Now you know what espresso is, and you know it’s for you. But where do you start? We’ll point you in the right direction – and we promise you’ll like where this is going.
Before jumping in, let’s make sure we’re wearing the right clothes. There are a handful of things to consider as you prepare to take the plunge, and we call them “brewing variables”. Most of these apply when making coffee of any kind, but some are unique to espresso. Let’s sort ’em out.
WATER: Your espresso will taste only as good as the water you start with. Sediment, scale, and unwelcome minerals will doom your drink and your equipment if they’re not dealt with up front, so, before you get too far, learn about the quality of your water. Most hardware stores have inexpensive water test kits available for purchase but you can also contact your local water source for details about what they pump to your pipes. With that information fresh in hand, check out the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s water standards . If your H2O is off-the-charts funky, give us a call and we’ll walk you through some water treatment solutions. And no matter your situation, you can keep out a lot of nasty stuff with a simple carbon filter, like that in a Brita pitcher.
GRIND: Before brewing, coffee beans need to be cut into smaller pieces. Making espresso requires a finer grind than most methods, with particles around the size of table salt. You know you’re in the right neighborhood once the ground coffee begins to clump together. Later, you’ll learn how to manipulate the grind to achieve different results.
DOSE: For a “double shot” – the standard serving size – we prefer to use between 18 and 21 grams of ground coffee. As you add more coffee, your shot will increase in both body and intensity. Feel free to adjust your dose according to taste and make use of the troubleshooting tips below.
TAMP: Compacting ground coffee with a tamper restricts the flow of water, forcing coffee and water to interact. Start with a 30-pound press (your bathroom scale can tell you what this feels like), applied evenly. A firm, level tamp is essential to even extraction.
TEMP: Water heated to 195-205ºF is ideal for preparing coffee, and some espresso machines allow you to control this temperature. (For most systems, this is made possible by a “PID controller”.) If yours does, play within this range to find what you like. You’ll notice that lower temperatures draw out more brightness, while cranking up the heat produces roasty flavors. If you’re not able to choose the temperature for yourself, you can assume for now that the machine is doing its job.
YIELD: With brewed coffee, we measure coffee input and water input, but when making espresso it’s coffee input and beverage output. Depending on your dose and basket size, shoot for about 2 ounces of espresso out, enough to fill a large shot glass. If you’re weighing your shots, a 30-gram yield is a safe place to start.
Note: The density of espresso can be a tricky thing, as the gasses trapped in the crema can make for fluffy, heady shots that only weigh 30 grams, or thin and silky shots that weigh 60. With many espresso blends, you should have a decent cap of crema – say, a 1/2 inch or so – and a total mass of about 30-40 grams for a 2-ounce shot. But some coffees will skew one way or the other, leading to less dense crema-bombs or denser, juicier single origin marvels. Whichever way you like your espresso, our reference points of 2 ounces or 30 grams are merely places to start, so feel free to make adjustments until you’re doing a happy little dance after every shot!
TIME: With our recommended dose and yield, about 25-30 seconds should pass between the beginning of extraction and the moment your glass is full. Half a minute for a happy tongue? Not bad.
Tools of the trade
With these tips in our pocket, we’re about ready to go. First, let’s get our gear together:
MACHINE: Our favorite espresso machines sport solid components, stable temperatures, and a sensible interface. If you’re in the market for a new machine, you can rest assured that every model on our website meets these criteria. Skip to the end of this series for specific recommendations.
GRINDER: Consistently tasty espresso starts with consistently ground coffee. To get the most out of your beans, choose a “burr” (not a “blade”) grinder that can grind finely with many steps of adjustment.
FILTER: Your espresso machine may have arrived with a few options. For starters, grab a two-spouted or bottomless portafilter and insert a double basket – that’ll most likely be the largest of the baskets you received.
TAMPER: For a secure “coffee puck” and even extraction, pick a tamper that fits your portafilter basket snugly. Most baskets have a diameter of 58 millimeters, but our tampers are available in a wide variety of sizes. If you’re serious about refining your technique, we highly recommend the Prima Tamp .
SCALE: With a gram scale, you’ll be better equipped to monitor parameters, produce consistent results, and diagnose problems. We favor those with low resolutions, reading in 0.1- to 1-gram increments, and recommend that you weigh both dose and yield.
VESSEL: Something to catch that liquid gold. A volumetric shot glass can help you keep track of how much espresso you’re pulling, especially if you don’t have a scale handy.