I will start by telling you a bit about myself. I owned and operated a coffee house in Tucson, AZ for 5 years. I made espresso drinks for customers everyday and we were well known for the quality drinks that tasted better than most coffee places. What you will get here is a practical guide to make espresso at home. When you perfect making espresso at home, you will be spoiled because nothing else will compare.
The Basics of making perfect espresso
Let’s first talk about equipment. You need a good quality espresso machine, a good quality grinder, a steaming pitcher, kitchen timer and a thermometer.. So how do you get perfect espresso? To get really great espresso, you need to adhere to several factors.
Cleanliness: I can’t over emphasize how important it’s to keep everything clean: your machine, your grinder, utensils and work area. I use a paintbrush to clean the grinder and work area. I also use a clean towel for general cleaning and a wet towel to clean the steam wand. Because the steam wand gets very hot, any milk left on it will harden and would become next to impossible to clean up. Always wipe the steam wand after use. Use a group head brush to clean the group head each day and than rinse by activating your brew switch for few seconds.
Freshness: Freshness refers to the freshness of the beans you are using and the time from grinding to brewing. As you probably know the enemy of coffee is air. If you buy your beans already ground, I
within a minute after grinding the coffee starts to loose some of its flavor. A good quality grinder is essential not only because of the freshness issue but also other things, which you will read more about later. Also, I will talk about the kind of coffee I recommend. The beans must be fresh, 1-week max; you should grind the fresh beans before use. Some grinders have a container where ground coffee is stored/dozed, if you are using one of these grinders; you need to throw out any grounds left for longer few minutes. After grinding and filling your portafilter, you need to brew your shot.
immediately. A note about water, you need either softened water or filtered water. Using anything else will ruin your machine in the long run.
Grind: One of the critical factors that affect the quality of espresso is the grind. If it’s too coarse, water will rush through and you don’t get good extraction. If the grind is too fine, water will not be able to go through at all or it goes through your grounds but very slow. Ideally, you want your doubles shots of espresso to take about 30 seconds to finish. Somewhere between the two grind extremes is the perfect setting or sweet spot. After experimenting a little, you get the grind setting right on, you time your double and it takes 30 seconds. Great, you are becoming a very good barista. The next day, you want your double short latte, you grind, tamp and brew and suddenly your double takes 20 seconds. What happened? You just discovered another fact about the right grind. The ground espresso is affected by humidity, temperature and pressure basically by the environment. In our coffee house, when I start the day, I would get the grind just right and then a couple of hours later when we are full, the grind needs to be adjusted again. The point I like to make is when it comes to grind it is not “set it and forget it”; you need to monitor and adjust daily. After the proper grind comes tamping, tamping is where you apply pressure to the grounds. There are a lot of opinions about tamping espresso. My opinion along other well-known experts is to tamp at about 30 lbs pressure. How do you know 30 lbs of pressure feels like, take your tamper to the bathroom scale, your hand with the tamper should make 90 degrees with the scale. Now push until you get 30 lbs, you will see it’s a lot of pressure, just do it few times and you will start to get a feeling of it. A note about what kind of tamper to use, I recommend to only use solid metal tampers. They provide the proper weight and solid feel you need. When I tamp, I go through this routine, you don’t have to do it the same way but that’s what I recommend.
1. Load the portafilter with the coffee grounds.
2. Even out the grounds by knocking the portafilter on your counter several times
3. Using the tamper push with 30 lbs pressure.
4. Turn the tamper so it’s horizontal and use the small end of tamper, hit the portafilter round edge a couple of times
5. Tamp again with 30 lbs pressure
6. Repeat #4
7. Final tamp with same pressure at the same time turn the tamper 1/4 turn
Following this will ensure you get a puck that is well compacted and even, which is really important to get good extraction. The other part is the portafilter needs to be hot. How hot you ask? So hot that you can’t touch it for more that a second or two. Always leave the portafilter in the machine, that will keep it hot. If you are starting your machine in the morning, run plenty of hot water by activating the brew switch. You can place your cup underneath so you warm your cup at the same time.
Extraction. Now it’s time for the test. You place the portafilter in your espresso machine and hit the brew button, if needed, and start your timer. I recommend using shot glasses
if your new to making espresso at home, so you can get a better feel of how much a shot is. Single should be about 1 oz and should take 20 seconds (plus or minus 2); double should be 2 oz and should take about 30 seconds (plus or minus 3). If you have a good shot, it should start out with a few drops almost like maple syrup and then you will see a consistent flow. The grind, tamp and pressure produced by the machine will ensure you get the perfect shot. If your shot’s crema is thin and has a light color, your shot is under extracted. On the other hand, if your shot’s crema is thick with a dark color, your shot is over extracted. If your crema is thick (1/4 inch) and the color is like dark caramel, you have the perfect shot. Dr. illy describes the perfect shot by saying “looking at the crema you see the skin of leopard.” Water temperature should be at least 200, in most machines you have no control over brew temperature but you have control over the brew group and the portafilter. Make sure you run 4 oz of water from your group through your empty portafilter if you don’t want to wait the 30 min for the machine to warm up.
