What is Caffe Americano & Where Did it Come From?

So you’re wondering what is an Americano coffee, or what is “Caffe Americano” to use its proper Italian title? It’s an important distinction, by the way, to state that we’re talking about Americano coffee here. If you were just asking what’s an Americano, the answer to that is that it’s a cocktail, which I’ll get to when talking about where Americano came from.

Ah, I fancy a cocktail now, it’s three in the afternoon though, and it’s a weekday, better not. Also, I don’t keep booze here in the studio, which is probably a good thing. I have copious amounts of coffee though of course, which is also a good thing.

Anway, as well as answering the question what is an Americano, I’m also going to tell you (and demonstrate) how to make a caffe Americano at home with or without an espresso machine, and I’m also going to get on my soapbox and explain why most claims regarding the origins of Americano simply can’t be correct!

What is an Americano Coffee?

OK so I’ll just jump straight in and answer this question, as it’s probably why you came to this post in the first place. What’s Americano coffee, or caffe Americano, is a really simple question to answer – it’s espresso mixed with hot water. 

It means American (style) coffee, in Italian. Italy is, of course, the birthplace of espresso, and Italians would usually drink their coffee black as ristretto, espresso or lungo, or with milk as cappuccino, caffe latte or caffe macchiato. There wasn’t originally a name in Italy for what it’s called when you dilute espresso with water, in fact I’m sure there was, but I don’t know any Italian swear words ;-).

Italians at some point discovered that Americans like bigger cups of more diluted black coffee, so the term “Americano” was coined, which means espresso mixed with hot water. 

If you’ve read that this came from American soldiers during the second world war asking for their espresso to be topped up with hot water, this is a myth that I will well and truly bust, shortly. This isn’t just an opinion, by the way, I have some solid evidence that makes it very clear that this old chestnut about the history of Americano isn’t right.

Prior to the invention of the Americano, the three standard black coffees that you’d be served by most Italian baristas, are all simply different espresso ratios, meaning the ratio of ground coffee to espresso.

What is called an “Espresso” is usually an espresso pulled at a ratio of around 1-2 (for instance 17 grams of ground coffee beans to 34 grams of espresso), while a ristretto is a restricted shot of espresso pulled at a ratio usually of 1:1, and a lungo is a long shot of espresso, pulled at a ratio of (usually) 1:3.

All “Caffe Americano” means, is to dilute espresso with hot water for a more “American style” coffee. 

How does Americano differ from similar types of coffee?

Some would say that Americano coffee should be made in a certain way in order to distinguish this coffee from similar coffees that are made with espresso and hot water, but I say otherwise. In my humble opinion, Americano is the original Italian label for diluting espresso with hot water.

There are other espresso-based drinks that have been created since the Caffe Americano, which are also labels for espresso mixed with hot water, namely the long black, which is a more modern take on Americano in which the espresso is added to hot water, for a more intense taste. 

Naturally then, if a coffee shop puts long black on the menu along with Americano, in order to differentiate the Long black from the Americano, they would usually make the Americano espresso first and water second, and sometimes there are other differences such as the number of shots used and/or the volume of the drink. 

But does this mean, then, that Americano must be made by pulling the shot first and then pouring the hot water into the espresso? No, not as far as I’m concerned. Americano simply means espresso mixed with hot water to make a more “American style” coffee, that’s it.

If you want to call it long black if it’s made with the hot water first, then that’s fine, call it whatever you like, call it Dave if you want, it doesn’t bother me, but in my humble opinion, if you mix espresso with hot water, you’re making an Americano.

How to make Americano at home

So to make Americano at home, you’ll need espresso – or espresso style coffee – and hot water. 

If you want to make a “true” Americano, then you’ll want an espresso machine. In the video above I’m using the Sage Dual Boiler. If you’re not too fussed with the “true” bit, and you’re happy to get somewhere close, then you can use a manual brew method to create an “espresso style” coffee, and in the video above I do this with the Aeropress. 

So literally all you do, is pull a shot of espresso with an espresso machine, or create a similar “espresso-style” shot using an Aeropress, for example, and then add hot water to taste. 

Although I did say earlier that you don’t have to start with the espresso and pour the hot water on top, I do think this makes more sense than doing it the other way around, simply because you can stop, taste, and then add more hot water, while it’s not quite as convenient to make your Americano to taste if doing it the other way around. 

If you do want to make a “true” Americano, using “true” espresso, then here’s a very short explanation on espresso machines:

A very quick guide to espresso machines

There are cheap, Domestic espresso machines, entry-level home barista espresso machines, home barista espresso machines also known as “prosumer” espresso machines, and then there are bean to cup coffee machines. 

The cheap domestic espresso machines like the Gran Gaggia, Gaggia Viva, Delonghi Dedica, Swan Retro & so on are usually priced somewhere from £80-£150. These machines use what are known as “pressurized” baskets, which make things a bit easier, reducing the amount of skill required. For more on these kinds of machines see:

Best Cheap Espresso Machines

Home barista espresso machines also known as prosumer espresso machines, are espresso machines that are made to mimic traditional, commercial espresso machines, but usually smaller & with other differences to make them more home-friendly.

Entry level home barista machines such as the Sage Bambino plus and Gaggia Classic Pro (which come with both standard baskets and pressurized baskets, so the user can decide which they prefer to use) are usually either single boiler espresso machines, or “thermoblock / thermocoil” machines, which use on-demand water heaters instead of brew boilers.

Other than the entry-level home barista machines, most of the machines that a considered as home barista or prosumer espresso machines tend to range in price from several hundred to several thousand pounds and don’t forget you’ll need the grinder, too. 

