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How To Brew Espresso – How to Make the Perfect Espresso

How To Make the Perfect Espresso

espresso shot
espresso shot photo by Mike Rohde

When you start to learn how to brew espresso, you get frustrated, and some even give up and they return to the mediocre shots at the famous coffee shop chain. This is understandable, because making the perfect espresso is a complex, elaborated, sometimes intuitive combination of coffee quality, extraction pressure and time, water temperature, coffee grind and roast, and more… If only one of these parameters is off, your espresso shot will be an average one.

As in all areas where talking about savor, aroma and taste, preparing a good coffee needs strict rules. If you skimp on the beans quality, it will dramatically affect your espresso, a poor grinder will also have a bad effect on the end result, and let’s not forget the espresso machine which can make or break your shot. But also, Espresso requires preparation and tasting ritual, and a lot of subjectivity. That means that the perfect espresso shot is subject to personal taste and mood. Having said that, there are a few factors that are the common ground no matter what is your personal taste. Let’s see what are these factors and how can we control them for a perfect shot.

The Perfect Shot

The perfect shot is a subjective term. Many people like ristretto, other prefer a lungo, and other like the normale. The Northern American coffee community has attached an objective description to espresso perfection. The description doesn’t take in account personal taste, it’s just an ideal extraction of the essence of coffee. This ideal shot is very hard to prepare, most people get it right one out of 5-7 shots. This perfect espresso is referred to as the God Shot, and it’s basically a double ristretto. For a detailed description, you can read this article by Mark Prince on CoffeeGeek.com.

What Is the Perfect Espresso?

Espresso Coffee CupYou heard someone saying: “This espresso is perfect”, but you don’t really have a comparison term, and maybe you didn’t even like it. Then the question is: “how you know you have been served a good one?”. Here are a few hints that will give you at least an idea of what it means “a good espresso”:

  • It should have a consistent layer of the specific brown foam, called crema. Much of the specific taste of espresso resides in its crema, and it accompanies the dark extracted liquid through the end, leaving a unique combination.
  • The taste is in a small measure dependent on the beans‘ provenience, but more than that, it depends on the roasting art. Bitter is often associated with espresso, but that’s not what properly describes it. In fact a Starbucks shot is bitter, but it is that way because the coffee is over-roast.
  • Furthermore, a long shot tastes different than a regular one, and a ristretto is different as well. And they are not different because of the concentration, they are structurally different.
  • The aroma of an espresso shot is so unique, it resembles somewhat the drip coffee, or the Turkish, or any type of coffee brew, but it is distinct, and you can easily tell espresso from other brew types only by its aroma.

“The perfect espresso” is a combination of the coffee beans’ quality, the espresso machine‘s quality, and the barista‘s skills. Here are some more characteristics of a great shot:

  • An espresso shot contains around 1 oz of brewed liquid and is made from 6 to 8 grams of ground coffee.
  • The brewed coffee is a mixture of acids, proteins, sugars, aromatic oils and other substances, in perfect concentration and proportion to enhance the aroma and taste to maximum.
  • The extraction is made by passing hot water – 190 to 202 °F (the espresso brewing temperature in Celsius is 88-94 °C) with a pressure of 9 atmospheres, through the ground coffee.
  • Coffee is placed in the port-filter and pressed with a special tool, (espresso tamper), with about 30 pounds force for that perfect stream of water to pass through the entire dose. If the coffee is too finely ground, the tamping should be lighter.
  • Espresso is just great as it is, with no additions to it, besides maybe a little sugar, or a biscotti. But many people love it as a base for other coffee beverages, such as latte, or cappuccino, or a macchiato.

How to Pull the Perfect Espresso Video

Great Espresso Machine

Here is a modified Gaggia espresso machine, pulling a shot. Note the foam quantity while pulling the shot. This is the dream of any barista or espresso enthusiast.

The Perfect Espresso – Preparation Tips

Pulling a Double Espresso
Photo by Coffeegeek via en.wikipedia

Espresso is above all a race against time. Prepare quickly, in just 30 seconds in which hot water passes through the ground coffee beans, at a certain pressure. Ideally, the espresso is served and drank very fast. Ten seconds after pulling the shot, the espresso taste begins to change and the change increases exponentially in time. The fact that the preparation is extremely fast, makes it even easier to miss the perfect espresso. Here are some tips for preparing your best ever espresso:

  1. Buy coffee as fresh as possible
  2. If you don’t buy an “espresso blend”, choose a “Full City Roast” or a “Vienna Roast” more about coffee roast
  3. The espresso is brewed at 195 °F to 205 °F, (90 °C – 96 °C). Some espresso machines need a warmup before pulling the shot. If your machine doesn’t have that in its program, just pull a blank shot.
  4. A regular, single shot is made with around 7-8 grams of ground coffee. You can play a bit with this, but start with the standard to get a decent shot, and then experiment your way to greatness.
  5. Always freshly grind coffee, always.
  6. Tamp with around 20 lb to 30 lb pressure. As a beginner, you can tamp on a scale, in time you’ll get the feeling of it. Check the video below to see how to setup your practicing bench. Or if you want precision every time look at the Espro Calibrated Tamper.
  7. The grind should be espresso grind size, and it dictates the tamping force. The finer the grind the lighter the tamping. But this is only if you want to play around. Most baristas will keep the tamping at 30 lb pressure and adjust the grind, until they find the sweet spot.
  8. Coffee beans choice: you can’t go wrong with Brazilian beans, but if you buy espresso marketed beans, you will be sure you bought good coffee. You can’t go wrong with Illy, but is more expensive.

