What is Ristretto? The Beauty in Restraint

When people think of a highly concentrated coffee drink that is free from bells and whistles, people think about espresso. It is very popular—almost as much as the regular cup of joe. In fact, a quick google search will give you websites, blog posts and articles that explain its origins, recommend the best espresso machines, and even share recipes you can try. In fact, it is the base for other café favorites like a latte, cappuccino and even the iced Americano.

Fortunately, there’s more to coffee than just espresso. If you do a quick research or ask your barista about other less known-yet-equally-good options, they might suggest a drink called ristretto.

Ristretto has been around for a while, but it doesn’t always appear in the menu of cafes. Unfortunately, it gets overlooked in favor of more familiar coffee drinks and blended drinks. Some experts and enthusiasts might know about it, but not many casual coffee drinkers are aware that it’s a close sibling of both the espresso and lungo. For now, we’ll dive into the world of risretto. We’ll explore what it is, how to make it, and what makes it worth a try.

What is Ristretto? What Does it Mean?

The word “ristretto” associated with the words “restrict” or “narrow” because of its straightforward ingredients and process. Like the espresso, all you’ll need is coffee and hot water to make this drink. It uses the same amount of coffee, but with less water and extraction time.

shot of coffee

Ristretto, also known as corto in some parts of Italy, in fact, not a new drink! While it’s not as popular as espresso or brewed coffee, ristretto has its charms and is definitely worth giving a try. Some coffee enthusiasts have claimed that it is a concentrated version of the espresso. If you thought that the espresso is as concentrated as it gets when it comes to coffee, then you should kindly reconsider. Baristas, coffee roasters and culinary historians agree that it is possible to extract something more concentrated and potent than espresso!

History of Ristretto

Not much is written about the history of ristretto. Its popularity rose in the U.S. in the 1990s, in Seattle. This is attributed to David Schomer, owner of a café called Espresso Vivace. He championed the unique qualities of ristretto, which according to him, has the “best of coffee extracts”.

No recipes, just approximations

Unlike the espresso, there is no standard recipe for ristretto. You will find slight variations depending on which baristas, website and café’s you consult. The general rule of thumb is that the extraction time is shorter, using a smaller amount of water but with the same amount of ground coffee.

To make a good ristretto, baristas often use a very fine grind texture as opposed to the medium to fine grounds for espresso. Here’s a sample recipe: using 8 grams of coffee and about 15-20 ml of filtered water, set the extraction time for about 15 to 17 seconds. Serve in a demitasse cup.

The moving parts are few, but the most important thing to remember is that the ratio between coffee and water is a more important consideration, and the serving size.

Does Ristretto have more caffeine?

The ristretto is a caffeinated drink. Do not be deceived by the bold flavor of the ristretto—its caffeine content is less, if not the same, compared to espresso. The ristretto’s lower level of caffeine can be attributed to the short extraction time because extraction ends before the caffeine from the ground coffee is obtained.

Unlike what tv shows and random social media posts will tell you, having a stronger flavor does not equate to a higher caffeine content. If anything, this information is misleading. Take the Nespresso capsules as an example: the intensity level that is indicated in a box of Nespresso capsules refers to the intensity of its flavor, and not the caffeine content. This shows that it is possible to have a drink that has a deep, robust flavor but not be caffeinated.

Long Shot (Lungo) vs Ristretto vs Espresso

The ristretto, espresso and lungo (also known as “long shot”) are all part of the same family of coffee-based drinks. By far, the espresso is the most popular and most used by cafes as the base of their drinks. That these drinks are similar can be attributed to the fact that they all use the same basic ingredients: coffee and hot water. Main difference in brewing times. If we were to use espresso as the main point of comparison, the lungo has a longer extraction time while the ristretto has a shorter extraction time.

long shot vs ristretto vs espresso

Unbeknownst to most, espresso is actually a method of extraction using hot water, with precise measurements that produce a drink that is full-bodied and very rich in flavor. The product is known to be little bitter—an acquired taste, but popular nevertheless.  Espresso’s robust and deep flavor makes it the perfect base for other beverages (Americano, latte, cappuccino). 

The Espresso

Espresso is normally served as a double shot (doppio) and has about the same amount of caffeine as a regular cup of brewed coffee. Who knew that a small 1 to 3 oz drink (extracted within 20 to 30 seconds) can yield such a flavorful drink?

If you examine the layers of an espresso, you may notice that it has a darker bottom layer, which gets slightly lighter as you go towards the top, and the top is a foamy layer called a crema. The crema is said to produce the aroma. It’s not uncommon to find drinkers who push the crema to the side before enjoying their espresso. If you don’t take the crema out, you might taste a strong, bitter after taste after each sip. You might be surprised that some people actually enjoy the crema. Espresso is occasionally served with sparkling water and sugar on the side—the sparkling water to cleanse the palette, while the sugar is for sweetening or offsetting the bitterness. 

The Ristretto

The ristretto has the same basic ingredients as espresso, and can in fact, be made in an espresso machine using the same process (with a modification to the extraction time). This slight adjustment in the proportion of ingredients and extraction time produces differences in the quality, taste and caffeine level of the ristretto. Ristretto is smaller compared to espresso. If compared to a 1 oz serving of espresso, ristretto has no more than 0.75 oz.

