I remember the first time I ever ordered an espresso… I was already a casual coffee drinker, but beyond ordering a good ol’ cup of drip, I had no idea how to navigate a coffee shop’s menu.
One day, while taking a stroll through the neighborhood, I really needed to use the bathroom and so I walked into the nearest restaurant – a pizza shop - in search of sweet relief. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I needed a cup of coffee or anything like that, but I felt bad about leaving without making a purchase (and I wasn’t hungry), so I decided to try espresso for the first time. Why not, right?
WRONG. GROSS. EW.
I thought to myself “This is what espresso tastes like? Why? Who drinks this?” and I didn’t order espresso again for years.
Fast forward to today and I absolutely ADORE espresso! So, what went wrong? Why did my first espresso taste so revolting? Well, knowing what I know now, there are so many different things that could have went wrong.
Like most brew methods, the idea behind espresso is to extract your coffee via hot water. Only with espresso, this is done in a highly pressurized environment with a much higher coffee to water ratio. The result is a strong, concentrated, product that when done right, can taste amazing and really let the character of the coffee shine through. It’s the heart of every good coffee shop and the base ingredient of most of the drinks you’ll find on a coffee shop’s menu. So, how do you make espresso “the right way”?
Ok, there isn’t really a simple answer to that. Seriously, the world of coffee is so vast and complex, and the world’s best coffee professionals are still learning on a daily basis, but you can learn how to control your brews and find repeatable methods to making good coffee by paying attention to the right things.
This guide will walk you through how you can make great espresso at home. It’ll be separated into two parts: putting together an espresso rig, and brewing espresso.
PART 1: PUTTING TOGETHER AN ESPRESSO RIG
Step One: PROCURE COFFEE
If anyone tells you that you need to use a coffee blend that’s been chosen or roasted specifically for espresso, they’re wrong. You can make espresso with any coffee. But that being said, your results can vary greatly from coffee to coffee, and if a roaster has labelled a coffee for espresso, it’s probably because they think it works great for this particular brew method. Trust your local roasters.
Step Two: KNOW YOUR GEAR
Your budget may vary, but at any level you will need:
An espresso machine
A coffee grinder (if you are starting with whole bean coffee)
A scale and timer (you can make espresso without these, but you won’t be able to measure anything unless you use them)
Recommended: a water filter (water chemistry is a topic for another day, but trust me on this…)
There is a lot of different equipment out there. Depending on how much money you’re willing to spend, your espresso rig may end up looking pretty different.
Pressurized vs. Non-Pressurized Baskets
Does your machine have pressurized or non-pressurized baskets? If you’re using a more budget-friendly setup, you may be using pressurized (or dual-walled) baskets. You can tell by looking at the bottom of the basket and seeing if all the little holes at the bottom of the basket go the whole way through (non-pressurized) or if there is a second wall with only a single hole (pressurized). What this means is that your basket won’t allow water to flow through until a certain pressure has been reached. This is designed to compensate for a lack of grind control if you’re using pre-ground coffee or if your grinder doesn’t easily adjust for dialing in espresso. What it essentially does is allow for the creation of a foam to simulate crema on top of the espresso, but it does not aid in your extraction. If you can afford an appropriate grinder, I would recommend using non-pressurized baskets 100% of the time.
Choosing a Grinder
Most, if not all, consumer coffee grinders will be advertised as being capable of grinding for espresso. Unfortunately, this isn’t completely true. Most budget-friendly grinders will have stepped adjustments and can’t be adjusted using small enough increments to really dial in espresso. The jumps in grind size are too big. Also, less expensive grinders tend to be less capable of producing a grind size small enough to make good espresso. This doesn’t mean you should completely rule out making espresso at home if you can’t afford better equipment, but it does mean you will need to temper your expectations and be ready to make some concessions. For example, you’ve probably heard that it’s always better to grind your coffee fresh, as opposed to buying pre-ground coffee, but when it comes to espresso, if you can’t afford a suitable grinder then you may actually find it more worth your time to have your coffee ground for you upon purchase. Beware that if you are purchasing coffee off the shelf of a grocery store, pre-ground coffee for espresso will tend to be quite coarse (this, and a million other reasons, are why you should purchase your coffee from local roasters and coffee shops who put more love and care into what they are selling).
If you do intend to purchase a suitable grinder to make espresso at home, look for something that is made with espresso specifically in mind. It’ll need to be able to grind quite fine and will need either stepless adjustments or a very large quantity or small stepped adjustments.
There are a ton of accessories on the market that will aid you in making espresso. Some of them are pretty essential, and some are nice to have but not necessary.
