Tips to Make Great Espresso
For espresso aficionados, nothing is better than a perfect shot of espresso. It will have a thick layer of crema on the top and will taste smooth, almost like caramel. However, actually achieving this thrilling moment of espresso tasting nirvana can be tricky. There are a massive amount of variables to consider when you are making espresso. Depending on the machine you are using, you will have different variables to consider including: temperature, grind, brew pressure, tamp pressure, type of coffee bean, and timing. Here are some tips to make espresso that will rival the drink produced by a professional barista.
The ideal temperature for brewing espresso is between 190 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on the beans you use and on your particular preferences). Unless you have a completely manual espresso machine, your machine should take care of this for you and indicate when the water is heated. However, there are some other temperatures to consider. What about the temperature of the portafilter? It is a good idea to warm your filter by pulling a blank shot through the machine after the water is heated without putting any coffee in the portafilter. Just be careful not to burn yourself on the portafilter when you are ready to tamp the coffee! This blank shot will also warm up the inside of your espresso cup, which is important. You don't want your perfect shot of espresso going into a cold cup.
Measurement and Timing
It may help you to pull your espresso into a shot glass so that you can measure the amount of espresso that is produced. Be sure to warm this glass before you begin so that it doesn't mess with the shot temperature in the final product. If everything is working correctly, you should pull 2.5 ounces of espresso in 25 seconds. This is called the "golden rule" of making espresso, and following it can make creating a perfect shot of espresso possible. As you strive toward this goal, you should change only one of the following variables at a time until you get it right.
The ideal pressure rating for pulling the perfect espresso shot is 8 to 9 bars. Your machine probably doesn't have a gauge to tell you the exact pressure that it's using, but it is set up to make sure that the pressure doesn't build up too high and cause your machine to explode. Since your machine is designed to help you avoid using too much pressure, all you have to worry about is making sure that you don't use too little pressure. This will result in weak shots with very little crema.
The variable of tamp pressure might not have occurred to you before. If you have been putting your grounds into the portafilter and lightly stomping them with your tamper, you probably haven't applied enough pressure. The ideal tamp pressure is about 30 pounds. A good way to practice is to put your hand on the bathroom scale until it hits 30 pounds and then you will get a feel for how hard you need to push the tamper into the portafilter to perfectly tamp the coffee. If your 2.5 oz. shot takes 35 seconds to pull, instead of the ideal 25 seconds, try using less pressure when you tamp. If it only takes 15 seconds, you know you need more pressure. Of course, you do not have to worry about this if your machine has a pressurized portafilter - that brews espresso in a very different way and the tamp pressure is irrelevant.
For espresso, definitely go with a burr grinder. These grinders don't have visible blades and are much more reliable when grinding for espresso purposes. Coffee that is finely ground causes the extraction time to be longer, so if it takes more than 25 seconds to produce a shot, try making it a little coarser.
Beans and Roast
When it comes to espresso coffee beans, there are so many varieties to choose from! It really depends on your tastes and what you prefer. Most people prefer dark roast, but there are some excellent medium roast beans available as well. In general, lightly roasted beans are not suitable for espresso. In America, a lot of people prefer very dark roast while in Italy a medium-dark roast is generally preferred.
Now, that you have read some basic tips to make espresso, there comes the hard part: practice, practice and practice. No matter what type of machine you have, it will take some experimentation with many of these variables before you find the right combination to create that perfect, delectable espresso shot.
Finally, if you want to explore the art of making espresso further, I would recommend these two books to read:
Espresso: Ultimate Coffee by Kenneth Davids
Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques by David C. Schomer
Further ReadingHow to Froth Milk
Descaling Espresso Machine