Do not be deceived by the relatively smaller size. Some experts have said that it has a bolder flavor with a sweeter finish due to the shorter extraction time. The fruity notes emerge within the first few seconds of extraction. It also has less caffeine than espresso. 

Like espresso, it is typically ordered as a double shot. It is a highly concentrated drink, which means you don’t need to drink much of it to get the full experience. Within a few sips, your senses will be awakened to the rich, deep and fruity flavor of ristretto.

The Lungo (Long Shot)

Out of the three drinks in the family, lungo has the longest brewing time, which results in a high concentration of aroma and flavor compared to espresso. Baristas recommend using coarsely ground coffee because it is perfect for a longer extraction. Although it is aromatic and flavorful, it is the least concentrated out of the bunch.

You can make the three types of “shots” using the same batch of freshly roasted coffee beans, pitcher of filtered water and espresso machine. When we say that these three belong to the same family of drinks, we mean it!

How to drink Ristretto 

Because there’s a small amount preserving, drinkers usually knock it back in one shot. Purists will prefer to drink their ristretto from a demitasse as it is—without so much as adding sugar or stirring. There are variations to ristretto. Different cafes will offer their twist to the recipe, so leave some room for spontaneity when ordering ristretto.

lady drinking coffee

Because ristretto is highly concentrated, some people ask the barista to use ristretto as a replacement for espresso. Such is the case with ristretto bianco coffee. Ristretto bianco is a latte made with ristretto instead of espresso. Just like a latte, it is made with steamed milk. Variations of the number of shots to be used will depend on what size you will order (it can be anywhere from double to quadruple shots). The natural sweetness of ristretto adds a different twist to the taste of the regular latte. 

The ristretto bianco can be such a fun drink because it also comes with latte art. If you’re lucky and the drink is made by a particularly creative barista, the latte art can be the perfect conversation starter with your date!

How to make a Ristretto 

There are a few known ways on how to make ristretto. The first and most used method is through an espresso machine. A classic recipe uses 8 g of espresso coffee and 15 ml of water and running it through the espresso machine for about 15 seconds.

how to make a ristretto

An alternative recipe calls for the same amount of coffee (8 g), but finely ground, and 15 ml of water. Run it through the espresso machine for about 18 seconds. This slight change is said to result in a stronger drink.

To make the best possible ristretto, make sure that you’re getting the best of both ingredients: coffee and water. Choose the right roast and use fresh grounds and use filtered water. The typical serving size is two shots—about the size of a single espresso shot. Always make sure you get two shots. If you go for one shot, it might be quite dense, the second shot makes a world of difference!

Ristretto Nespresso

To make the experience easier and more streamlined, you can opt for pre-packed capsules like those from Nespresso. Although Nespresso machines are known for making espresso, they actually make ristretto and lungo capsules for their machines.

Nespresso’s Inspirazione Ristretto Italiano uses a medium-dark blend of Arabica and Robusta and comes in both regular and decaffeinated versions. The final product is very aromatic and fruity. All you need is a few sips, and the experience will take you to the streets of Italy.

Nespresso offers a guide that specifies which types can be used to make ristretto, so you can use capsules other than Inspirazione Ristretto Italiano to make this drink.

The settings for Nespresso are fixed so that making the drink is as easy and seamless as possible (with just a few presses!). To make a ristretto, reset the cup size before you place the capsule in the machine. Put some water in the chamber. Press the button on the left-hand side for the required amount of water. The Nespresso ristretto yields about 25 ml of product, so hold the button down until you get 25 ml of water in the capsule. Dispose the water. Put the capsule in the machine and press down on the button on the left side. Now you have a ristretto!

Aside from resetting the cup size, another benefit of going through this procedure is that you’ll be able to clear out any coffee residue from the previous use. The best part of using a Nespresso machine is the ease with which you can create a ristretto from your own home.


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A few tweaks make a world of difference

Just like every coffee drink, ristretto offers something unique. Even though it belongs to the same family as the espresso and the lungo, each one has unique characteristics that make it stand out. Real coffee and espresso aficionados will be able to appreciate the difference among these three. If you’re a newbie, let this be the sign telling you to change things up a bit!

If you love espresso, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t give ristretto a try. Have fun experimenting with different coffee beans, roasts, grind texture and ratios. Subtle differences give way to a different experience altogether.

A lot of experts have spoken about the complexity of the ristretto. You can make it at home, buy if from a café, enjoy it straight or in a blended drink. If you want to try it from a café, ask the barista to replace your espresso-based drink with ristretto and see what kind of drink you’ll end up with!

Sometimes more is not better 

If there’s anything you need to learn about this the article, it is that more is not always better. When you walk into a café, scan the menu and compare each drink’s price per millilitre, then you will feel like you’re not getting your money’s worth if you’re ordering a ristretto. Do not make this mistake. Do not compare the ristretto to any run-of-the-mill brewed coffee that you can drink while you’re working. The ristretto is a beautifully unique drink. Its small quantity is meant to be savored within the few seconds that you have it on our hand (unless you’re having a ristretto bianco!). Save the brewed coffee for a busy day. If you plan to have a ristretto, make sure that you have a few minutes to spare to appreciate its flavor and aroma. 

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What is Ristretto?

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