As you start making espresso at home, you will face various tasks that require you to use certain tools. The minimum barista tools required depends on the espresso maker you are using, and how perfectionist you are. If you aim for espresso greatness, you definitely need the right equipment. A variety of espresso brewing tools and accessories can help you in a few ways:
- They will help you control certain brewing parameters, until you get the confidence.
- Certain tools will make your barista life easier, improving your overall experience.
- Other accessories will help you maintain your equipment, in order to get a great cup every time.
Some accessories are indispensable, you absolutely need them, such as a coffee grinder, or a tamper. Some accessories are optional, but highly recommended for beginners. An example is the thermometer, or the scale. Finally, there are accessories that you can do without. They are meant to improve your experience, and make your life easier. An example is the tamping mat, or the knockbox.
Whether you want to perfect your pulling technique, or have a nicer brewing experience, or just buy a gift for an espresso lover, this guide is for you.
Why We Need More than an Espresso Machine
It really depends on what equipment you already have in your kitchen. If you have a super automatic espresso machine, you don’t need any tools. The machine performs all the operations for you, and you don’t have to grind, or weigh, or tamp. You just fill your water reservoir, add beans, and press a button. On the other hand, if you have a semiautomatic machine, you need to perform various aspects of the brewing manually. This is why you need tools. The advantage is that you have more control over the brewing process, but it requires more work and knowledge to pull a good shot.
Espresso is such an intricate product, it needs your full focus. If you make it manually, you need to observe your drink very closely every step of the brewing process. You need to decide what it needs to be tweaked.
Home Espresso Making
The purpose of this post is to give you an idea on what equipment and accessories you need as a home barista. If you are looking for a comprehensive guide on how to brew espresso at home, you should start on this other page.
Essential Home Barista Tools
1. Get A Good Coffee Grinder
A coffee grinder is almost as important as the espresso machine itself. You can’t get a good espresso without a good grinder. You may have nailed your technique and skill but without a quality grinder that technique is useless.
We talk a lot about consistent grind size for espresso. Without going too much into details, we just need to mention that inconsistent grind size, (dust and boulders), will compromise your shot by over-extracting the dust, and under-extracting the boulders.
Whether you decide to buy a hand or automatic grinder make sure that it’s a burr grinder. Burr grinders deliver consistent grind size, whereas blade grinders give you an inconsistent grind.
A good grinder will cost anything between $100 to $250. Anything cheaper and it’s possible that you might not get a quality product. The other tools on this list can be bought at a much cheaper price and still help produce a good overall extraction. But you cannot afford to do the same with the grinder.
So you got a tamper with your espresso machine, and you think that’s going to be good enough, if they sent it. Absolutely not. Most manufacturers send you a cheap plastic tamper, because they are trying to cut costs. First thing to do when you buy your espresso machine is to buy a metallic tamper. Second thing, throw that plastic tamper in the garbage can, (better yet recycling bin).
Decent tampers are not that expensive, but they will help you perfect your tamping technique.
Whether you get an expensive tamper, or a cheap one, make sure that it fits your portafilter basket snugly. If it doesn’t, the beans on the circumference will be left loose. Subsequent tamping will not correct the problem, it will make it worse. The compacted coffee grounds run the risk of being inclined after the second tamp. Bad tamping will lead to channelling, and channeling will lead to under-extraction. Channelling happens when the water from the machine runs through the path of less resistance and results in an uneven extraction.
When you buy your tamper, make sure that it is comfortable to use, and it has some weight. This will give you the most consistent results.
For a new home barista, you may think that buying a scale is the least of your priorities right now. It may seem to blow your budget but even a cheaper scale will help your espresso shots. A scale will help you achieve precision and consistency, with your shots.
There are two variables you can measure with a scale. The important one is the dose. The dose means how much beans we are using for one shot. People tend to measure the dose volumetrically. Volumetric measurement is fine, only if you use the same beans all the time. But you never do. Even the most consistent espresso blends, from Lavazza, or from illy, can have density variances. So the best way to measure is by weight, and not by volume. Some people measure the ground coffee by volume. An this is just slightly more accurate, but still not the best. If you have a fancy grinder, that has a doser, you probably don’t need a scale.
