Last Updated on August 19, 2021 by Nick Baskett
Espresso is the most misunderstood coffee. At face value, it looks to be the simplest of drinks, but there is an overlooked level of complexity to make it well. So while barista’s all over the world compete to make intricate latte art, mastering a perfect espresso is much less sexy. Yet, it forms the base for all other coffees, so making good espresso is what a real barista should focus on first.
What is ‘Good’ depends on where you are, your financial means, and whether you’re making it at home or in a cafe. To make a good espresso at home, may need a different approach or objectives than making good espresso in a cafe. What defines an espresso is the extraction, the grind, the quality of water, and of course the skill of the barista. This is even before we have covered the contentious topic of which are the ‘best’ beans.
To achieve a good espresso at home, you may have a completely different approach and even a different goal than making good espresso in a commercial environment. What actually defines an espresso is how it is brewed, the grind, the quality of water, and of course the skill of the barista. This is even before we have covered the contentious topic of which are the ‘best’ beans.
WHY MAKE ESPRESSO AT HOME?
Nobody makes espresso at home unless you’re ‘into coffee’. Making genuine espresso requires an espresso machine, and perhaps a separate grinder. So the costs are already adding up beyond the point where you can justify the savings against buying a cup daily from your local coffee shop.
Let’s be honest with ourselves – we don’t make espresso at home because we want to save money, we do it because we want a good espresso. If you’re like me you also enjoy researching new beans from small-batch roasters and rising to the challenge of extracting the best from them.
I am also a partner in a coffee shop with a beautiful Elektra 3 group espresso machine and two grinders. I can tell you that my objectives in the shop are very different from what I do at home.
GOOD ESPRESSO FROM A CAFE
But surely espresso is either good or not, no matter if it’s at home or in a cafe? This may be true in absolute terms, but we have different objectives. Let me explain. Our shop is located in Macedonia, a part of the world where a dark roast Italian coffee is de rigour. Every cafe has commercial considerations, so while I may spend £13 ($17) for 250gm of beans here in London, in Macedonia, I pay about £17 ($24) per KG.
For this, I can get decent quality Italian imported beans, but if I paid much more, then I would not achieve a high enough profit margin, considering the price I can sell espresso for in that part of the world.
PROFIT MARGINS ON COFFEE!
It often comes as a surprise to many, but coffee shops despite the high margins on coffee, have a lot of expenses, and we need those gross margins to be able to make a profit after all the other expenses are taken into consideration.
So, fresh roasted single-origin coffee beans are not commercially viable for me in my market where the average espresso sells for about £0.80 or $1.00. This has an impact on the level of equipment I can realistically afford, the quality of the beans, and ultimately the quality of coffee we can make. I’m not saying we make bad coffee – we don’t, and in fact, we get a lot of praise for our coffee not just from locals, but also from tourists. Our coffee may be good for the region, but we can’t compete with a specialist coffee bar in central London.
PEOPLE WANT A CONSISTENT ESPRESSO
If you make espresso at home, you can afford to, even enjoy, the variances from day-to-day. It gives us an excuse to make more espresso because the first one wasn’t perfect. In our shop, I used to make around five espresso’s each morning to ‘dial in’ the grinder. That’s five espressos I was tasting before my day even started.
I need to be sure the baristas on shift can reproduce good espresso each day, so ensuring consistency with minimal tinkering is a priority. Also, clients want to know when they come to your Café what to expect. We are creatures of habit, and most of us don’t want our coffee to taste different from what we expect each morning.
The beans used will play a big part in determining this consistency, and so will training. Understanding how to make small adjustments on your grinder, how to taste and then interpret the flavour profile is something to work on.
MARKET TASTE FOR ESPRESSO
But that might not be the only consideration. Depending on where you go, what is considered a good coffee can vary quite a lot. A barista friend of mine who worked at a speciality coffee shop in Skopje once told me a customer complained that the barista ruined his espresso by adding flavouring.
