What Is a Shot in a Coffee?

espresso shot on the counter of a cafe
Here’s a shot of espresso.

QUESTION: What is a shot in a coffee? Sometimes at my coffee shop I hear someone order coffee with a shot and I don’t know what that actually means, but I’m embarrassed to ask the person at the register. – Henrietta L

ANSWER: If you’ve heard people talk about adding shots to their coffee, you may be wondering what exactly this means. In this case, people aren’t talking about adding an alcoholic shot to their cup of joe. 

Most of the time, the word “shot” refers to a serving of espresso that may be blended with other ingredients to make a coffee drink. A shot of espresso can also be served on its own.

Single Shots Versus Double Shots

Some coffee drinks are made with a single shot of espresso, while others call for a double shot. It is possible to order custom drinks with more than two shots of espresso in them. The more espresso a drink contains, the higher its caffeine content will be. Adding shots of espresso also infuses the drink with more rich coffee flavor.

A single shot of espresso consists of seven to nine grams of coffee plus water, resulting in one and an eighth ounce of espresso with crema. (If you aren’t aware, “crema” isn’t cream but instead is a bubbly substance that is the mark of a properly pulled espresso shot.)

A double shot of espresso consists of 14 to 16 grams of coffee plus water, resulting in two and a quarter ounces of espresso with crema. When you order a shot of espresso at a coffee shop, this is normally what you will get. You may hear double shots referred to as “doppio,” which is Italian for “double.”

How Are Espresso Shots Made?

Unlike brewing drip coffee, making espresso requires an espresso machine. You cannot make espresso in a regular drip coffee maker, a French press, a pour over setup, or any of the preparation methods you’d use to make coffee. In short, espresso is made by using an espresso machine to force hot water through finely ground coffee beans. 

The grind size used for espresso is finer than what you’d use to make regular coffee, regardless of how you’re making it (with the exception of Turkish coffee, which requires grounds with the texture of powdered sugar). For espresso drinks, grind your coffee beans finely so that the texture resembles granulated sugar. Certain coffee roasts or blends may require a slightly different grind size than the standard, so if your coffee comes with instructions that specify a different grind size than fine, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

If you aren’t happy with the espresso you make using finely ground beans, you can adjust the grind to correct the problem. Too fine a grind can result in over extracted coffee, which may taste bitter, burned, or too strong. If your coffee tastes like this, try grinding the beans a little less finely next time. 

Too coarse a grind can result in the opposite problem: under extraction. Under extracted coffee may taste weak and watery or dull and flat with a sour flavor. If your coffee tastes like this, try grinding your beans more finely next time.

You should always start by grinding fresh whole coffee beans. Coffee begins to lose its flavorful oils to the air as soon as it is ground, so for the freshest possible coffee, wait to grind the beans until right before you are about to use them. This is the number one thing you can do to improve the taste of your coffee if you haven’t been grinding your beans fresh for each serving.

Once your beans are ground to your liking, pack the grounds into the machine’s portafilter, leaving a little extra on the top. (There should be a small mound of coffee grounds rising past the edge of the portafilter.) 

Tamp the grounds down by pressing them firmly and evenly until the coffee has been compressed into the portafilter. Your elbow should be at a 90-degree angle perpendicular to the ground when you are tamping your espresso. Most people spread a dish towel on the counter when they are tamping so they have something to press into. Tamping the grounds down evenly is vital if you want to get a good espresso shot. 

If you really want to get the perfect tamp, use a weight scale, like the kind used to check your body weight, and tamp on top of it, attempting to apply between 25 to 30 pounds of pressure for the optimal tamp. Once you know the way it feels to tamp 25 to 30 pounds of pressure, the weight scale can be removed. 

Now it’s time to pull your espresso shot. Add the portafilter to your espresso machine’s brew head, and position your cup underneath the portafilter to catch the brewing espresso. 

Use a timer while you are pulling the shot, pressing the button that will start the espresso brewing and the button on your timer at the same time (unless your machine has a timer included). A good shot takes between 25 and 30 seconds to pull. 

Troubleshooting Espresso Shots

  • As we’ve discussed, one way to adjust the flavor of your espresso is by changing the grind size of your coffee beans. The standard is a texture similar to granulated sugar. If your coffee is over extracted (burned, bitter, or too strong flavor), try grinding the beans a little more coarsely. If the coffee is under extracted (weak, watery, or dull and flat with a sour taste), try grinding the beans a little more finely.
  • Another way to correct espresso that tastes too weak or watery is by using a little bit more coffee grounds when making your espresso.
  • If it takes longer than 30 seconds to pull your espresso shot, use fewer coffee grounds when you pack the portafilter.

The ideal espresso shot takes between 25 and 30 seconds to pull. If you’ve done everything carefully and accurately throughout the process (grinding the beans, packing the portafilter, tamping the coffee down, and pulling the shot), your result will be a brew that starts out dark and gradually turns a golden honey color, complete with a foamy crema that moves into the cup without breaking.

After reading this article, you know exactly what people are referring to when they ask for an extra shot in their coffee or talk about pulling a shot of espresso. You also learned the difference between single and double shots. (And remember, the standard when you order espresso is a double shot, unless specified otherwise.) You’ve even learned how to make and troubleshoot your own espresso shots. Now you’re ready to order or create your own espresso beverages with confidence.

Learn More About Espresso Shots in Coffee








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