Delving deep into the long black coffee classic
Whether you're a coffee novice or a seasoned connoisseur, we will endeavour to titillate your pleasure sensors with some new knowledge about this espresso based drink. The Americano has been a staple in espresso based coffee culture for many years however its place on the coffee menu is neither black nor white. This article aims to demystify its origins, characteristics, and uses and offer some practical tips regarding ordering, preparation and variations.
So what is an Americano? Chat GPT tells us “It is a simple yet profound concoction made by adding hot water to a shot (or more) of espresso. It's cherished for offering the strength and depth of espresso while having the familiarity of filter coffee.” Now if you know anything about an americano, than that definition from Chat GPT is an excellent illustration of why we cannot trust AI to do our research. What a load of spent coffee grounds.
We will accept that some may ‘cherish’ the americano as poetic licence, however it is by definition weaker than espresso, since it is composed of espresso diluted by water and there is nothing profound about it.
The loosest definition of an americano is hot water added to espresso. How much espresso and how much hot water, what temperature and finally, is it an americano if the espresso is added to the water. This last point is the most controversial and should get a few coffee pros shaking their portafilters and banging their milk jugs with their redundant distribution tools when we say NO.
If you add espresso to the water it is called a long black. This is done to retain the crema from espresso so it looks ‘pretty’ and retains some of the volatile organic compounds dissipated by crema for the sensory pleasure of the consumer. Of course, James Hoffmann advises making an americano in this way but then scraping the crema off the top since the gustatory sensation of crema is bitterness. So Mr Hoffmann is in fact contradicting us here and saying an Americano can in fact be made by adding espresso to water. We respectfully disagree. No wonder Chat GPT can’t define an americano if coffee pros cannot even agree.
To further refine our definition of an americano, let’s look at the objective of an americano (Table 1). We can then acknowledge it offers a multitude of benefits for the diverse coffee loving world.
Table 1: the objective of the americano was to emulate the filter coffee. Table 1 compares and contrasts the americano and filter coffees. (Link to webinar on different filter coffees)
So there we have it, a description of the attributes that help define an americano. It is kind of like our definition of the flat white which we defined here - somewhat dissatisfying yet broadly applicable to diverse coffee drinking regions globally.
Speaking of the globe, the americano is said to have emerged from Italian coffee culture. During World War II or just after, when American soldiers stationed there were said to have diluted the espresso with hot water to mimic the coffee they were accustomed to back home. Essentially they were diluting espresso to the strength of filter coffee.
This description supports our assertion that the americano is made by making espresso, and then adding hot water to the espresso. This is important in 2 ways - firstly, the espresso is diluted with hot water that does not percolate through the ground coffee, in other words, the americano is not simply a long shot of espresso; the diluting water bypasses the coffee grounds. If you see someone make an americano by running extra water through the spent coffee grinds, please refer them to the coffee knowledge hub for some training. Secondly, from a historical perspective - water is added to espresso to make an americano. So history is on our side in the assertion that americano’s and long backs are equal in parts but different in process. .
With this foundational knowledge you can now optimise your americano order. If you want a stronger coffee than a standard filter coffee, get a double shot in a cup no bigger than 8 oz (250 ml) if you want it to be around the same strength as a filter coffee from an american diner, get a double shot in a 12oz (350ml) cup and for a weak coffee, a double shot in 16 oz (400ml ) cup. Essentially you can specify the number of espresso shots and the amount of water by choosing the cup size that pleases you. .
You can compare diluting the espresso with water to adding water to whiskey, it can open up the concentrated flavours, giving more transparency to the complexity of the drink. Here’s a pro tip for ordering an americano to explore the flavours of the coffee- ask for a double espresso with hot water on the side. You can then add water, taste, add more water and taste again… repeat until you find the strength you like. Try not to burn yourself.
And yes, in case you’re a coffee purist, in it for the love of the flavour of the coffee and not the caffeination, all americano variants should be available in decaffeinated form. Finally, you can add milk, hot or cold and all plant based variants. The strength of the americano can in fact support a bit more milk dilution if that’s your thing.
But before we get too inclusive, let’s circle back to the long black vs americano debate. What is a long black anyway? Essentially in Australia and New Zealand, americanos are not common on cafe menus, you ask for a long black instead. The long black is hot water diluted with espresso. It tends to be served in a similar cup to the ‘specialty’ version of the flat white (5.5-6oz) with a double shot. Many specialty coffee pros who enjoy an americano/long black will go for this configuration and reject it outright if there’s no crema.
So, as you now know, when it comes to the americano it is not as simple as black or white. The size, the number of shots, the order of combining water and espresso and the type and volume of additives such as milk, all change the sensory experience of the americano. Coffee pros might argue about the perfect water-to-espresso ratio, the order of ingredients and whether crema is in fact a sensory pleasure or detraction.
However, the americano can also be described as transcending (borrowing on Chat GPT’s poetic license) the espresso for a wider coffee loving public. Who cares how your neighbour drinks their coffee, just know that however you like your coffee, a good barista will be able to deliver it for you.
For our part in this discussion, the americano highlights our debt of gratitude to the versatilty of espresso. The americano and long black are simply names given to describe that you are ordering an espresso diluted with freshly drawn hot water to give your palate and senses more time to savour the coffee.
Hoffmann, J (2014) The world atlas of coffee, Mitchell Beazley, London
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