Most if not all espresso machines will come with a tamper, but not many come with a very good tamper. For most people, the included tampers will be good enough to get a product you are happy with at home, but if you want to go the extra mile, look into getting something better. The things to look out for are the diameter of the tamper’s base, the shape of the base, and the shape of the handle. Make sure whatever you are using matches the size of your machine’s portafilter. As long as it matches, it will work. Beyond that, the shape of the base (convex vs. flat) and the shape of the handle are a matter of preference. The jury is still out on what type of base is best, and everyone has differently sized hands.
Scales and timers aren’t exactly necessary to your setup, but they are essential if your goal is to make consistently good espresso. You will want a scale that will be precise to at least a tenth of a gram, small enough to fit under your portafilter when brewing, and responsive enough for you to monitor how much espresso is in your cup while you’re pulling your shot. The timer will be used to time your espresso shot, and any basic timer will do the job. Your phone will work great for this!
Beyond these things, most of the espresso accessories you will find are optional. Things like dosing cups, dosing funnels, tamper mats, distributing tools, milk pitchers, knockboxes, etc… they are all nice to have, but we don’t need to get into them here. If you’re interested, do a search and see what’s right for you!
BONUS: Steam Wands
If you’re interested in brewing espresso, chances are you’re also interested in steaming milk to make delicious caffeinated beverages like lattes and cappuccinos. When you’re choosing what machine you’d want to purchase, pay attention to the type of steam wand it’s equipped with. Some machines will have an auto-frother/pannarello wand, which is designed to inject your milk with air in order to create foam. It’s effective in the sense that not much technique goes into learning how to use it, but if you’re interested in learning and practicing the technique that goes into using a traditional steam wand, then I’d recommend going in that direction. Traditional steam wands will be more effective at creating smooth and creamy microfoam with your milk, but beware that traditional steam wands on some budget friendly machines will produce very little steam pressure and can be a little bit difficult to use.
Step Three: FIND A CUTE SPOT FOR YOUR SPRO BAR
Ok, it doesn’t have to be pretty, but if you’re going to be making coffee as part of your daily morning ritual, feel good about it! Find a nice spot that will have easy access to electricity and water. Keep your layout comfortable, and get ready to have some fun! From here on out, it’s all about brewing.
PART 2: BREWING ESPRESSO
Step One: USING A BREW RECIPE
Here’s where things start getting real fun. Creating a brew recipe is the key to understanding the parameters with which you are brewing your coffee. These parameters may not directly quantify any part of your extraction, but they are the variables you can look at that affect your extraction. This way, you can have an idea of how to tweak your recipe to affect the taste in your cup, and you can make sure that once you’ve got something you’re happy with, you can repeat the same brews over and over again. You can break it down into three components:
Admittedly, you’re not likely to look at brew temperature unless you’ve gone real deep into the world of espresso. Tweaking your brew temperature involves fiddling with your machine, and this probably isn’t something most people are looking to do unless they’re an espresso machine technician. As a guideline, you probably want your espresso to be brewed somewhere between 91 and 95 degrees Celsius, but all you really need to know is that you need to let your machine come to temperature before you pull your shot. For most machines, that means waiting until a little light comes on, telling you it’s ready for you.
Your brew ratio consists of two variables: your dry dose and your yield. These refer to the amount of coffee you are using to pull your espresso, and the amount of resulting coffee that ends up in your cup. A common starting point is a “1:2 ratio”, so for every gram of coffee you use, pull two grams of espresso. Your dry dose will often depend on the size of your basket, so if your basket will fit 15g of finely ground coffee, you can start by aiming for a yield of 30g. Measure this by placing a scale (yes, a scale… eyeballing or using volumetric measurements will not be useful) under your drink vessel as you’re pulling your shot. Stop your shot early enough so that you end up with your desired yield.
After you taste your espresso, you can determine whether you think you should increase or decrease your yield. If it tastes heavily sour and harsh, you might want to extract more by increasing your yield and subsequently running more water through the coffee. If it tastes overly bitter, you might want to decrease your yield.
Brew time refers to the amount of time it takes to pull your shot of espresso, from the moment you engage it to when the finished product is in your vessel. A longer brew time means slightly more extraction as well as more strength. If you’ve found that your espresso tastes pretty good, but that it’s a little weak or thin, you can try increasing your brew time. Now, you don’t adjust your brew time by simply stopping your shot earlier or later – that would result in changing your yield. The way you should be adjusting your brew time is by changing your grind size. To increase your brew time, grind your coffee a little finer, and you should find that it will take longer to pull the same yield using the same dry dose. This is where being able to invest in a suitable grinder can really help. The better your grinder is, the easier it will be to dial in your grind setting to pull a great shot of espresso.
