Blending hearty flavors with slight bitterness and the richness of crema, espresso is perhaps the quintessential coffee experience. But coffee lovers will always customize drinks, and the espresso is no exception.
Ristretto pulls a more concentrated and flavorful drink out of an espresso machine. It’s sweet but velvety, almost like a cappuccino sans milk.
Read this ristretto vs. espresso guide to learn the differences between these two drinks and how you can prepare your own ristretto at home.
What Exactly Is A Ristretto?
A ristretto is an espresso brewed with less water in less time.
Typically you would use more finely ground coffee beans so that the water drips through more slowly, concentrating its flavor.
What you wind up with is richer, sweeter, and smoother than an espresso.
In Italian, ristretto translates to limited, restricted, or restrained. But it’s not the ristretto’s flavor that’s restrained. It’s the limited amount of water and brew time.
When coffee shops serve a ristretto, it could be in the same demitasse used to serve espresso, or it could be in a smaller glass. They're served immediately after brewing and may be consumed with additional sugar or without. Adding milk to a ristretto takes you into cappuccino or macchiato territory.
Like the espresso, the ristretto comes from Italian coffee culture. When preparing a ristretto, the barista pulls the first portion of a traditional espresso shot. The first ristretto was probably an accident, but it’s become more popular among coffee aficionados for its richer, sweeter flavor, velvety thickness, and distinctive aroma.
What Is An Espresso?
Espresso is brewed by using pressurized air to send a small amount of nearly boiling water through finely-ground coffee.
Cafes serve espresso in a demitasse, which looks like a small mug, and typically put a small sweet on the side to counter the robust, bitter flavor of the coffee. Nothing is added. You can put sugar in an espresso, but even that is officially an aberration.
As the world modernized, coffeemakers in Italy were hard-pressed to brew coffee fast enough for the throngs of people at their counters.
Finally, following earlier designs from others, Desiderio Pavoni created the first marketable espresso machine that brewed espresso directly into the demitasse without needing big steam tanks or any cranking from the barista.
The espresso is for the modern on-the-go professional as much as it is for the connoisseur who appreciates the rich texture and flavor of the coffee.
Ristretto Vs Espresso: What’s The Difference?
These two coffees have lots of similarities. For instance, they're both made with the same amount of fresh ground coffee, and (officially, at least) neither is served with any additions like milk or sugar.
This Espresso vs. Ristretto table highlights some of the differences between these two popular drinks.
Taste & Aroma
More bitter, but deeply earthy and floral
Sweeter and smoother, more concentrated flavors and syrupy texture
Preparation & Extraction Time
Grind 14 - 17 grams of fresh coffee beans and brew for 22 - 28 seconds
Grind 14 - 17 grams of fresh coffee beans and brew for 15 seconds
The longer brew time of an espresso means more caffeine is in the final product by volume
The ristretto typically has about half the caffeine content of an espresso in half the serving size. A double ristretto is the same serving size as an espresso but still has half the caffeine by volume.
¾ of an ounce
Crema, the froth caused by pressurized air mixing with the oils in the coffee bean, is thicker in espresso due to the higher water content and longer brew time.
Less water means less extraction from the bean, but the oils come out at the beginning of brewing, so ristretto will still have crema, albeit a thinner and less flavorful one.
Size Per Serving
A bit less than 1 fluid ounce
About ¾ to ½ the size of an espresso
1 or less
Around $1.75 in the USA, 1-2€ in Europe
Usually the same as an espresso
How To Make The Perfect Ristretto At Home: A Barista’s Guide
If you want the real deal, you have to make your ristretto with an espresso machine. Coffee machines that make ‘espresso’ are usually just dripping less water through the same coffee or pod, so you wind up with a smaller version of your normal cup of coffee.
Follow these steps to brew a ristretto with an espresso machine:
1. Find The Right Beans
Look for a medium or medium-dark roast for the most robust flavor.
2. Grind Your Coffee
You want a finer grind than you would have for an espresso - longer drip time due to the finer grind will give you a richer and less bitter ristretto.
3. Find The Right Cup
A demitasse is great for ristretto, or you can find another small mug. They do make specific ristretto mugs that are even smaller than a demitasse.
4. Fill The Espresso Machine
Find water without any additives. Non-alkaline spring water works best.
5. Heat The Water
Most espresso machines have a simple button for this function.
6. Put Ground Coffee In The Filter
Pour out 14 grams (or slightly more) to fill the portafilter.
7. Tamp The Grounds
Pack in the ground coffee to get rid of air pockets and ensure a more controlled drip. Use a coffee tamper if you have one handy.
8. Place The Coffee In The Machine
Put the round end of the portafilter into the round opening of the espresso machine with the handle straight out toward you, then turn it counterclockwise to lock it in place.
9. Brew For 15 Seconds
Turn on the water and let it run through the grounds for 15 seconds. You should wind up with about ¾ of an ounce in your cup.
10. Enjoy Your Ristretto
Savor the bouquet and the rich, sweet flavor of the ristretto you've made. Note the absence of bitterness at the end, like you would find in an espresso.
If you don’t have an espresso machine available, you can also learn how to use ristretto espresso capsules or pods.
Products like TASSIMO Jacobs Espresso Ristretto come ready-made to pack into countertop espresso machines. All you have to do is follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Fill the water reservoir, insert the pod, put your cup under the spout, and then press the brew button. Your ristretto should be ready in no time.
Frequently Asked Ristretto & Espresso Coffee Questions
What is the difference between ristretto and lungo?
A lungo is the spiritual opposite of a ristretto. Lungo means long in Italian - a ristretto uses more water than espresso and brews for longer. They’re thinner and more acidic than espresso and far more so than a ristretto.
As to which is best, the espresso vs. lungo vs. ristretto debate rages on. You'll have to try them all and decide for yourself.
What is the difference between Nespresso and espresso?
Nespresso is an offshoot of Nestle that focuses on coffee products. Their espresso capsules are meant to produce something similar to the machines found in coffee shops all over the world. While they get pretty close to espresso, Nespresso coffees are slightly less robust and have a milder flavor profile.
To read more about these differences, check out our details article: Nespresso vs Espresso
What is an espresso leggero?
Espresso leggero blends include South American coffee beans to mellow them out and add floral and cacao notes to make the shot more palatable. Notably, Nespresso has a well-known espresso leggero blend.
What do you mean by double ristretto?
Preparing a double ristretto requires filling two different portafilters. You make one ristretto as we described above and then dump the grounds and repeat the process to make a double.
What is an espresso forte?
The espresso forte blend from Nespresso includes Arabica beans from South and Central America. It has a dark, malty flavor with fruity notes.
Ristretto is a smaller, more condensed version of espresso. Both have a rich flavor profile derived from the coffee beans used to make them, but the ristretto delivers a sweeter and richer taste without the bitterness that comes at the end of an espresso.
Now that you know how to make your own ristretto, you can compare it to espresso and see which one you like best. For many coffee lovers, each one has its time and place.