They refused to pay and wouldn’t listen to the barista’s explanation that this was what speciality coffee tasted like. The customer (a local politician) was not convinced. The coffee (an Ethiopian) had an acidic, fruity taste, and the customer was certain some flavouring was added! Finally, the shop owner threw out the customer, angrily telling him he didn’t deserve to enjoy decent coffee – Such is life in the Balkans.
You may be willing to educate your customers, through holding cupping sessions and events. But don’t expect your view on what makes the best espresso to be the same as your customers.
We get at least one customer each day come into the shop to ask for a Nescafe, which is widely loved in the region.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF ESPRESSO
There are different types of espresso, and I don’t just mean ‘Single’ or ‘Double’. Consider the maligned Ristretto, and Lungo – often referred to as a ‘short’ and ‘long’ espresso.
If making a good espresso requires specific timing and measurement; how then to make the varieties while retaining a balanced flavour?
A ‘Brew Ratio’ is a concept that explains the relationship between the dose and the yield. For a standard espresso, the ratio is ordinarily 1:2. This ratio means that for each gram of coffee in the basket, you should double it for the espresso yield out. With an increased dose, you can make more espresso.
For example, a 16-gram dose at 1:2 would yield a 32-gram double espresso. 18 grams in, 36 grams out.
At a ratio of 1:1, you’re making ristretto which is thick and strong and sometimes under-extracted. When you use a 1:3 brew ratio, you’re making a lungo, which will be more delicate and weak.
Changing your brew ratio changes your extraction and strength. More water through the same amount of ground coffee increases the extraction, but this comes at the expense of strength. This extra water used to extract more flavour also dilutes the espresso.
DON’T CHANGE THE AMOUNT OF COFFEE
A common mistake is to reduce the amount of coffee in the basket when trying to change the speed of the extraction or reduce the strength of the coffee. This is not a good approach – each basket is made to take a specific amount of coffee.
To work out what is the correct amount of coffee for your basket, first get a small scale, these are invaluable if you’re serious about coffee. Use the tare functionon your portafilter to zero it out, so we will weigh only the coffee grounds. Dose your ground coffee to a heaped mound into the filter basket. The base of the mound should just slightly be below the rim of the basket. This is the correct amount of coffee grounds to use for all brew methods.
Adjustments should be in the grind size, and time of extraction. The table below can be used as a guideline for what you should aim for.
Each type of espresso should have different attributes and flavour profiles, but this is largely misunderstood. For example, if we keep to the same grind settings but pull the shot when it hits a 1:1 brew ratrio, to make a ristretto – we refer to this as ‘The lazy man’s ristretto’.
A different approach is to grind slightly finer and brew for the regular time, but with the result of about only 1oz in the cup. For the fearless home barista, this variety presents delightful new perspectives on our staple drink.
As a bonus, if you encounter a snobby barista, you’ll be able to engage in satisfying banter, when you casually enquire about the brew ratio they use for their Ristretto.
THE NUMBERS YOU NEED TO MAKE GOOD ESPRESSO
Of course, there is not a single formula that will always work for every bean in every circumstance. Where would the fun be in that? But there are some generally accepted rules of thumb we can work to.
They can act as a starting point from where you can refine, twiddle and tweak until you get to a place where you’re happy.
WHAT DOES ESPRESSO EXTRACTION MEAN?
Espresso is the result of hot water pressurised at about 9 bar against ground coffee so that the flavour of the beans is absorbed before making its way into your cup.
About 28% of a roasted coffee bean is water-soluble, therefore extractable, but you don’t want to extract all of it, because there are parts that won’t taste nice – see Over extraction below. Equally, if you just add more coffee into the equation and extract for less time, you also get a disgusting cup – see Under extraction below.
Thus the fiendishly elusive objective of the perfect extraction begins.
In conversation with one Barista at a speciality coffee shop, they would produce a single shot using between 41-43 coffee beans. For double espresso, it was 81-83 beans or approximately 15-18 grams. The barista assured me, as you probably know that each espresso machine is different.
A barista friend of mine suggests one way to start dialling in for your ideal dose is by grinding enough beans so that there is just enough headspace leftover in your portafilter once you have tamped down the shot.
