Nespresso Espresso vs Lungo vs Ristretto: A Comparison & History Lesson

Nespresso Espresso vs Lungo vs Ristretto

When it comes to coffee, especially espresso, it doesn’t hurt to know a little Italian. Indeed, most of the key terms in the world of espresso come from this gorgeous Romance language—everything from cappuccino to latte.

But there are a few Italian terms that are of special significance to those of us who use Nespresso machines. Indeed, despite being based in Switzerland, the single-serving coffee giant, Nespresso, has fully embraced the Italian heritage responsible for everyone’s favorite strong coffee shot, and their product catalog is filled with Italian words in references.

That said, three Italian terms are especially important for Nespresso users: lungo, espresso, and ristretto.

We’ll take a look at the origins of these words, their English translations and, finally, what they mean in the wonderful world of Nespresso.

Espresso, Ristretto, and Lungo: Original Meanings

While these three terms will become a little more complicated once we turn to how they are used by Nespresso, their original uses are straightforward when it comes to how a barista makes the coffee.

More accurately, these three terms refer to the length of the shot. When applied to coffee, length simply refers to the amount of water used to extract the shot and, therefore, the amount of to extract it. A shorter shot, then, uses less water and time to extract the shot than does a longer shot.

What, then, do these three terms have to do with length? Let’s consider each one and see how they compare.

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Espresso: “Pressed Out”

The word espresso has come to mean any coffee drink that is brewed by forcing hot water through finely-ground pressurized coffee beans. But the term really refers to a shot of coffee brewed in this way with a length somewhere between ristretto and lungo.

In fact, due to the overuse of the word to refer to any shot of coffee brewed in this way, a coffee shot with a mid-range length, once known simply as “espresso,” is now sometimes referred to now as normale. It is “normal” (or “standard”), obviously, because it is the most common length and one that you can measure the other two against.

That might sound a bit confusing, but it will become clearer once we consider the two extremes on either side of espresso.

Ristretto: “Limited”

To make ristretto, you use the exact same amount of ground coffee as you would to pull a normale espresso shot. The difference is in the length, meaning the amount of water you use to extract the shot. Extracting the coffee in a ristretto shot requires roughly half the amount of water you would use to extract a normale shot.

In fact, because ristretto uses half the water of a normale shot for extraction, you can think of the extraction process for ristretto as exactly the same as that for espresso, only the process is cut short, “limiting” the length of extraction—hence the name.

How Does This Method Affect the Flavor Profile of the Extracted Shot?

Coffee beans contain thousands of distinct flavor compounds, and they are extracted at different rates during the process of pulling a shot—some in the early stages of extraction, and others much later.

Thus, ristretto shots are only going to exhibit those flavor characteristics that are extracted very quickly. As a result, ristretto is very highly concentrated and produces very full, rich flavors with less bitterness than longer shots.

Lungo: “Long”

As you might expect, given that ristretto comes from short extraction and espresso or normale comes from a mid-range extraction length, lungo then is the result of a much longer extraction length. Just like ristretto, a lungo shot uses the same amount of ground coffee as espresso. But for lungo, more water is introduced to extend the extraction length.

How Does This Method Affect the Flavor Profile of the Extracted Shot?

Whereas ristretto cuts the extraction process short, resulting in a stronger, less bitter, fuller-bodied shot of coffee, lungo does just the opposite: it extends the extraction process past that of espresso, which produces a more weaker, more bitter, lighter-bodied shot.

This also means that the resulting lungo shot will have greater volume and will contain less caffeine per ounce than its stronger siblings.

What Does All This Have to Do with Nespresso?

As it happens, quite a lot. But hang on, it’s going to get a little weird.

The Espresso and Lungo Buttons

If you skipped reading your Nespresso machine manual, you might not be aware that those two buttons with different sized cups that you use to start your machine actually have names. The smaller one is the espresso button, and the larger is the lungo button.

This is clear enough, right? Just as we discussed above, the Nespresso machine will extract your shot of coffee as espresso or lungo, depending on which button you select. Simple.

But Where’s the Ristretto Button?

Great question! Frankly, I’m still looking for mine.

Obviously, the most common Nespresso machines out there right now don’t include a button for extracting ristretto, and we’re uncertain as to why this is the case, since they include buttons for both espresso and lungo.

If you have really deep pockets and own the something from the Nespresso Creatista line then you get that third button but the price point to get into a Creatista is much higher than most people are willing to spend… especially just for a dedicated ristretto button.

But what is still more strange is that Nespresso does produce a capsule called Ristretto and also has ristretto listed as a serving option for many of its pods.

While this is still something of a mystery to us, for now, just know that if you want a strong ristretto shot out of your Nespresso machine, all you have to do is buy the Ristretto capsule. It does a nice job of approximating the flavor profile of a true ristretto.

The other main option for the majority of Nespresso users is to reprogram the shot lengths of the two dedicated buttons on your machine. It’s quite easy to do too.

If you want your buttons to resemble something closer to a ristretto and espresso shot or a ristretto and lungo shot instead of the espresso and lungo option then check out our guide to reprogramming those buttons.

Why Don’t You Learn A Little Bit More About Nespresso and Pod-Based Espresso Makers

Is Nespresso Worth It Or A Waste Of Money?
The Best Espresso Machines That Use Pods
Best Nespresso Machine For A Latté
Does Nespresso Make Good Enough Espresso?
The Quietest Nespresso Machines
Can You Use Other Pods In A Nespresso Machine?
Are All Nespresso Machines Basically The Same
Can Nespresso Machines Make Regular Coffee?
How To Reprogram Nespresso Machines For Larger Shots
What The Intensity Numbers Mean on Nespresso Capsules
Can You Use Your Own Coffee In A Nespresso Machine?
How Much Caffeine Is In Nespresso Capsules
What’s The Difference Between Lungo And Espresso

Brian Mounts

Head blogger, editor, and owner of "Top Off My Coffee", a website that has been educating readers about coffee brewing techniques and equipment since 2012.

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