There are normal shots like what I described earlier and short and long shots. As implied by the name, a short shot is one that is made with stopping the extraction about half way. The single does not produce good results, use the double and stop the brewing at 20 seconds for a short and 40 sec for the long. Why do the short shot? A lot of people who like to drink espresso like the short shot because it is more concentrated, a little sweeter and has less caffeine. The long shot is not as concentrated and has more caffeine.
Good Espresso is wonderful to look at, to smell and to drink. Mr. illy of illy Espresso says “When brewed properly, espresso is an enormously complex drink with concentrated flavors and aromas that distinguish it from coffee prepared by any other method.” And because espresso is this amazing drink, it doesn’t last, should be enjoyed by itself right away or made into other drinks. If you will do that, make sure you always do your espresso shot last. I know that might contradict some other information out there however I still believe that it’s the best policy. If I am making a latte, I start with frothing the milk and once I am done, I make my shot that way as soon as the shot is ready, I pour the milk.
A perfect shot of espresso Part II
This part will cover frothing milk, making drinks and coffee choices. Espresso drinks: Most drinks are made with frothed milk so I will talk about that first. Why froth milk instead of steam it? Frothing causes milk to expand to double the original volume and makes the milk taste sweeter. Always froth even if you don’t need the froth, the milk will be better. Milk needs to fresh and cold, the container for frothing needs to be cold too. The more fat in the milk, the less froth you will get, and I use 2%. The steam from your machine needs to be dry, get rid off any water in your steam wand first. The pitcher you use for frothing should be half full at most. Insert the tip of the steam wand in the center of the pitcher just a bit underneath the surface. Start your steam and watch the surface, if you are getting big bubbles, you need to insert the tip more. If you don’t get anything and you don’t hear hissing noise, your tip is in too deep. As the milk expands, you need to keep moving the tip of the steam wand up keeping it right under the surface and watch the thermometer. Once you get about 120, drop the tip in all the way and keep watching the thermometer. Once you get 145 F, shot your steam off. It’s important to stop at 145. That is the optimal temperature for milk taste and texture of the froth. You will notice that even after taking the pitcher from steam wand, the milk will continue to heat up. It might reach 150 degrees, which is normal. If you have done the milk properly you should end with the pitcher full and the froth should have the same consistency as shaving cream. Always make sure you let some steam out after you finish the milk. Sometimes some milk get sucked up in the steam wand and it’s important to not let that milk sit there. Most commercial cafes use the following guide for different sizes of drinks: 12oz cup single shot 16oz cup double shot
20oz cup triple shot
Probably the most popular and well-known espresso drinks. Always froth the milk first than make your shot according to the above guide or your own taste. If you like a stronger coffee taste, you can do something like a 12 oz cup with a double shot. So let’s assume you want the 12oz with a single shot. Since your milk is already frothed, make your shot. It’s always better to make the shot in the cup you will be drinking from. When you make your shot in a cup than transfer into another, you loose a good part of your crema. Ok so you made the shot in your cup, use a spoon to move some of the foam on top to the side and take about one tablespoon of the froth below that. I do that because the froth on top might be a little dry, while the froth in the middle will be silky and “wet.” Place that beautiful froth on your espresso shot slowly, you should get the white froth surrounded by a brown edge from the crema. Now pour the milk by holding back the froth, make sure you pour slowly and in the middle of your cup. Fill the cup all the way and you will have the perfect latte. Flavored Lattes like vanilla or Carmel are made the same way as regular latte but with flavored syrup added. Monin is good quality syrup, you use about 1 oz for a 12 oz cup. They come in a variety of flavors including some that are sugar-free.
With your milk frothed, make the shot(s); pour the milk leaving a 1/3 from the top empty for your
froth. There are two varieties, dry and wet. Dry means you put more froth and less milk. Wet means you use more milk and less froth.
Mocha is the combination of espresso, milk and chocolate. Again froth the milk first, use about 1 oz (more or less as you like) chocolate syrup or powder for 12oz serving and place in your warmed cup, now make the espresso shot. Mix chocolate and espresso and then pour milk to fill cup. Top with whip cream if desired.
Americana: Espresso with hot water.
Macchiato: Espresso shot with a spoon of froth on top
Iced drinks are made in similar way with no need to froth the milk, start with the shot, and add the cold milk leaving 1/3 of the cup at the top for the ice.
As far as coffee, there are a lot of choices. My favorite is illy. It’s made in Italy, placed in nitrogen- flushed containers to maintain freshness. It comes in Scuro (dark) and medium. Illy is considered one of the top if not the best espresso in the world. They use nine different beans in their blend, which ensures consistency.