Just to recap on the dose: Measuring your coffee grounds with a scoop only works if you use the same beans all the time. One day you’ll dose too much and the next day, you’ll dose too little. Inconsistent measuring will affect the pressure in the brew group, hence the extraction speed. This will result in either under or over extracted coffee.
Lastly, but most certainly not least (this is a cliché for a reason), you’ll save yourself money on the beans. I know I discarded way too many shots in my training time.
The brewing temperature is an essential aspect of the espresso making. Also, the milk frothing is a precise procedure, and the temperature is critical. It might not seem obvious, but if you have a semiautomatic, and you are a beginner barista, a thermometer is a needed accessory.
If your espresso machine has an integrated PID, you don’t need a thermometer. However, many quality espresso machines, don’t come with a PID. You need the thermometer to measure the espresso when it comes out of the brew head. Based on that temperature you will know if you need to pull a blank shot before brewing.
Steaming milk is a very delicate process that requires you do not exceed 70 degree C. A thermometer will help you stay within that parameter when you start out until you are able to feel it out from the pitcher on your own.
A perfect espresso should be pulled in about 25 seconds, no matter the dose. Too long and it will be over-extracted, (bitter). Too fast, and it will be under-extracted, (too weak).
A timer is used to measure the extraction time. Some people extract it by volume, which is a little risky. If the coffee puck is too packed, or coffee is ground too fine, the shot will pour too slow. Once you get passed the 30 seconds mark, you start to extract the wrong flavours, and your coffee becomes bitter.
The extraction time is one of the most important variables when dialling in your coffee and adjusting your recipe. If all the other variables are perfect, the extraction time will decide the fate of your shot.
Non Essential Espresso Tools and Accessories
The knockbox is one of those accessories that you don’t miss until you start using it.
Sure, you can pull shots without it, but it’s so much more convenient when you have one. Before I bought mine at home, discarding a spent coffee puck was such a cumbersome operation. You probably know what I mean, I am not going into details. Once I bought my knockbox, I realized I could never be without it.
The tamping mat is another one of those accessories that are really useful if you buy them. Yeah, sure, you can do without a tamping mat, but it really is not the most pleasant experience. Coffee grounds to clean up after adjusting the dose and tamping, scratches on the counter, loud noises on the countertop. To avoid the countertop scratches one could use folded towels or napkins, but WHY? A tamping mat is not that expensive, and it’s so easy to clean.
8. Dosing Tools
I am not a great fan of the dosing tools, but that’s because I learned to dose without them. As a beginner, the dosing tools are great because they allow you to dose in your portafilter. If you added too much coffee in the portafilter, you can use these to level and scoop out the excess coffee. Really useful when your dosing technique is not very accurate.
9. Cups and Glasses
Well, using the wrong espresso or cappuccino cup will just ruin the experience. There is the aesthetic aspect, which is not to be diminished. You can’t just drink espresso from a mug. But also there is the practical aspect, the insulation, the shape. All these are discussed thoroughly in our article about espresso cups. We have a post where we review a few espresso coffee cups, and we show you why porcelain espresso cups are the best.
Cappuccino is a beautiful drink as is without any art. But if you want to impress, a set of stencils is your best bet. Just place one of the stencils on top of the cup, and shake a little cocoa or cinnamon. Voila: a gorgeous cup.
This is one of the most inexpensive gifts you can make a coffee lover.
Espresso Machine Maintenance Accessories
You need to descale your machine on a regular basis. Even if you use distilled water, you still need to descale once a year. If your water is really hard, you need to descale every 2 to 4 weeks, depending on how much you use the machine, and how hard your water is.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Do not backflush an espresso machine that doesn’t have a solenoid valve. You will break your machine. For these machines, you need to disassemble the brew group, and clean it manually with backflush detergent.
- A backflush basket, also called a blind filter, is a filter basket without any holes. By using a blank, you force water in the brew group and through the solenoid valve, thus cleaning them.
- The backflush detergent is specially designed to remove coffee oils and other residues.
These accessories are the most important in the espresso making process. The priorities, if you are on a low budget, are a great grinder, a cheap scale and a timer. The espresso tools will allow you to gain the experience and the skills, while pulling decent shots as a beginner. As you gain more experience, tools like thermometer, scale and timer, will be used only sparsely. You will need them when you change the beans, or to troubleshoot consistently bad shots.
Happy espresso making!