The higher up the range you go the closer you get to commercial espresso machines. In fact, some home barista machines including the La Marzocco Linea Mini and the La Marzocco GS3 can be even more expensive than some commercial machines. 

For more on home barista espresso machines, see: 

Best Home Barista Espresso Machine Setups

Bean to cup coffee machines are slightly different, they are espresso machines, but they don’t produce espresso in the same way as traditional espresso machines. Instead of a group and a portafilter, bean to cup machines have a brewing unit which produces the espresso, and an integrated grinder, and they’re more about convenience than they are about perfection, where cup quality is concerned. 

For more on bean to cup coffee machines, you know the drill by now :-):

Best Bean to Cup Coffee Machines

Just to make things a bit more confusing, there are also espresso machines with integrated grinders which aren’t bean to cup coffee machines, as they have groups and portafilters. For example the Sage Barista Express and Barista Pro are basically entry-level home barista espresso machines with integrated grinders.

The Sage Oracle and Oracle touch are traditional espresso machines based on the Sage Dual Boiler, but with integrated grinders and clever on-board electronics to negate the need for Barista skills, providing barista quality cup quality with bean to cup convenience. 

Sage Oracle & Oracle Touch Review

The true origins of Americano – Nothing to do with WW2

The minute you start searching for info on Americano, you’ll find people talking about the second world war, with American soldiers sent to Italy during the war, not being able to handle the intensity of espresso and asking for it to be diluted with hot water, which Italian Baristas ended up calling “Caffe Americano” or “American style coffee” as a result. 

In my YouTube video above, I said that I didn’t believe this to be the truth, as it just didn’t ring true to me, but I’ve since made a discovery which proves that this absolutely is a myth.

Before I stumbled upon this evidence that this story is a myth, I didn’t believe it was quite right for a couple of reasons. 

The first reason was I thought that surely American soldiers wouldn’t have been tourists in Italy during the second world war, spending time sitting in cafes? I did some digging, and proved myself wrong on this point, as I mentioned in the video above.

It turns out that some American GIs had actually commented in letters home, that they did actually feel like tourists. Also a booklet had been handed to US and British soldiers, called “The Soldier’s Handbook to Italy”, which apparently was written like a tourists guide book to Italy for soldiers, which implied that soldiers may have actually been doing touristy things like sitting in cafe’s drinking coffee.

I still didn’t believe this Americano origins story to be true, though, simply because I’m fairly certain from the research I’ve done that American Baristas would have already have penned the phrase “Caffe Americano” prior to the second world war.

The common story told about the origins of Americano would have us believe that world war 2 was the first time Americans were going to Italy and making their drinking preferences known. This isn’t true, though. American tourism had been going on in Italy for quite a while by this point, and as I alluded to earlier, the Campari & sweet vermouth  Americano cocktail was named after American tourists way back in the 1860s.

So up to this point I had been working on the assumption that “Caffè Americano” was most likely already a thing before the second world war.

But, I then decided that I needed to find out more about this soldier’s guide to Italy, and what it said about coffee, I was intrigued – but I couldn’t find any images online of the inside pages, so I ended up buying an original copy. When I received it and gave it a read, I made a couple of discoveries. 

Soldiers guide to Italy

Firstly, I discovered that this isn’t quite the tourism guide that I’ve seen it described as. It’s actually a very practical, well-thought guide telling soldiers how to best deal with their upcoming assignment to Italy.

Yeah there are a few touristy paragraphs in there for sure, but the majority of it is very practical advice, along the lines of don’t catch the clap, don’t be fooled by seemingly “easy women” asking you for a cigarette, as they may be spies, and don’t show yourself up by getting drunk, oh and don’t try it on with “good Italian women” or you may regret it, or you may not live to regret it, is actually the warning.

The most shocking discovery for me, though, is this:

Whats Americano

Coffee was banned in Italy during the Second World War

As you can see from the text above, which you’ll find on page 12, Americano doesn’t have its roots in the second world war with American soldiers ordering espresso and wanting it to be diluted with hot water – because there was no espresso in Italy during world war 2, coffee was banned!

This is a revelation, as is the fact that this information appears to have been almost forgotten. At the time of writing, none of the most obvious coffee-related websites seem to cover this, and even big mainstream websites like Wikipedia appear to be void of this information. Wierd.

If you have a quick google (at the time of writing, this may have changed by the time you’re reading this) for “coffee banned in Italy” you’ll find information on the initial Stance on coffee by the Catholic Church in Italy during the 16th century, and various other reports of historical coffee bans in various countries, but nothing about this ban of coffee in Italy during World War 2. 

I had to dig remarkably deep (even having to download these old fashioned things called “PDF’s) to get to the history of why this happened, again, it wasn’t readily available in the places I’d expect it to be, but it seems that this ban on coffee was Mussolini’s reaction to an embargo enforced on Italy by the League of Nations after the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

Mussolini responded by strengthening Italy’s stance on being self-sustaining and more or less seems to have made the decision that they could just use Italian-grown grain for just about everything.

The only coffee being consumed in Italy during this time, it seems, is small amounts of coffee that Italian soldiers on the front line were sometimes able to smuggle back to families, and instant coffee that American soldiers had taken over with them. In fact, there are stories from Italians who grew up during that time who had their first taste of coffee thanks to American soldiers who gave them some of their instant coffee. 

So, to conclude – Americano is espresso mixed with hot water, OK – I could have made this post much shorter, but 7 words is a bit on the short side – and I’ve hopefully given you lots of other interesting info, including how to make an Americano at home, and the fact that the commonly shared story on the origins of Americano is a myth, my work here is done, I’m off to make a cocktail. OK, not really, I’m not that rock ‘n roll ;-).

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