What's the Difference Between Ristretto and Espresso?

What's the Difference Between Ristretto and Espresso?

Sean Gregory
4 minute read

Before we get into what makes ristretto different from espresso, let’s make sure we have a solid understanding of exactly what constitutes “espresso.”

What is Espresso?

Espresso is made in a specialized machine that pushes hot water through coffee grinds. Compared to standard coffee brewing, the ground coffee in an espresso machine is measured extra carefully.

The amount of water and the amount of pressure the machine uses during the extraction are also extremely important to the quality of the shot (hence the gauges).

What is Ristretto?

Making ristretto actually begins the same way that making espresso does. The main difference between ristretto and espresso is the amount of water used during the brewing. Ristretto uses as little as half the amount of water that normal espresso uses.

How does this affect the final shot? The coffee fanatics who go out of their way to pull ristretto shots (or pester the baristas to do it when they go to a busy coffee shop, making the simplest part of their job just a little more complicated) appreciate the sweeter flavor ristretto shots have compared to the more bitter coffee flavor of espresso shots.

On top of the sweetness, ristretto usually tastes noticeably stronger—with an even more “intense” taste than straight espresso.

Other people can’t tell the difference at all.

Since everyone’s tastes (and tasting abilities) are unique, you may either fall in love with ristretto—or think it’s a waste of time.

People who can tell the difference can sometimes order ristretto in their “espresso drinks” rather than adding extra shots, if they’re after the stronger coffee taste more than the caffeine.

One other thing that differentiates the two is that ristretto is almost always served/ordered as at least a double shot because of how small the individual shots are compared to espresso.

How To Make Ristretto

If you already have an espresso machine at home, I have great news! Ristretto shots can be made in any espresso machine—there’s no specific “ristretto brewing” feature required.

First of all, you’ll want to start with the highest-quality coffee beans you can find.

(Yes, that should always be the first step when brewing every coffee, but here it applies even more. The characteristics of your roast can add attributes you can taste in the final shot.)

Grind the coffee beans to a fine consistency. Follow the usual directions for brewing espresso with your machine with the exception of using between ½ to ¾ the amount of water you would normally use. Also, only force the water through the coffee for about 15 seconds. If all goes well, you should end up with a very strong, slightly sweet tasting shot.

If at first you don’t succeed, don’t give up. It can take some practice to get the timing and ratios down right.

Once you can consistently pull a nice ristretto shot, you might want to try altering some of the variables during the extraction to alter the taste and texture to your liking.

Why not try a blind taste test with an espresso shot and a ristretto shot side by side to see which one you prefer—or if your taste buds can tell the difference between the two?

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