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The Art of Making Espresso

The Art of Making Espresso

Understanding the process of making espresso is the first step on the path towards the true coffee artistry. In order to reach the point when you can make great espresso for your cappuccino’s, lattes, and more, you need to first understand how to make espresso. It is so easy to make bad coffee, but take heart. With the right tools and the right knowledge, you will be able to brew your own bit of coffee heaven. The most visible characteristic of great espresso is the "crema". When you see that marvelous swirl of creamy golden foam on the top of your espresso, you know that you have created a coffee masterpiece.

The Fundamental Rule for Making Espresso

Single Shot = 1 to 2 ounces in 25 to 30 seconds
Double Shot = 2 to 3 ounces in 25 to 30 seconds

Everything else builds on that basic information. Generally it is easier for beginners to start learning with the double shot.

The Basics of an Espresso Shot

Since it is easier to learn to make a double shot first, that is where we will begin.

  1. Preheat your machine, your portafilter, and your cup. Failure to preheat has been the downfall of many would-be baristas. The most effective way to preheat you equipment is to run the espresso cycle without the coffee.
  2. After grinding your coffee, scoop 14 grams of coffee into the double shot portafilter. Most espresso machines come with a pre-measured 7-gram scoop. Two level, non-compacted scoops of freshly ground coffee will be sufficient. Now tamp the coffee with the tamping tool in a smooth even motion, applying 30 pounds of pressure. It is often easier to get a good tamp with the portafilter on a countertop, pressing down from above. If your machine has a built-in resistance device, only a light tamp is all that is required.
  3. Check the tamped coffee. It should be level and well compacted. An uneven tamp can cause problems with the extraction. The coffee should look smooth. Any loose grounds, especially around the top rim, should be brushed off. The gasket that forms the watertight seal with the portafilter can become crusted with ground coffee if care is not taken at this step. This could lead to a leaking seal and potentially spoil the flavor of your coffee.
  4. Now, lock the portafilter into the machine and get your pre-warmed cup ready beneath the nozzles.
  5. Start the pump and begin your extraction. The brew will be quite dark as it first begins to pour into your cup, but it should change to creamy, golden foam towards the end when done properly. Stop the machine when you reach 2 to 3 ounces of beverage. You will probably want to time your extractions, to help you make adjustments to your process. If your extraction was longer than the 25 to 30 second goal, your grind may be too fine or your tamp may need to be adjusted. If the time was a little short, you might try a finer grind.

With all of this in mind, you may still find that a little experimentation will help you find the flavor that you desire. The basics will only get you from beans to beverage. The artistry borne of experience and taste will take you to that coffee heaven.

Scientific Approach of Making Espresso

Beginners: Follow The Instructions!

When you first begin to learn to make espresso, we recommend beginning with a scientific approach. Follow the rules to get the desired result. As you become more experienced, you can begin to manipulate and refine the process to create the perfect espresso to your taste. This is when the artistry begins to emerge. Let's start with the bean.

Freshly roasted beans are key to great espresso. If your beans are stale, your espresso will suffer, even if you use the best possible technique for the extraction.

Choose the appropriate roast for your espresso. Very light roasts often do not have enough oils for good espresso. Though darker roasts are generally preferred for espresso because of higher oil content, you will probably want to experiment with a variety of roasts and blends to find the perfect beans to suit your taste. Medium and dark roasts are generally best for making espresso. Slightly different techniques will achieve the best possible extraction from each different kind of roast.

Finding The Best Grind

Consider the grind of the coffee beans. Your optimum grind will vary depending on the type of bean and the roast of the bean. Darker roasts will require a coarser grind than a medium roast to achieve the correct brewing time and beverage volume. Consistency of the coffee grind is also vital to insuring consistent brewing results. The right grinder is essential to achieving the right balance. Grinders are available in a two basic types – Burr Grinders and Blade Grinders.

    • Blade grinders are designed to chop the coffee beans with a whirling blade, much like a propeller. These grinders work fairly well for making coffee, but are generally unsuitable for making espresso. The blades do not give a consistent grind, and they produce heat which can affect the flavor of the beans.
    • Burr grinders use two opposing grinding cylinders to crush the beans into a consistent size. The distance of the cylinders from one another determines how coarse or fine the grind. The burr grinders are usually much slower than the blade types, which results in less heat to affect the coffee flavor.

The grinder settings are relative. The lower the number equals the finer grind. For a coarser grind, select a higher number. The best espresso grinds for most grinders will most often be in the 3 to 8 range on the grinder’s settings. The grinder settings for each grinder are specific to the individual grinder. Even grinders of the same make and model will be slightly different.

Tamping Pressure

The key to tamping pressure is consistency. The tamp pressure is the amount of force used to compact the loose ground coffee into the filter basket of the portafilter. The tamp is done with a "tamper" tool that usually is sold with the machine or portafilter. Too much tamping pressure results in a longer brew time because the water is unable to pass through the closely packed coffee. Not enough pressure gives you a shorter brew time and a less than optimal product. On standard machines, you would ideally want to tamp the ground coffee with 30 pounds of pressure to create the "puck" necessary for a proper extraction. However, some machines only require a light tamp, since they have been designed with pressurized filter handles to compensate for tamping error.

Brewing Temperature

The brewing temperature is important for determining the temperature of the coffee drink in your cup. The brewing temperature is the temperature of the water at the point where it comes into contact with the ground coffee. This temperature is controlled by the thermostat of the espresso machine and should be 190 to 196 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature of the brew in your cup will be between 160 and 165 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat loss occurs in the brew group, the air, and the cup. This is the ideal temperature for espresso in order to feel hot without scalding. To keep the beverage temperature from being too low, you should preheat the brew group and the cup. The easiest and most reliable way to heat the brew group and the cup is to run the cycle once with water only. This will heat the brew group, including the portafilter, and the cup simultaneously. A cup warmer will also help keep cups warm when you are making multiple espresso beverages.

Brewing Pressure

The brewing pressure - the amount of pressure created when extracting the coffee - should ideally be about 8 to 9 bars or atmospheres of pressure. Although some machines can exert as much as 15 to 19 atmospheres of pressure, this does not mean they will produce better coffee at these higher pressures. Often, higher pressures result in a very bitter brew. Some machines do not have a gauge to show you how much pressure is exerted. To determine whether you are at the right pressure with your machine, refer to the First Rule. A double shot of espresso = 2 to 3 ounces in 25 to 30 seconds. All of these machines have a safety valve that releases pressure if it begins to exceed a certain amount of pressure. This avoids severe over-extraction of the coffee and undue stress on the machine.

The Artistry of Espresso

Selecting the coffee beans that appeal to your taste is the first step. There are choices as varied and distinct as the finest wines of the world. If you need a place from which to start, try our selection of Illy coffees. You may even eventually decide to roast your beans yourself. Remember that freshly roasted beans are the best. As your beans age and begin to dry out, the brewing time will diminish. This will mean that the flavor is also diminishing.

The grind of your coffee beans is crucial to the end result. We prefer to start with a consistency much like that of ordinary salt. Feel the grains between your fingers. It isn’t powdered, but it is a bit finer than granulated sugar. This is the best consistency with which to begin. Adjustments are made more easily from this point.

Preheating your brew group, including the portafilter, and the cups which will hold the brew is crucial to achieving the ideal extraction. If too much heat is lost in the brewing process, the crema may be lost and the brew may be bitter.

The artistry of espresso is really a refining and polishing of the basics behind the process. Experience and willingness to experiment are at the heart of the perfect espresso.