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The Surprising Story Behind Espresso Lemon Peels

lemon in coffee

If you order a shot of espresso at an Italian café, you might be surprised to find a lemon peel served on the saucer. What’s the story behind that slice of citrus, and what are you supposed to do with it?

Here’s the mysterious story of espresso lemon peels! We’ll tell you all about the myths behind this unexpected espresso garnish, plus offer you a few suggestions!

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Where Did Espresso Lemon Peels Come From?

There are several theories behind this tradition, and it’s hard to say which is true. One common theory holds that cafés started doing this to hide poorly made espresso shots. If the water is too hot or the beans aren’t fresh, espresso can have an unpleasant sour flavor. Adding lemon might cover that flavor with more sourness!

lemon peel

Another myth is that the lemon was used as a crude disinfectant in less hygienic times. If you didn’t have access to soap and water to wash out that mug, the acid in lemon peels might stave off illness, in theory, anyway.

Yet another theory holds that lemons are so abundant in Italy, they’re simply an affordable garnish. But what do you do with that garnish?

What are you supposed to do with that lemon peel?

Lemon peels are full of natural oils that come out when you twist them. The idea is to twist the lemon peel and then rub the oils on the lip of your cup. This will leave behind a light lemon flavor that you’ll taste as you drink your espresso — something like the salt rim on a margarita. Which brings us to the bigger question: do lemon peels make your espresso better or worse?

French espresso cafe serre

Do lemon peels improve espresso?

Whether adding lemon peel to your espresso is a good idea depends on your taste buds. Many baristas shudder at the idea of ruining a perfectly pulled shot with citrus, and if you’re an espresso purist, you might agree with them. But if you’re a little more experimental with your coffee tastes, a bright pop of lemon may be just the thing!

One thing to keep in mind is that lemons go best with plain espresso. Lemons can curdle milk and cream, so if you add a splash of half-and-half or milk to your morning espresso, you might want to skip the lemon peel.

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Final Thoughts

Next time you find a twist of lemon on the edge of your espresso, you’ll know what to do! Whether the espresso lemon peel tradition started to hide badly made coffee, disinfect cups, or simply serve as decoration, you might enjoy the bright pop of citrus! Espresso purists will likely ignore it, but if you’re the adventurous type, why not give espresso with lemon peel a try?

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Kate MacDonnell

Kate is a lifelong coffee enthusiast and homebrewer who enjoys writing for coffee websites and sampling every kind of coffee known to man. She’s tried unusual coffees from all over the world and owns an unhealthy amount of coffee gear.

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