There’s a popular myth among the coffee-drinking community that an espresso shot ‘dies’ 10 seconds after pouring it.

But what exactly does this mean, and how much truth is there in the claim?

Quick Answer: What is a dead espresso shot?

A dead espresso shot is one that the maker has left standing for too long. After brewing, the oxidation process works to change the texture and flavor of the espresso. The length of time it takes for a shot to ‘die’ is debated, ranging from ten seconds to three minutes.

Espresso is delicious when served piping hot with the characteristic layer of golden brown crema on its surface. However, there are times when your espresso is just not up to par.

What Is a Dead Espresso Shot: Everything You Need to Know

If you wonder why your espresso is dead, please read on for more details on what happens when an espresso shot dies and what it all means.

How oxidation affects espresso

Some people argue whether or not it’s even possible for an espresso shot to die. Still, it’s undeniable that the shot changes over time.

This phenomenon doesn’t only affect espresso, though. It affects all types of coffee.

As the hot steam that goes through an espresso machine comes into contact with the beans, a chemical change called oxidation begins.

Actually, oxidation begins the moment air hits the beans, speeding up when the hot water comes into contact, but also right after roasting the coffee beans. (Source)

Peruvian coffee beans.

As this happens, everything that gives your espresso its great flavor begins to break down. The longer the molecules are in this heated environment, the more the taste changes.

How long does it take for an espresso shot to die?

An espresso shot takes ten seconds to three minutes to die after brewing. However, the answer depends on how sensitive your taste buds are and whether or not you can detect the change in flavor.

The exact time it takes an espresso to die is a widely debated topic, and it depends on several factors.

Age of the bean

By the time most espresso beans are ready to be brewed, they can already be said to be ‘dead’ to some extent.

The fact is that the oxidation process that changes their flavor begins when the producer roasts the beans.

The more exposure to air, humidity, and even sunlight, the more oxidation takes place. Working with stale beans is a sure way to have a dead espresso shot even before brewing.

The drinker’s taste buds

Not all espresso drinkers are alike. Some have tongues that can pick up on the most delicate notes and subtle changes to flavor like acidity and bitterness.

Others are simply drinking their morning brew because it keeps them going.

The level of experience with espresso someone has goes a long way in predicting when they’ll consider a shot to have lost its flavor and texture.

The crema

Crema refers to the foam that sits on top of an espresso shot. It has a caramel color and is full of oils and carbon dioxide, giving it more of a bitter flavor.

Some baristas say you should scrape off the crema before drinking the espresso, while others claim it’s an integral part of the drink.

Espresso shot in a small glass, ready to be served.

But if they disagree about consuming crema, many still agree that the shot is ‘dead’ if it has been absorbed into the espresso’s body.

This agreement is because the powerfully bitter oils and pockets of carbon dioxide dissolve into the drink, changing the flavor to some degree.

Tip: Check out this complete guide to learn more about what espresso crema is!

The flavor of a dead espresso shot

As the hot espresso shot is left out and oxidation continues, molecules from the coffee begin to change, along with the drink’s flavor.

A common misconception is that the crema is the main reason for the ruined flavor of the drink.

While it’s true that the crema may add some bitterness and oiliness to the drink, it isn’t at fault for the change in the flavor profile.

That is, once again, due to oxidation.

If an espresso shot is left out long enough to cool down, it will have a burnt, ashy flavor that the drinker can’t deny.

Does a dead espresso shot have less caffeine?

The answer to this question is a resounding ‘no.’

A dead espresso does not have less caffeine. While the flavor of the dead espresso shot changes, the caffeine content does not, as it is a very stable compound. Coffee can be left out for days and still retain its caffeinated properties. (Source)

So, if you happen to leave an espresso shot out for too long, feel free to drink it for the caffeine boost, if not for the flavor.

Can you use a dead espresso shot?

You can use a dead espresso shot if you’re willing to get creative. These uses could involve adding some frothy milk to the shot, turning it into a café latte, or making any number of other coffee-based drinks.

