Espresso occupies a defined place within the diverse and complex world of coffee, but even within this comparatively small space there is still great diversity. The standard shot of espresso is just one way to drink this concentrated coffee. One of the most popular other ways to enjoy espresso is as a ristretto shot of coffee.
In This Guide:
What is Ristretto Coffee?
Ristretto coffee is essentially a short shot of coffee. The term ristretto roughly translates “restricted,” referring to the restriction of water through the grounds. The result is something that’s akin to standard espresso yet has significant differences.
(As a reminder, espresso is a small and concentrated version of coffee that’s one of the few pressurized ways of brewing coffee.)
Why Order Less Coffee?
Because ristretto’s water is restricted, the total volume of a ristretto shot is less than that of a standard espresso shot. Ristretto isn’t about volume. Indeed, even standard espresso itself isn’t all about quantity. Espresso — and even more so ristretto — is about quality over quantity.
For those who care more about flavor, the actual volume is less important than its body, texture and taste.
How Are Ristretto Shots Pulled?
All variations of espresso shots are “pulled,” which is a reference to the old days when baristas actually pulled on a lever to create the pressure that’s needed for brewing. The basic process of pulling a ristretto shot is largely similar to pulling a standard espresso shot: grind, tamp, pull, (maybe mix with milk, water or liquor) and enjoy.
Ristretto and standard espresso have significant differences in their grind, water volume and pull time, however. Below is how these variables are altered to pull a true (i.e. traditional) shot of ristretto:
Grind: A finer grind is used for ristretto in order to maintain extraction while using less water. The finer grind slows how quality water flows through the coffee grounds, thereby allowing the water more time to extract solubles. The change in rate of flow causes different solubles to be extracted.
Water Volume: The water volume ratio for traditional Italian ristretto coffee is 1:2, meaning every gram of coffee should produce 2 grams of brewed espresso. A single shot might use 15 grams of grounds to make 30 grams of brewed coffee according to this ratio, and a double shot would simply twofold those numbers.
Many coffee shops and baristas today use a more diluted ratio of 1:3 or even 1:4 in some cases. This results in higher extraction because more water is flowing through the grounds, but extraction still doesn’t reach the levels of standard espresso.
As helpful as these ratios are, they’re largely impractical for the practical world. Experienced baristas know what the proper volume of a ristretto shot looks like.
Pull Time: True ristretto coffee is pulled for just as long as standard espresso. The grind and water ratio changes create the change in profile, rather than any change in time. Most espresso is pulled for somewhere between 15 and 40 seconds.
Why Different Water Volume Ratios for Ristretto Espresso Shots?
The main reason for the different water volume ratios may lie in what coffee beans different shops use.
Italian espresso blends (ristretto is made from the same beans) typically contain a combination of coffea arabica and coffea robusta beans. These lower-quality beans produce a rich crema (the top froth on espresso), but they are also more bitter than specialty coffee’s coffea arabica beans. Minimizing extraction by using a smaller amount of water will help prevent the bitterness of robusta from getting into the shot.
Most modern specialty coffee shops exclusively use coffea arabica beans, which aren’t as bitter. Thus, many specialty shops can attain higher extraction rates without making the shot bitter. (Some Italian shops now use coffea arabica only.)
Coffee Shops Often Make Ristretto-Like Espresso
The above parameters are for pulling a true ristretto shot, but many coffee shops are ill-equipped to do this. Mainly, shops can’t afford to change grind size during the day because recalibrating an espresso grinder takes some time. While a dedicated ristretto grinder would solve this issue, there generally isn’t enough demand for this version of espresso to justify such an investment.
Coffee shops are still often able to make an espresso that’s like ristretto. Rather than adjusting grind size, shops instead change their water volume and pull time. They use less water over a shorter period of time in order to reduce extraction, and this creates a profile that’s very much akin to ristrettos. Only a select few professionals can likely distinguish between the two.
What Does Ristretto Coffee Taste Like?
The reduced extraction of ristretto coffee creates a concentrated and flavorful shot, one that’s sweet and not bitter. The lack of bitterness stems from not extracting all acids during brewing, and this also creates a general mellowness. Balance and smoothness dominate more than complex flavors.
As for flavor, ristretto brewing favors sweetness and fruit. Notes of brown sugar, nuts, berries and stonefruit might be present, and these are much more likely than darker flavors of chocolate, caramel or roastiness.
Additionally, the body of ristretto coffee is rich and smooth. It sometimes has a little more crema on the top that emphasizes these qualities.
Is Ristretto Coffee Ever Sour?
Although reduced extraction is responsible for creating the qualities that make ristretto coffee so desirable, too much under extraction has adverse effects on taste. Any ristretto shot that’s sour is too under-extracted and not pulled properly. Ristretto should never taste sour.
What Coffee Should Be Used for Pulling Ristretto Shots?
South American, Latin American and Asian-Pacific coffees generally produce textbook ristretto shots. Look for a natural processed (unwashed), as a natural from any of these regions should have pungent but not overpowering notes. Don’t worry about roast level too much, because the pull is ended before darker roasty notes get extracted.
For an exotic adventure, experiment with a natural processed African coffee. These will have much stronger bright notes, and the resulting espresso should carry a punch. Not everyone will want this, but you’ll find nothing quite like it if you do prefer the tasty affront.
How Much Caffeine is in Ristretto Coffee?
The caffeine content in ristretto coffee is approximately the same as in standard espresso. The same amount of coffee is used for both shots, and caffeine is extracted early on in the brewing process.
While total caffeine is roughly the same, ristretto has more caffeine per milliliter because the shot is a smaller volume. (For reference the amount of caffeine in a standard single espresso ranges from 29 to 100 milligrams.)
What Drinks Are Good With Ristretto Espresso?
Many people who prefer espresso straight drink ristretto, because they like the more concentrated flavor, additional crema and reduced bitterness. In addition to straight, ristretto is particularly well-suited for:
- Long Blacks (espresso over a little hot water)
- Americanos (espresso and hot water)
- Cortados (espresso and a little steam milk)
Long blacks will retain the crema that ristretto has, and cortados have a good ratio of coffee to milk for this espresso. Larger beverages, such as cappuccinos and lattes, can mask ristretto’s brighter notes by diluting it so much with milk.
Many cafes will only pull double shots of ristretto, because the volume of the shot is less.
Variations of Espresso: Ristretto, Lungo and Standard Espresso
Ristretto, lungo and standard espresso are all variations of how espresso can be pulled, and they each are truly a version of espresso. Standard shots are what cafes pull unless customers specify otherwise, and they’re the standard against which others get compared:
- Ristretto espresso has less volume, less bitterness and a more intense flavor
- Lungo espresso has more volume, more bitterness and less intense flavor
Lungo is pulled by using about twice as much water as standard espresso.
Try a Ristretto Espresso
If you appreciate the bright and nuanced flavors of expresso, order a ristretto shot the next time you’re in a cafe. Cafes with manual and semi-automatic machines can pull these shots, and some fully automatic machines are able to as well. Try one, and you may find a new preferred way to drink espresso.
Scott M. Brodie covers coffee, theology and boring subjects that pay the bills. When not writing, he can usually be found roasting a new African single origin or composing a fictional work. To see one of Scott’s personal projects, check out seminariesandbiblecolleges.com.