This ensures you have proper clearance for brewing when you lock the portafilter into the machine and avoids ‘pooling on top of the grounds, which indicates you got the dose wrong’.
She recommends to start with about 16-18 grams for a double shot and explains that you will need to make a ground texture that is consistent and like fine sand, before brewing.
“Getting the grind setting right is a crucial principle that affects not just the taste of the espresso but also the texture”. She continues “There are no hard and fast rules for making espresso, its only slight deviations which you must try to create an excellent cup of coffee from different beans”.
An overlooked subject is often the grind distribution in the basket. I give the basket a shake while it’s filling to help level the grinds which might have limited value. If the output looks clumpy, however, I use a chopstick to poke around and break up the clumps. A smarter and more professional way is to use a dosing cup to catch your grinds, then shake vigorously when transferring to your basket. Best to get a dosing cup that perfectly fits your basket for this one.
PROBLEMS WITH EXTRACTION AND HOW YOU CAN FIX THEM
I have to admit here that no single article on how to pull the perfect shot is going to replace practice. However, armed with some information below, you will at least have some data points to reference when your espresso makes your face pucker up (and not in a good way).
Over-extracted coffee occurs when too many soluble elements are taken from the coffee beans. All of us have done this from time to time. Sometimes because of an incorrect grind setting, the extraction takes longer than normal. You might run for 40+ seconds to get the correct volume and find a result that it is bitter and overpowering without any interesting flavours.
Extracting too much kills the flavour, and leaves a result that is lifeless, and with a bitterness that leaves you reaching for a glass of water.
Under extraction tastes so bad is because there are flavour elements left in the bean that need to balance out the undesirable flavours.
Under-extractions can occur when the grinder is set too coarse, or if you use the wrong dosage. It might also be the result of channelling, where water has found a quick exit path through the coffee.
The result is a thin and astringent taste, lacking in flavour whilst still managing to taste disgusting. A Ristretto is a form of under extraction, and some point to a taste that is quick to finish and not leave any lasting impression. As mentioned above, this might be from poor technique.
WHEN YOU SHOULD USE A BOTTOMLESS PORTAFILTER
Secretly, everyone likes Bottomless Portafilters because it makes for cool Instagramable shots. But there is another reason, which is actually why they were created, which is to get visibility on the evenness of the extraction. Channelling or if the tamping has been uneven will be easy to spot.
In some circumstances, a bottomless portafilter will yield more crema, maybe 50% more since there is no spout to run down. Most customers like the look of espresso with a thick rich crema, so that’s all good then. Except it’s not, and that leads us to a discussion which could be a whole blog in itself.
IS IT GOOD OR BAD TO HAVE CREMA?
The next time you make an espresso, take a small spoon, and scrape the crema off the top and taste it – yummy right? No. It’s bitter and pretty horrible. This discovery seems to upset a lot of people. But, if it’s so bad, why do we all try to create espresso with a nice looking crema on top?
The answer is… that it’s complicated. First of all, you should mix your espresso – see below (how to stir your espresso). Once it’s mixed in, the bitterness is somewhat diluted with the other flavours, creating the overall flavour of the drink. Secondly, it adds to what we in the industry call ‘mouthfeel’, to mere mortals, let’s refer to it as ‘texture’. Nobody wants a thin espresso, because even a shot of coffee that tastes strong and a bit bitter is OK if it’s thick and leaves a lasting flavour.
When I was learning how to make coffee, I was told to taste the espresso in three sips and experience the different flavours from each sample. The first sip is more bitter, but then the second and third would add new and sweeter dimensions.
I can’t help feeling now that a better-tasting espresso would have consistency in flavour through the cup. I think its also why we see a lot of people add sugar to their espresso – it helps remove the bitterness they are used to. We are trained to expect bad coffee that needs to be sugared to taste palatable.
HOW TO STIR YOUR ESPRESSO
You must stir an espresso because the flavours from the beginning of the extraction differ from those at the end. The question is ‘how’ to stir? All stirrings are not the same. You want to mix the levels to make an even flavour in a very small cup. After scientific research (I’m serious) the best method identified is to stir side to side.