You could add other ingredients like spices and syrups to mask some of the burnt flavors.

Get creative with some of the suggestions below, and I’m sure you’ll find a way to turn that dead shot into something tasty.

Mocha

You can make a mocha drink by combining chocolate sauce with an espresso shot and steamed milk.

Mocha coffee.

By adding the chocolate and milk to the shot, you can cover up a lot of the lackluster flavor.

The mocha is also just an incredibly tasty drink. You can check out the complete recipe for it here.

Breve

This one is an American invention with an Italian name.

It’s similar to a latte, but instead of milk, half and half is used to make the drink creamier, mixing it with equal parts of espresso.

With all of the extra fat, it may not be something to drink every day, but it’s worth indulging yourself every once in a while.

Iced latte

The last thing you want to do with a dead shot of espresso is reheat it, so if you can use it while it’s cold, you’ll do yourself a big favor.

Homemade iced latte, ready to be enjoyed.

That’s why the iced latte is such a great option. Add milk and something to sweeten it up, and you’ve got yourself the perfect summer-time pick-me-up.

Tips for a better espresso shot

Bad-tasting espresso comes down to over-oxidation at one stage or another.

Because of that, if you want to avoid espresso shots that come out tasting like charcoal and ash, you’ll need to take a few crucial steps.

1. Buy your beans whole

Whole beans take longer to oxidize because much less of the bean is exposed to the air.

After you grind your beans, the inner portion of the bean gets exposed to air, whereas before, it was only the outer portion.

This exposure leads to a degrading flavor profile and will set your espresso shot up for failure before the water touches it.

2. Store your beans properly

The first thing to note here is that you shouldn’t open your bag of coffee beans until you’re ready to use them.

These days, most coffee vendors will put the bags of coffee through a process called ‘nitrogen flushing,’ which removes oxygen from the inside of the bag so that the beans keep for longer.

Storing coffee beans in a mason jar.

Once you’ve opened the bag, transfer them to a sealable container and store them in a cool, dry place that doesn’t get any sunlight.

3. Grind your beans with a burr grinder

We’re getting into the finer details now. Still, many coffee drinkers swear that using a burr grinder versus one with blades makes a big difference.

Once again, this comes down to oxidation. Since the metal in a blade grinder heats up while grinding coffee beans, it also heats the beans themselves.

This heat leads to more oxidation that you can avoid if you go with a burr grinder that breaks the beans apart rather than cuts them.

4. Make sure your coffee is finely ground

When making espresso, you want your coffee to be ground appropriately, to the point where it’s slightly finer than sand but not so fine that the hot water has a hard time pushing through.

If the grounds aren’t at the proper level, it can lead to espresso that tastes either overly bitter or overly sour.

Get the grind just right, and everything else should fall into place. An espresso grind size looks like this:

Espresso grind size.

5. Be prepared to drink the espresso shot quickly

When I say ‘quickly,’ I don’t mean that you should be slamming back the espresso shot the second it leaves the machine. That would be a recipe for a burnt mouth.

You want your espresso shot to be sufficiently cooled to enjoy it but not so cool that the flavor is completely wrong.

I recommend that you spend about a minute stirring the drink to cool it faster. Once it’s at a comfortable temperature, enjoy!

Final thoughts

Exactly when an espresso shot can be declared ‘dead’ is debatable. However, it’s undeniable that the process of oxidation leads to a change in the flavor profile that most people don’t appreciate.

As long as you take care of your espresso beans and don’t leave your shot sitting for too long, your drink should taste fine.

And if it does end up sitting for too long, remember that it’s still drinkable!

Espresso recipes to try

Picture of Jeffrey, Author at Your Dream Coffee
Author

On my coffee blog you will find everything you need in order to start brewing coffee at home. Ranging from the basics; to the newest coffee recipes everybody talks about! You can learn more about me here.

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