June 15, 2020

What Is a Ristretto?


When you want a concentrated coffee drink without additions or frills, you’ll order an espresso. This coffee shop staple is enjoyed around the world – but isn’t the most intense drink you can order. It packs less of a punch compared to the smaller – but stronger – ristretto.

While the ristretto’s defining feature is that it’s a shot of very concentrated coffee, it differs from the espresso in significant ways. Here’s how its usually made, what makes it unique, and who it might appeal to in the future.

Lee este artículo en español ¿Qué es un Ristretto?

Defining The Ristretto

The word ristretto can loosely be translated as ‘restrict’ or ‘narrow’ in English. However, the word is commonly used to describe the beverage and refers to its small volume of water and short extraction time. It’s prepared similarly to espresso, but with half the water, and while the amount of coffee is the same, a finer grind is used to slow its extraction. Extraction is generally stopped at around 15 seconds, instead of the espresso’s 25 to 30 seconds. When more water is used and the extraction duration isn’t shortened, a lungo or long shot is created.

Paolo Scimone is the owner of His Majesty Specialty Coffee Roasters, which is located in Monza, Italy. He says that in the Italian tradition, a ristretto is a shot of coffee made by adding 7-8 grams of ground coffee to water and extracting 15 grams of coffee out, in a ratio of 1:2. 

While the drink is usually served in a demitasse cup (a small cup with a maximum volume of 90 millilitres), many feel that the ristretto can be made in larger volumes, provided it sticks to its 1:2 ratio. According to Anson Goodge, Sales Coordinator of Ozone Coffee Roasters in the UK, “A ristretto is not a particular length or size, but rather a ratio. From this, it’s possible to make ristrettos of many sizes and strengths, and the ristretto can be used many ways depending on how the individual business chooses to serve their coffee.”

Paolo says that because the ristretto is seen as similar to a regular Italian espresso, some coffee shops call a double shot of espresso a ristretto. However, the two drinks have several important differences.

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What Makes a Ristretto Different? 

The ristretto’s shorter extraction time, finer coffee grind, and a smaller volume of water used form a drink that differs from an espresso. Making a smaller espresso or shortening its extraction time won’t create anything like it in taste or texture. As Anson explains, the ristretto is pulled for a shorter length and runs through the machine with a lower ratio of water to coffee, while espresso is pulled to a longer length, and runs through the machine with a higher ratio of water to coffee. 

Sam, a Melbourne based coffee trainer, explains that a ristretto is a restricted shot as its extraction is stopped before the coffee’s full acidity is released. This shorter extraction time means that it’s less complex and contains less caffeine. In addition, the soluble compounds creating fruity and sweet flavours will be released, with extraction stopping before any bitter, caramel, and chocolate flavours extract.

Because less water is used, a ristretto will be slightly thicker than espresso. It can also have more crema, as it has a reduced volume but an equal surface area where crema can lie. While it won’t be as balanced as an espresso, will be easier to drink. 

Mass Market Ristretto Offerings 

While a ristretto is a prepared coffee beverage, the term is often used by major brands to describe coffee shots with an intense flavour. For example, Nespresso offers a ristretto capsule as part of its espresso collection. 

Other coffee shops offer the ristretto as a stand-alone offering and also use it as a base for espresso-based drinks like lattes and cappuccinos, where its sweetness and richness enhances the drink. 

For example, Starbucks’ 2020 menu in the USA and Canada will feature an almond milk Honey Flat White. This drink will consist of ristretto combined with almond milk and honey.

Choosing The Best Beans For a Ristretto

The type of beans you choose and how they’ve been roasted will often impact how coffee tastes. However. with the ristretto, Sam says the roast type is less important, as the coffee will be extracted for such a short time period. “There’s no ideal roast level because essentially this type of extraction will mean that it’s not using the coffees fullest capabilities”.

Anson recommends going for a low acidity coffee, such as a naturally processed one from Brazil, Sumatra, or Nicaragua, and that coffees suited to ristrettos are “typically coffees grown at lower altitudes”. Paulo concurs, explaining that “soft beans with medium-low acidity better suit this kind of extraction because a juicy and acidic coffee can be too sour in a ristretto.”

Sam says that while roast type isn’t as important, medium-dark roasts and dark roasts can be used to create ristrettos for those less experienced in extraction. As most of their acids have been roasted off, t’s flavour won’t be compromised, even if the shot is extracted too short. He adds that the ristretto’s short extraction time also means that poor quality or poorly roasted coffee can be used to make it, as its negative flavours won’t have time to extract.

The ristretto isn’t as well known or beloved as other coffee drinks, which could be due to a lack of awareness of what it is and what it tastes like. Ansons believes that in the future, customers will become more aware of how variables like origin, roasting and brewing impact short drinks like the ristretto and espresso. He adds that “I think the ristretto will always be available in the specialty scene, but not necessarily through public demand; it will most likely be available as a decision by individual businesses”.

While it might not be the most common drink requested on a coffee shop menu, it’s a unique drink worth offering to coffee enthusiasts, and one that’s likely to challenge their assumptions around coffee and how it should taste like.

Enjoyed this? Then Read Extraction Wars – Espresso vs Ristretto

Photo credits: Ozone Coffee Roasters

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