Ristretto Rant

My coffee drink of choice for the past few years has been the straight espresso shot. All my other coffee equipment has either been packed away or is gathering dust. For me it is all about espresso now. The ristretto is a very short shot of espresso. On a given day, half the shots I pull for myself are ristretto shots. Yes, I too love the ristretto. Yet as perfect as the ristretto can be, there can be problems.

My First Ristretto

It must have been 1996. I was living in South Tampa at the time and the area finally got a great coffee house. The place was Jet City Espresso. Don’t go looking for it. It is no longer there. As the name implies, the owner Jessica was from Seattle and shared her coffee knowledge with her customers.

After ordering numerous americanos and espressos, Jessica thought it was time I tried a ristretto. I expected the short pull of the espresso shot would result in a more bitter flavor. To my delight the shot was actually a sweeter and more intense version of her espresso blend.

Jet City Espresso
Jet City Espresso – Tampa 1996

After leaving the Tampa Bay area and moving away from Jet City Espresso, it would be years before I was served a ristretto again.

The Rise of the Ristretto

Now I’ve arrived in the Seattle area. In this town the ristretto rules, whether you like it or not. Most cafes in Seattle area will serve you a ristretto when you order an espresso. My guess is the roaster has determined that the blend tastes optimal when pulled as a ristretto. The first thought I have is positive. If they have tweaked their blend to perfection then trained their baristas on how to pull ristrettos, then the odds are that the drink you are about to get is going to be amazing.

Yet I’ve been continually disappointed by the ristrettos served here in Seattle. To minimize disappointment, here our a few rules I’d like to share with the cafes.


Ristretto Rules

  1. Ristretto or Espresso – If a customer orders an espresso and your cafe serves ristrettos as the default, let that customer know. Perhaps ask, Is a ristretto fine? If I peek down and see what appears to be a single shot, when I clearly ordered and was charged for a double shot, I’m either going to inquire or walk away feeling ripped off. A sign promently displayed can clear up confusion. One cafe here buries that information in a newspaper article framed on the wall away from the menu.
  2. Make It Quick – The time between when the ristretto is poured and when it is handed over to the customer must be quick. A ristretto cools much faster than espresso. Serving a ristretto at less than optimal temperature undermines the entire quality of the drink.
  3. Register First, Drink Second – Nothing is more annoying that when the barista gets ahead of the person working the register. Now this won’t make any difference for the latte drinkers, but if I’m waiting for change for a $10 bill and my ristretto is cooling on the pick-up stand, I’m not going to be happy.
  4. Heat the Demitasse – Never pour a ristretto (or espresso) into a demitasse that is cold. The drink temperature will drop instantly.

The Caffe Calabria Solution

Caffe Calabria of San Diego has their espresso blend tweaked to taste best as a ristretto. And they will serve you a ristretto if you order an espresso. However, they will serve you 2 ristrettos. The result is you taste the bold sweetness of the ristretto with the volume of an espresso. The drink isn’t cold and the customer never feels shortchanged.

Michael Allen Smith

Michael Allen Smith fell in love with coffee while attending college. Shortly after graduating college, he found himself in the Tampa Bay area far away from the good coffee he had at The Ohio State University. That is when he starting home roasting coffee. Less than a year later in April 1999, he launched the coffee website INeedCoffee.com. INeedCoffee.com has been going strong ever since with hundreds of articles and tutorials submitted by over one hundred contributors.

In 2007, Michael moved to America's coffee capitol Seattle, Washington. He has visited close to three hundred different coffee places in Seattle, Portland,Vancouver and San Francisco and met many of the top roasters and baristas in the country. Since 2009, Michael has been the Organizer of the Coffee Club of Seattle, which is a Meetup group of over 800 coffee enthusiasts. Besides the social aspect of the group, the Coffee Club of Seattle partners with local coffee professionals for educational events such as coffee cuppings, brewing demonstrations and roasting tours.

Unrelated to coffee, Michael has a personal blog at CriticalMAS.com which covers several topics including fitness, cooking and economics.