Ristretto vs Espresso vs Lungo: What’s the Difference & Which is Strongest?

I’ve stumbled upon coffee shops with menu language so out of my range of knowledge I felt I better leave since the only word I could think of was “latte”.

If you’re diving deeper into the world of coffee, whether that means visiting new shops or buying a Nespresso, you’re eventually going to run into some unfamiliar terms.

Ristretto, espresso, and lungo are three terms you’re bound to hear as you venture further into the world of coffee. Most are familiar with the word espresso, although familiar with the term doesn’t always mean understanding what it means. Ristretto and lungo are two terms that many people are unfamiliar with.

Making espresso is a skill, a technique that the barista or coffee connoisseur must familiarize themselves with before being able to make quality cups. There are various techniques which produce different espresso drinks, all using the same roast and processes. They completion of the process differs slightly per brew type, and that’s where ristretto, espresso, and lungo come in.

Main Differences Between Ristretto, Espresso, and Lungo

Before we lay out the main features of each of these brew methods, we should take a look at what sets them apart.

Espresso is the baseline, the shot you’ve probably had if you’ve ever ordered an espresso-based drink at a coffee shop, like an americano or latte. It is definitely the most well-known of the three.

Ristretto is more concentrated than espresso or lungo. The proper way to prepare a ristretto is by getting the finest grind with fresh beans, and using pressure to extract the normal amount of ground coffee for espresso with about half the water.

The result is a more concentrated beverage with a different balance in flavors than the typical espresso shot.

Lungo goes the other way than ristretto, brewing a larger coffee that uses more water than espresso. A normal shot of espresso usually takes under 30 seconds to pull, whereas a lungo shot can take up to a minute.

The result is a more bitter, weaker coffee than espresso. This is because the extra water extracts more components than espresso, adding more of a bitter taste as it brews.

Espresso is the middle ground between the ristretto and lungo, and the most common and widely ordered drink of the three. It has a strong bold taste, less bitter than lungo, but more bitter than ristretto.

The three terms are all relative, lacking an exact measurement or guideline. You can expect variations on each drink from different cafes based on the barista’s preference. Or, you can experiment at home with an espresso maker or instant machine like Nespresso.

The general ratio for water to ground coffee is one-to-one for ristretto, one-to-two for espresso normale, and one-to-three or one-to-four for lungo.

Is Espresso Better Than Ristretto or Lungo?

If you’ve ever ordered a typical shot at a cafe, you’re probably familiar with espresso. This is the baseline for the different variations of drinks. Espresso by nature has more caffeine per volume than most coffee drinks.

Whether it is better than the other two drinks comes down solely to personal preference. It is the in-between of the two, so if you find ristretto to be too concentrated, and lungo to be too weak, a classic espresso shot is probably what you should be going for.

Espresso is the method for brewing coffee, and also a beverage itself. It is made by forcing hot water with high pressure through finely ground, compact beans.

For the purpose of ordering the classic espresso shot, not smaller or larger than the most widely-known espresso, most people just order an espresso shot. If you need to differentiate between types, it is also referred to as espresso normale or “normal espresso”.

When making espresso shots, the beans are pushed down tightly in the permafilter to promote and even penetration of water. The result is typically a thicker drink than other coffee beverages, with a satisfying crema on top.

The length of the espresso shot is where the other terms come in.

Is Ristretto Better Than Espresso or Lungo?

Meaning “limited” or “restricted” in Italian, ristretto is a short shot made with ground coffee in the amount you would use for a traditional espresso shot.

Whether ristretto is better than other types of espresso depends on if you prefer your coffee to be more concentrated, with less bitterness, or if you prefer something with more bitter tones or less of a high concentration for such a small amount of liquid. The shot is very small and strong, but since it is pulled as the first part of the shot, it always cuts down the bitter taste of espresso.

The coffee must be ground extremely fine, which will cause the coffee to be extracted with about half the water of a typical espresso shot.

Many baristas who do not want to have to achieve the finest grind will halt the extraction process sooner than usual to ensure less water has passed through the grounds.

Ristretto is the first part of the extraction process for espresso. The result is a highly concentrated shot of espresso, which is more full-bodied and cuts down the bitterness of its fully-extracted counterpart.

The faster extracting compounds of ground coffee are the bulk of ristretto shots, with less room for over-extraction, creating a different balance of flavors than other methods. The longer espresso is extracted, the more likely it is to have negative flavors such as burnt or bitterness. Since Ristretto cuts down on extraction time, these negative aspects are removed.

Ristretto is typically served in a demitasse, which is a small cup meant for serving espresso.

Is Lungo Better Than Ristretto or Espresso?

Lungo is the opposite of the ristretto, where instead of shortening the length of the shot, it is extended. The result is a bigger drink, with less caffeine per volume.

The drink tends to come out less strong and more bitter than espresso normale or ristretto. When pulling the shot, the goal is to use a coarser grind that will prevent the drink from over-extracting during the process.

If you aren’t super into small, concentrated shots, lungo would be the better choice for you. Many prefer something that resembles their classic cup of coffee, and lungo leans more towards that as it is less concentrated than the other espresso types, and tends to have more of a bitter taste.

Many like the bitterness of their coffee, so don’t let the word scare you away from choosing this drink over the others.

Because of the  pressure used to brew espresso, the lungo shots have different ratios of flavor components than typical espresso shots. It can not be simplified as being half the strength of an espresso shot, because lungo has a different taste and composition overall, despite having the same ratios.

Ristretto, Espresso, or Lungo?

All of these options are delicious, bold ways to consume coffee. They also serve as the base for many other familiar coffee drinks, like lattes, cappuccinos, americanos and more.

It all comes down to a matter of preference when choosing between these types of espresso. They are all very similar by nature, but their resulting beverage can vary greatly between methods.

Many go their whole lives unaware of the different varieties of espresso, always ordering an espresso normale without being aware of it. For many, this remains the way to go after trying out ristretto and lungo.

For someone who wants to get as much caffeine into their body in as short amount of time as possible, ristretto is a great choice. It’s small, compact, and has a bold flavor without the bitterness of a longer-brewed espresso.

It has the most caffeine per ounce, so if that’s what you’re going for, ristretto is the right option.

Lungo would make sense for somebody who wants a longer lasting drink, and prefers the taste of something with more bitter tones. It is not as strongly caffeinated as the other drinks, as the ratio to water is higher.

Espresso normale is a great middle ground for someone who finds ristretto too small or caffeinated, or who finds lungo too large and weak or bitter. These are all personal preferences, so it’s important to give them all a shot before ruling one out.

Personally, I go for espresso normale as I always have. While ristretto is great for the purpose of enjoying the undertones of a strong, classy coffee, and for getting a high caffeine dose, I prefer to have my espresso less concentrated.

I also like the subtle bitterness of espresso normale that ristretto cuts out. I think regular espresso is the right balance, as I am not a big fan of the bitter tones of a lungo beverage.

All three methods make a quality shot, but it does take practice and a good understanding of the method. Which method is better depends on your personal preferences, and what brings you to drink the coffee in the first place.

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