The Ristretto: The Lame Duck of Coffee
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.
T. Nguyen At Espresso Profeta, all shots are ristrettos.
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.
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."
T. Nguyen Portola Coffee Lab pulls ristretto shots exclusively.
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.