Is Your Espresso Dying While You Wait?

Is Your Espresso Dying While You Wait?

At my first cafe job, my boss sat me down with two freshly pulled espressos in separate shot glasses.

"Quick. Drink this one." I did. It was hot, syrupy, and deeply bittersweet.

"Now watch this one." We did. An amber foam slowly formed a thick layer on top of the drink. Then, we watched as the foam dissolved back into the espresso, leaving a lacy residue on the sides of the glass. The process took about a minute.

"Now drink this one." This time, the espresso was significantly cooler, yet still syrupy. But the flavor had definitely changed. The espresso tasted burned, almost ashy, and hardly palatable. I might have gagged.

"This," my boss instructed, "this is a dead espresso."

In your coffee journey, you may have heard something similar. The idea that if left to sit, an espresso will transform from the most lovely of beverages into something totally undrinkable. But what makes an espresso "die"? And do you really have to gulp down piping hot coffee in order to get the full experience?

Foam Is Where The Heart Is

It's hard to say exactly where the idea of "dead espresso" originates. It is most likely an offshoot of Italian espresso tradition. For the Neapolitan drinker, crema, the layer of foam on top of the liquid espresso, is an essential part of a great coffee. In fact, some Italian espresso enthusiasts swear that truly fine espresso should have a crema so dense that it can support a whole teaspoon of sugar for a minimum of a few seconds.

Unfortunately, time is the enemy of dense crema. The tight network of bubbles will break down as water evaporates and the emulsified lipids in the beverage interact with the foam.

But there is more to espresso than foam. What about flavor?

Dalla Corte Mina Spouted Portafilter

The Dalla Corte Mina, showing off.

Heat Wave Is Not The New Craze

Temperature has a huge effect on how we perceive flavor. To me, the clearest example is an ice cold soda. When thoroughly chilled, a soda tastes refreshing and sweet. But when it is served at room temperature, the soda turns into something grotesquely saccharine – almost a cavity in a cup. This is because our body is better at detecting flavors when they are close to body temperature.

Items served piping hot or nearly frozen will be more difficult to taste in full. This does not mean a steaming hot mug of coffee is a bad thing. It just means that when a coffee is at its hottest, a drinker will experience temperature and body more than flavor.

Top competitive baristas know this well. If you watched the last few United States Barista Competitions, you may have noticed most baristas instructing their judges to wait to consume their espressos. Or they will often ask their judges to thoroughly stir their espressos to bring the temperature down. They know that if they want their judges to perceive all of their individual flavor notes, it is better to let the espresso cool.

Brian Ensminger Barista at Clive Coffee

Your author competing at the Western Regionals. Photo courtesy of

A great espresso will have more flavors as the coffee approaches body temperature. A bad espresso won't be able to hide behind its heat and body as it cools. Still, there is a threshold for flavor and time.

As espresso sits, some important chemical reactions take place. All of the lovely oils and lipids that give coffee their rich body and long aftertaste will oxidize. This results in funky, off flavors of rancid fats (think musty or acrid). In addition, the mostly unperceived chlorogenic acids will continue to degrade into bitter and metallic quinic acids (think quinine in tonic water). Still, this process takes a fair amount of time to really have an effect on the beverage flavor.

Take Away

Like most coffee stories, the science falls somewhat short of dogma or tradition. While your espresso will not die seconds after its pulled, the flavors will change over time. Should you use the espresso you made in the morning to make a latte in the afternoon? Probably not. But is it going to ruin your cappuccino if the espresso sits for a few minutes while you steam milk? If the coffee is quality and the shot well prepared, absolutely not.

Now, are you wondering whether your coffee is too fresh? You might want to think about that...


  • Great article and it rings true. I roast my own coffee and brew fresh. I’ve found with properly roasted and brewed coffee, that I Iike the taste as much hot as cold. I most often drink Americanos with a shot of cream, but will occasionaly have an iced tan mocha with coconut milk. I sometimes will forget my unfinished Americano and find it sitting ignored and cold. I will finish anyway and find it to be just as tasty as it was hot. After I have roasted a fresh batch and let it sit for at least a week I will try straight shots to help determine my brew temp and time. I will say I have never left a straight shot of espresso to sit and cool and then taste it, but I think I might after this article just for an experiment.

    JB on

  • I found my espresso taste best after 30-40sec,think what you want ,that is my experience

    Jozef Martinka on

  • @Jennie: Caffeine is very stable in most conditions that we humans find ourselves in, so there will be much the same amount of caffeine at 4:28pm as there was that morning. Unfortunately, there are many other volatile compounds in coffee (acids, oils, etc.) which will have changed over the course of the day, significantly altering the taste of that espresso.

    Less clinically: pull a new shot because that one’s nasty.

    Charles with Clive Coffee on

  • Hi clive, we are having a debate at work. Any thoughts on the strength of the caffeine in an espresso shot after it has been sitting on your desk since 8:15 am and it is now 4:28 pm?

    Much obliged.

    Jennie on

  • In my experience, if the shot is good, it stays good for hours. The heat can hide flaws. Especially if a shot is sour, it’ll be disappointing when hot, but it’ll be nasty sour when it cools. This being said, you gotta have the first sips while there’s still crema—that’s the highlight for sure. After that, relax—there’s no rush. Disclaimer—this is applicable only to home barista where you’re not quite so much looking for a super consistent product.

    Ted Haskell on

  • @Staci N Burton: Such a fun question. Here’s the tricky part: the reason cold brew is such a popular choice is that it’s a great way to make a consistent coffee concentrate. That said, it definitely has a different flavor than other brew methods.

    If you can get your hands on a good machine, your best bet is espresso. It’s one of the only brew methods that produces a sufficiently concentrated beverage. I’d recommend pulling a 1:1 shot so that there isn’t too much dilution when the hot espresso is added to the ice of the cocktail. If you can pull the shot into a chilled shot glass to dissapate some of that heat, even better.

    The biggest difference in using espresso instead of cold brew will be the additional coffee solids. The portafilter basket allows through more solids than most cold brew filters. This might make the drink a bit cloudy but a properly pulled shot should taste great nonetheless. I’d recommend a medium roast with just enough brightness to add a little complexity to the drink, something like Cat & Cloud’s The Truth would work wondefully.

    Charles with Clive Coffee on

  • What is your advice for a bartender wanting to use espresso for an old fashion. I’d rather not use cold brew and I enjoyed your article and hoping you can help a bar sister out. Thanks Adam!

    Staci N Burton on

  • @Terra: The short answer is that both with taste about the same. Crema will dissipate, or more accurately, dissolve when mixing espresso with just about anything. Since crema is simply trapped CO2 mixed with oils and larger coffee solids the CO2 will escape and the oils and solids will mix into your shot over time or into your drink upon mixing.

    Charles with Clive Coffee on

  • so when making a mocha latte, the crema would dissipate when swirling it in to the mocha right? wouldnt it be better to mix it with the steamed milk instead? then adding the shot? yeah im a newbie, but this seems more like a tasty choice. interested in any thoughts on this. thanks for this article, it was informative!

    Terra on

  • Adam should consider changing his last name legally. I’ll start a gofundme.

    mimi on

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