espresso shot from arabica

The Curious Case of the “Dead” Espresso Shot

Is it true that espresso shots can die? And if that’s the case, where do they go – heaven or hell? Today, we delve into the mystery of the “dead shot”.

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Asser Christensen

Licensed Q Arabica Grader, M.A. Journalism

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The coffee world is rife with myths and legends. One such concept you may have heard of is the “dead espresso shot,” which is essentially an alternative way of saying that the espresso in front of you suddenly is acutely undrinkable.

R.I.P. dear espresso shot 🪦 

This idea originated from Starbucks training and has since spread like wildfire.

However…. if espresso shots can genuinely die, then who or what is the culprit responsible?

I don’t mean to transform this article into an Agatha Christie-style mystery, but let’s find out whether espresso shots can actually die.

Can espresso shots die?

Death in nature is a clear-cut, binary concept: You are either dead or alive.

For an espresso shot “to die,” it would seemingly need to have been “alive” beforehand. However, this statement seems a bit absurd considering coffee’s nature and preparation.

Coffee starts as a seed from the coffee plant’s fruit. A lot happens between the time it’s harvested and when you drink it, and it’s safe to say that any “life” the seed had is long gone.

These seeds, now coffee beans, are roasted under intense heat for around 10-15 minutes. This process alters their physical and chemical structure, enhancing the flavors we associate with coffee. Subsequently, the beans are ground into fine particles, ready for brewing.

The final preparation stage involves immersing the ground coffee in near-boiling water, propelled by a 9-bar pump, to pull the shot. This whole process pretty much wipes out any original organic properties of the seed.

So, in terms of life and death, coffee is arguably “dead” long before the shot is served.

But what about the few minutes the espresso shot sits in the cup on the counter? Could something happen then?

Probably not. No changes will be as drastic as what’s already happened before brewing.

Considering espresso’s chemical makeup, the difference between a shot left on the counter for 30 seconds, one minute, or five minutes seems negligible.

While the phrase “espresso dies” may sound intriguing initially, a closer look reveals that it doesn’t quite align with reality.

A big deal if often made out of crema. But is there a life/death difference between shots because of it?

Understanding Oxidation in Espresso: The Life and Death of a Shot

So, we’ve established that coffee is technically “dead” to begin with. But what if we’re not so literal? Could we talk about espresso getting stale in the cup?

According to Starbucks’ training, which has kickstarted this myth, changes occur rapidly after just ten seconds.

Indeed, espresso, like any brewed coffee, starts to drift from its peak flavor profile post-brewing, but this typically transpires over minutes, not seconds.

Interestingly, these flavor changes aren’t necessarily detrimental. Many filter coffee enthusiasts find a hint of oxidation enhances the coffee’s complexity and appeal.

As the coffee gradually cools and undergoes further oxidation, a tapestry of new flavors is unveiled, offering a deeper exploration of the beverage’s character.

As a rule of thumb, enjoying espresso within 10 minutes of brewing is recommended to capture its prime flavor. Beyond this timeframe, the onset of chemical alterations may begin to impair the taste.

Oxidation is a natural process that occurs when oxygen molecules come in contact with coffee compounds, altering their taste, aroma, and overall quality.

This effect is noticeable during all stages of coffee’s lifespan. Oxygen and time are the enemies of fresh coffee (and I would even argue that it’s a more significant concern before brewing the shot.)

Crema and the Dead Espresso Shot

A common misconception among laymen is that the crema, the golden-brown layer of froth that forms on top of an espresso, is the main reason for the flavor change in an espresso shot as it ages. But is this the case?

Crema dissipates relatively quickly. Within a few minutes, the crema will break down and eventually disappear altogether. This process may vary depending on the quality of the coffee beans and the extraction process.

Although the crema on an espresso may seem visually appealing, its taste may not meet your expectations. If you scoop off some crema on its own and taste it, you will realize that it’s actually bitter. Therefore, the notion that the lack of crema is responsible for ruining the espresso shot is somewhat exaggerated.

The Real Purpose of Crema

Despite its less-than-stellar taste, crema serves a purpose when creating beautiful latte art and adding visual appeal to drinks like cappuccinos and lattes. The crema provides a smooth canvas for baristas to create intricate designs and a distinct separation of colors in the drink.

Nowadays, crema is no longer seen as the ultimate sign of a proper espresso. However, in the past, it was considered an indicator of quality.

Debunking the Myth of the “Dead Shot”

In reality, the concept of a “dead shot” may have more to do with factors like bean quality and the speed at which baristas work than the presence or absence of crema. For example, at commercial coffee chains, baristas are trained to work quickly, and the idea of a dead shot might have been used to encourage them to serve espresso shots as quickly as possible.

Moreover, the quality of the coffee beans plays a significant role in the taste of espresso over time. Lower-quality beans will produce a more unpleasant taste as the shot cools down, further perpetuating the myth of the dead shot.

On the other hand, high-quality espresso made with freshly ground beans, proper equipment, and the correct technique can sit for a while without losing its delicious flavor. Allowing the espresso to cool down can reveal new and exciting flavor notes.

Is the Caffeine Content in a “Dead” Espresso Shot Affected?

Does a “dead” espresso shot have less caffeine? Oxidation can cause the flavors in the coffee to deteriorate, but does it affect the caffeine content?

The short answer is no.

Oxidation primarily affects the taste and aroma of the coffee, but the caffeine content remains relatively stable. So, while a dead espresso shot may not taste as good as a fresh one, you can still count on it to deliver that caffeine-kicks you’re looking for.

Appreciating the Experience of Colder Espresso

Cultural attitudes towards drinking cold coffee vary significantly. Some people may cringe at the thought of sipping a cold espresso, while others find it refreshing. It’s essential to understand that a change in temperature doesn’t necessarily indicate staleness in your espresso.

As the temperature of your coffee changes, so does its taste profile. Some coffee tasters even argue that you can only truly appreciate the complexity of espresso when it’s cooled down to around 130°F (54°C), as the heat no longer masks the flavors. Personally, I enjoy coffee that is closer to body temperature, as it allows me to fully appreciate the taste nuances.

espresso shot from flair espresso maker
If you have a manual espresso machines, you can experiment with “Ice-presso” – that is espresso extracted with cold water.

Cold espresso can be a delightful experience, especially when brewed as an iced espresso. This method involves using a manual espresso maker to extract the shot with cold water, resulting in a truly outstanding flavor profile.


In the world of specialty coffee, it’s not uncommon for baristas to prepare multiple shots of espresso before pouring them into various milk-based drinks. This process can take several minutes, but the quality of the espresso remains intact.

In summary, espresso shots do not “die” but change over time as they are exposed to air and the temperature drops.

As coffee enthusiasts, we should embrace these changes and appreciate the complexities offered by our favorite brews.

So, the next time you find yourself sipping a lukewarm espresso, remember that even though it’s dead, it’s not a problem—because so are your tea, coke, water, and beer.

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Asser Christensen

Hello, and welcome! I'm the editor & founder of this site.
I have been a coffee geek since I started home roasting more than a decade ago. Since then, coffee has taken me on countless adventures: From ancient coffee ceremonies in Ethiopia to the volcanos of Sumatra.
My background is in journalism, and today I'm also a licensed Q Grader under the Coffee Quality Institute.