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The Art and Science of Making Espresso

Posted By: Aabree Coffee
Posted At: Nov 28, 2011 at 10:16 AM
Related Categories: Espresso Essentials

Achieving Java Nirvana requires an understanding of the rituals associated with making great espresso. First, you need to know what to look for; crema, or the foam that materializes on top, is the universal sign of a good shot of espresso. A thick crema is easily recognized and respected by coffee lovers worldwide, but achieving a good shot can be a trying experience. So, we’re here to demystify the process for you! Don’t worry; we’ll have you brewing like a pro in no time.

The Art
Generally, a double shot of espresso should contain 2-2.5 fl oz and take roughly 20-25 seconds to extract. In order to get the optimal results, you’ll need to spend some time getting acquainted with the nuances of your grinder, espresso machine, and coffee. This is the “art” part of the process, as the interactions among your coffee, grinder, and espresso machine can have an effect on the resulting shot.

The Beans, The Beans! Won’t Somebody Think About The Beans?
Nowadays, coffee beans come many varieties; what you ultimately end up choosing is largely a matter of personal preference. However, it’s important to have a basic understanding of the three different kinds of roasts available. Coffee comes usually comes in light, medium, and dark roasts and can be easily identified by the shade they exhibit. Generally, light roasts are not appropriate for espressos, so we’ll be better served by focusing on medium and dark roasts.  

While most people equate a dark roast with a “true espresso,” a great shot can also be made with a medium roast. You can easily distinguish between two by examining the beans, a dark roast will have a glossy surface and because of their oily texture, they have a habit of sticking together. When it comes to down the practicalities, it’s important to keep in mind that a dark roast will require a coarser grind than its medium roast cousin for the same extraction. Also be careful, of a grind that is too fine, as it can wear out your grinder burrs, clog an espresso machine, and make a bitter-tasting cup of Joe! Ideally, you should shoot for a texture that is slightly finer than granulated sugar.

You’ll know you have the right grind when your shot makes its time target (20-25 seconds). Keep in mind that as your beans age, the extraction time will shorten up, even if all the other factors remain constant. This is because the beans are drying out, which causes less resistance when you tamp. Unfortunately, this is also a sign that the flavors are drying out…an indication that perhaps it’s time to kiss those beans goodbye.

Back to the Grinder
Grinders come in two variations, blade and burr. For espresso-making purposes, steer clear of anything with a blade in it! Blade grinders are responsible for causing inconsistent grind fineness, heat, and dust—all factors you want to eliminate, when making a shot of espresso.

Instead of whirling blades, burr grinders have two opposing wheels and it is the distance between them that determine the size of your grind. The grinding is normally slower with a burr grinder, but this is a good thing, because the process produces less heat—helping to preserve the flavors in your coffee.

Burr grinders can be broken down into two categories, conical and flat. There is really no difference in quality between the two; you should be happy regardless of which burr grinder you decide to use.

The ideal espresso grind setting should fall within the 3-8 range on the grinder’s index; the lower the number, the finer the grind. However, the level of finesse of the grind settings is not universal, so you shouldn’t assume that a 4 on one grinder will be the same if you switch brands. It’s also important to note that the grinder should be running when you’re adjusting the settings, to prevent damage to the machine.

Brewing Pressure and Temperature
Drum roll, please, this is where your espresso machine comes in! While home machines may indicate a maximum pressure rating of 15-19 bars, you only need 8 or 9 bars to achieve the optimum environment for extraction. As a general rule of thumb, you really don’t have to worry about the pump’s pressure. Most machines are designed to allow for no more than 11 bars; if the pressure exceeds this level, the back pressure relief valve will open to divert the water. This will prevent your coffee from being over extracted and protect the pump from excessive pressure build up.

Your brewing temperature is controlled by the espresso machine’s thermostat. All of the machines we offer fall within the right temperature range (190-196 degrees). Your in-cup temperature should ideally be between 160-165 degrees. In order to ensure the correct in-cup temp, you should preheat your cup as well as the brew group (the portafilter and it’s the part of the machine that it locks into). Simply letting your machine warm up (5-6 minutes) will automatically pre-heat your brew group. You can also go the extra step and run water through the brew group (with the handle in place). As for your cup, you can heat it using the cup warmer on the espresso machine or by running hot water through it. Hey, whatever works!

So, You Think You Can Tamp?
Tamping, or packing coffee into the portafilter, is often the most difficult part of the espresso making process for beginners. The tampers, supplied with most machines, should do the trick just fine—regardless of whether they’re made of aluminum, wood, stainless steel, or plastic. Generally, you should use 30 pounds of pressure when tamping. Don’t know what 30 pounds of pressure feels like? Fake it, until you make it with the Espresso Gear Click Mat, which will make a clicking sound when you’ve hit the mark. Hey, it’s not cheating. Cheating is having your brother, mother, or significant other do the heavy tamping for you. Think of this mat as your partner in coffee.

Now, if you don’t like working under pressure, consider an espresso machine with built-in resistance technology. These bad boys are designed with pressurized filter handles, which will let you get away with a light tamp.

Quick Tips of the Trade

  1. While it’s tempting to jump into the thick of things when that espresso machine shows up at your door step, make sure you take the time to dial in your machine. This is usually best done with a double shot.
  2. Once you’ve tamped the coffee, the surface should look smooth and even. A rough surface can cause a lot of trouble—from uneven extraction to imbalanced pours—so, make sure you brush any loose grounds away! Getting rid of those stray grounds will also help keep your brew group clean, allowing for a water-tight seal with the portafilter.
  3. Once you’ve pressed the pump button, start watching the clock! At the beginning, the coffee will be dark; but don’t worry, if all goes well, it should take on a golden tint. When you’ve hit the 20-25 second mark, check your shot. If you’ve got about 2-2.5 ounces, congratulations are in order. If there’s less than 2.5 ounces in your shot glass, try a lighter tamp or coarser grind…the opposite applies if you’ve got too much espresso in the glass. Keep in mind, it’s usually easier to vary the grind fineness rather than attempt to switch up your tamp pressure. 

Now that you’ve successfully completed our version of Espresso Making 101, make sure you check out the Buyer’s Guide to find your perfect machine.

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