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The Ristretto: The Lame Duck of Coffee

At Espresso Profeta, all shots are ristrettos.
At Espresso Profeta, all shots are ristrettos.
T. Nguyen

There was possibly a time, a decade or two ago, when walking into a café and ordering a ristretto instead of an espresso meant something. A bold, strong, tasty version of espresso, maybe. Whatever it meant, it appeared to mean the same thing to the barista and the customer. That time has passed.

Now, the ristretto is "one of the most fiercely debated concepts in coffee and one with no definitive definition," Portola Coffee Lab owner Jeff Duggan says. "There's no automatic translation across the board about what it is," says Coffee Commissary's Tyler King. "People are all over the map about what it is, or is not," Handsome Coffee Roaster co-founder Michael Phillips says.

Let's step back to the basics: the espresso. A shot of espresso is extracted by compacting finely ground coffee into a portafilter and pushing highly pressurized water through that coffee for 20 to 30 seconds. Ideally, the cup will represent the coffee's essence and flavors without any of its overwhelming bitterness.

For David Schomer, however, this was not enough. The influential founder of Seattle's Espresso Vivace heralded the Italian "ristretto" -- "restricted" in English -- in his cafes, writing, "The coffee is restricted to the most flavorful part of the shot. This tradition offers the heaviest shot, thickest texture and finest flavor that the coffee has to offer by keeping extraction volume low." For him, this is the "ultimate coffee extract" that is "as thick as thick as honey and can be enjoyed in a single bracing mouthful."

Though there is some debate about what, exactly, is restricted, most baristas will restrict the flow of water by either increasing the amount of the coffee to be extracted or by grinding the coffee very finely. Overall, less water is pushed through the coffee in the same amount of time as a regular espresso, resulting in a very concentrated liquid that is roughly half the liquid volume of an espresso.

"If done well," Portola's Jeff Duggan says, "The flavor is more intense, sweeter, less bitter since bitter components are introduced at the end of the shot.  The body of the shot is far greater.  Overall, you end up with a much more pleasant and flavorful beverage." In addition to Portola, Espresso Profeta (which brews Vivace beans), Caffe Luxxe, LAMILL, Zona Rosa Cafe, and The Pie Hole all pull ristrettos.

Portola Coffee Lab pulls ristretto shots exclusively.
Portola Coffee Lab pulls ristretto shots exclusively.
T. Nguyen

Sounds good, right? Sort of. Blame Schomer's influence or the erroneous generalization of a very cafe-specific technique, but "people at some point where told by someone that ristrettos are better than regular espressos," Phillips says. "That's too bad."

Part of the problem is that the technique is far from standardized. How much coffee, how fine the grind, and when the shot should be stopped are all shifting variables. Several specialty coffee shops, for example, use a generous amount of coffee relative to water to extract their shots, but while some would characterize those as ristrettos, others would not. So, unless everyone is on the same page in the dictionary, a request for a ristretto would likely confuse, not clarify, one's coffee order.

 

At Intelligentsia Venice, Educator Charles Babinski's aversion to the ristretto isn't just semantics. The problem, he says, lies in the perceived universality of the drink. "It's not for every coffee. The ristretto too often emphasizes body over flavors. Everything about the shot is condensed, and there's always a chance that the shot will be underextracted and sour." He sketches his point:

"If your tasting notes for an espresso is, for example:

CHOCOLATE     LEMONGRASS     CHERRY

then a ristretto will look like:

CHOCOLATELEMONGRASSCHERRY."

To further illustrate, we had a normal espresso and another specifically pulled à la ristretto. The difference was distinct. As an espresso, it was lovely and easily drinkable. The second cup, however, was a thick, inky glaze. We couldn't finish it.

This is not to say that all ristrettos are terrible -- far from it. Portola's ristretto, in fact, was easily one of the best cups of coffee we've had all year. However, it was great not because it was a ristretto, but because it happened to taste its best pulled that way. As Amnaj Bholsangngam at Chimney Brick Toast Coffee House says, "Not all coffees can stand up to the ristretto."

Which brings us to the ristretto as a symbol. No, not of better espresso, but of the marked asymmetry of understanding between the professionals who dismiss it as an empty descriptor, and a public that too often blindly orders the drink. Coffee professional Tony Konecny would like to see the word dropped from the vernacular entirely, lest it continue to amplify the white noise of coffee jargon: "It's just not useful in conversation."

If it must persist, Phillips would like to the shot to be an especially strong, pure shot of coffee that avoids the problems Babinksi illustrates. With better machines and better baristas, Phillips says, "We theoretically should be able to push the strength of the coffee up while keeping the quality the same. But no one, as far as I know, has done this yet."

Until then, the ristretto seems to be the lame duck of coffee drinks: in an exalted position with a power that exists in theory but maybe not so much in reality. And its term may be coming to an end. If the drink tastes great, as almost everyone we spoke to said, Who cares what it's called?

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