How to Train for Tamping Video

What Not To Do When Brewing an Espresso

Why My Espresso Doesn’t Have Crema

There are other countless ways to fail an espresso. In the first five seconds pre-infusion occurs, the contact between water and the ground coffee, and then in the next 25 seconds follows the actual infusion – the espresso pull.

The 25 seconds of infusion is the time when the flavours and aromas are poured into the cup. A too short pulling time results in a very short espresso with low volume and an acid taste. If the pull is too long, the coffee will be bitter and will mask all of the coffee flavors, and the shot will contain more caffeine. At the end of the pull, the foam turns brown in color, and this foam contains the highest concentration of caffeine. This foam, (la crema), must be dense and thick. Air bubbles or white spots are signs of a poor preparation.

In your quest of preparing a “barista grade” espresso, you need to know the potential problems, that could render your shot bland, or bad:

  1. Coffee is oxidized, (stale) – it had contact with the air more than 4 hours before use;
  2. The coffee tamping is too mild or too hard, or uneven;
  3. Extraction time is too short or too long;
  4. Poor maintenance of the device (must be cleaned and descaled on a regular basis)
  5. Coffee grind is either too fine or too coarse
  6. Poor quality coffee
  7. Bad tasting water
  8. Cold cups, or cold equipment, (brew head)

There are also problems that you can’t control, these are related to the equipment. You can’t change these after you bought a bad espresso machine, but you can choose carefully your next one.

  1. Inadequate pressure, too low or too high, (best machines have a PID)
  2. Water temperature is not consistent

Your Perfect Espresso Shot is a Bit Personal

Ristretto Espresso Shot

Normale vs Lungo vs. Ristretto vs. Americano – A Matter of Taste

The perfect espresso is many times a matter of personal taste. Many times, what a barista considers a perfect espresso, is not working for you. I will give you the example of Starbucks espresso; for any coffee connoisseur, their espresso is too bitter because of the excessive bean roast. They still have a constant stream of people who just love their espresso. So, don’t let anybody tell you what is the best espresso for you. Experiment with various beans, various extraction times until you get your espresso right for you.

Personalize It

A few variations of the taste and strength can be obtained through the control of the extraction time. The standard espresso shot is called normale, and it is about 1 fl oz. A slightly longer extraction time will produce a lungo, which is less concentrated but will contain more caffeine.

If you prolong the extraction time even more, you will obtain the caffè crema, which is a longer espresso, (longer than lungo), and has the taste of the espresso, but is milder, and it has a bit more caffeine.

The caffè americano, which is a similar to to a long shot, but is obtained by pulling a long shot, and adding a shot of hot water. It has the strength of a caffè crema but it is different because it maintains the espresso flavor profile, but diluted.

Using a short extraction time, you will obtain the ristretto, a short espresso. Ristretto contains less caffeine but more flavours and aromatic oils. If your espresso machine has the capability, you could prepare the ristretto by shortening the extraction time but pushing the same amount of water through the coffee grinds. The result will be similar, but you will have more coffee in your cup. Ristretto is less bitter than normale, (regular espresso), and is more flavorful.

How to Serve and Drink an Espresso

girl drinking coffeeTips to Enhance your Espresso Experience

Serving and drinking espresso is part of a ritual that makes up the whole espresso experience. You need to focus on every detail of the process to enjoy the flavors to maximum. Here are a few hints.

Porcelain espresso cups maintain optimal coffee temperature for a longer period, and maintain the foam and the flavor. There are also glass cups with a double wall that are even better than the porcelain ones, and they look fancier. For optimum results, the cups need to be warmed up before pulling the shot. Oh, by the way, the portafilter needs to be warmed up as well before using it.

Drink a few sips of water before your espresso; this will help your taste buds to wipe any previous taste memories. You can also drink water in between your espresso sips. Coffee dehydrates, and you need to drink. Also espresso is a strong coffee and while is very tasty and bold, for some it is hard on the stomach, a little water between sips won’t dilute the taste, but will dilute its strength in the stomach.

Mix a bit in your espresso before the first sip, even if you don’t add sugar, this will ensure that the first drink is not a bitter one. Some add sugar to their espresso, others eat a biscotti, or any other cookies with their espresso, others will just drink it as it is, plain.

A properly prepared espresso is vaguely fruity, floral, slightly sweet, reminiscent of chocolate and caramel tones. Bitterness is a quality sign only if it’s gently weighted by a little acidity.

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