Note that at a certain point, increasing your brew time may give you an undesirable result. Grinding too fine can result in blockages that don’t allow the water to flow through the coffee evenly. This is a phenomenon called “channeling” and what it means is that some of your coffee ends up underextracted while a small pocket can end up overextracted.
To start, try aiming for a brew time somewhere between 25 and 35 seconds. Depending on the taste and texture of the espresso, determine whether or not you should try changing your desired brew time.
Step Two: REFINE YOUR TECHNIQUE
Now that you’re officially a coffee nerd, you’re ready to brew like a pro! Though there’s a lot that can go into preparing yourself to brew espresso, learning and practicing the brew method is also quite important. You want your extraction to be balanced, you want to avoid channeling, and you want to achieve the same results every time you brew. Here are the steps that go into pulling a shot of espresso.
- Dose and grind your coffee: Use that scale! Whatever dry dose you have in your recipe, get it ground and into the basket.
- Distribute the coffee evenly in the basket: There are different methods that baristas like to use. Some people even have tools they use to distribute the coffee. The goal is to try and eliminate gaps or clumps and to have the coffee grounds settled nice and evenly so that after tamping, the density throughout the puck is reasonably consistent.
- Tamp the coffee: To tamp effectively, hold the tamper so that you will be applying pressure with your index finger and thumb. Turn your body so that you can comfortably press your tamper directly down onto the coffee bed – this means bending your elbow so that your forearm makes a 90 degree angle with the ceiling. People often say that you need to tamp with approximately 30lbs of pressure, and some tampers are even calibrated to click after hitting that threshold, but the important thing about refining your tamping technique is making sure you are tamping as evenly as possible and that your technique is consistent and repeatable.
- Prepare your equipment for brewing: At this point, you’ll want to make sure you flush your grouphead, which means running some water through it without anything attached. This helps to rid the shower screen of any old coffee residue and also pre-heats the grouphead. You may also want to pre-heat your cup with hot water at this point. Lastly, make sure your tools are in place before pulling your shot. This means having your scale and timer ready, and having any cloths you need on hand for cleaning and wiping.
Place the portafilter in the grouphead: Be careful not to bump your portafilter on anything as you’re trying to place it into the grouphead. Any sudden impacts may dislodge the puck and create room for channeling.
- Go ahead and pull your shot: Make sure your cup is in place under the spouts of the portafilter (or under the bottom of the basket, if you’re using a bottomless portafilter) and make sure you tare your scale before you engage your machine. Start your timer the moment the machine is engaged and stop both the timer and the machine when you reach your target weight (your desired yield). Depending on the responsiveness of your scale, you may need to stop your shot a little bit before you see it hit the number you’re looking for.
- Clean up after yourself: I was going to write that this is where you can now enjoy your espresso, but that would be premature. Clean up after yourself! Dispose of the coffee puck left in the basket, and wipe everything down. Make sure your whole setup is reset so that when you do it all again tomorrow, everything is already where it should be.
NOW you can enjoy your espresso! Note how it tastes. Hopefully, it’s great! Maybe you need to troubleshoot a little bit if you experienced channeling. Otherwise, you might want to tweak your recipe. Grind a little finer perhaps, or maybe run a little bit more water through your coffee for a longer shot. Either way, the power is in your hands.
BONUS: If you fancy lattes, cappuccinos, or any other milky coffee drinks, you can now steam your milk to prepare the caffeinated beverage of your choosing. Some machines are capable of steaming milk and pulling a shot of espresso at the same time, while others can only do one at a time. If not, don’t fuss about it! It’s totally fine to steam your milk after you’ve pulled your shot. Some people will tell you your shot will “expire” if you don’t use it or drink it after a certain amount of time, but that doesn’t actually make sense. The crema may dissipate and the shot may cool down a little bit, but those things don’t mean nearly as much as some people will say they do. Now as for milk steaming technique… that’s a lesson for another day!
Please keep in mind that the world of coffee is always changing. If you’re really interested in coffee, keep researching and learning about it! Follow coffee professionals and the work that they’re doing. Talk to your local baristas and roasters. Read books! Otherwise, just keep enjoying your daily brew. Whatever you do, have fun with it, make ethical decisions, and take care of yourself!
Until next time, happy brewing!
Written by: Jonathan Friedman, Co Founder The Barrel Project