least a mention of the Lungo. Just as ristretto means restricted, so lungo means ‘long.’ The Lungo is basically the opposite of the ristretto. A Lungo is an espresso shot with more water (50-70ml).
Broadly speaking we could say that a ristretto is 1:1-1:1.5 coffee to water ratio, an espresso is 1:1.5-1:3, and a lungo is 1:3-1:6.
In terms of taste, the lungo tends to be watery with a lack of mouthfeel and body. To be honest most coffee made this way tastes average to terrible. It just lacks that syrupy texture and depth of flavor that characterize the ristretto and espresso.
Ristretto vs Espresso: The Takeaway
So in the perennial espresso vs ristretto debate, there is not necessarily a winner. They are just different. A ristretto is shorter, simpler, stronger, and sweeter (great alliteration if I may say so myself). An espresso is longer, more complex, not quite as syrupy, but more balanced.
It largely comes down to personal preference. Certainly, the ristretto is well worth a try if you have never tasted it. It is easy enough to make at home with an espresso machine, or else you could order one at a cafe (I would only try this at specialty coffee shops personally).
But both are delicious options either black or with milk, and both showcase the unique notes in any given beans.