You do not, as we often see, swirl it around because that helps very little toward the objective of mixing it. Don’t believe me? See this video from espresso and founder of London based Square Mile Coffee Roasters supremo James Hoffman.
GOOD WATER MAKES FOR GOOD COFFEE
Part of the reason the quality of water is not talked about as much as other aspects of making good coffee is that it’s actually a complicated subject. It’s also difficult and often impractical to experiment with different types of water.
First, we should understand what we want in our water content. This is not only how hard or soft the water is, but what the mineral contents are, especially the levels of magnesium and bicarbonates.
Sodium rich water doesn’t help improve the taste, but high magnesium ion levels can help with the extraction of coffee into the water, and thus positively impact the taste.
Christopher Hendon a, Brit, of course, wrote a paper when he was a PhD student at the University of Bath alongside Maxwell Colnna-Dashwood, who was a Barista World champion finalist on the subject.
They wrote in their article: “Hard water is generally considered to be bad for coffee, but we found it was the type of hardness that mattered – while high bicarbonate levels are bad, high magnesium ion levels increase the extraction of coffee into water and improve the taste.” He went on to say “There is no one particular perfect composition of water that produces consistently flavoursome extractions from all roasted coffee. But magnesium-rich water is better at extracting coffee compounds and the resultant flavour depends on the balance between both the ions in the water and the quantity of bicarbonate present.”
If you are making espresso at home – then what to do? Purchasing an expensive commercial filter is out of the question unless you’re on a salary like a software engineer for Apple. Using bottled water actually does improve the taste, but it’s not cost-effective nor environmentally friendly. Most of us just use a Brita filter and hope for the best. These filters are pretty basic and are not designed for our purpose, so they will do little for the taste. Although by softening the water, they will help stop the build-up of limescale in your boiler. Nice Segway to the next section.
KEEPING YOUR ESPRESSO MACHINE AND ACCESSORIES CLEAN
If you ever wondered why that espresso at that small shop in the airport tasted quite so disgusting, then wonder no more! Look at their machine and you’ll notice a hopper full of yesterdays beans, and a steam wand with dried milk stuck to it. Observe too how they fill the portafilter without cleaning out the old grounds first. The machine itself won’t get any attention until the next service, and they will probably never clean the grinder.
Cleaning of your machine, basket and tools should be done daily in a commercial environment, and regularly at home depending on how often you’re using your equipment. I clean mine twice a week, and I clean the grinder every time I change the beans. It only takes a few seconds with some chemicals – I use Puly, which seems to be pretty popular, and you can buy a cleaning kit from Amazon for about $10. This includes a blind plate which you put in your basket to force the chemicals to circulate on the group head.
Make sure you run an espresso through the system in the morning and throw it so that no chemicals make their way into a drinking coffee. To clean the portafilter, you put a teaspoon of chemicals into a plastic food container along with some warm water and leave it overnight.
Make it part of your schedule, and it becomes automatic. My grinder comes apart easily without tools for a basic clean, so I do that and wipe the hopper with a dry rag to remove any oil residue from the previous beans. I get out all the old beans and husks from the burrs and this is typically a messy affair, but easy to sweep up.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT BEANS FOR GOOD ESPRESSO?
Although traditionally espresso is made with a darker roast, picking out a coffee bean strictly marketed as “espresso” isn’t necessary. The choice is up to you, and having your setup means you can experiment. You can find a lot of great approaches and various coffee beans from around the world, and each one will give a particularly unique taste and smell of your espresso cup.
BEANS FOR HOME USE
Small batch roasters can offer some of the most interesting options, but consistency might be an issue. Consider fairtrade and organic if you can afford it, and always buy only beans where you know the roast date.
There are a lot of subscription models out there where coffee sent directly to you just after roasting. Buying a subscription to 250g of coffee will ensure you always have a ready supply freshly roasted beans. In the UK, some of my personal favourites are Square Mile Coffee and Union Coffee. In the US, I can’t really say from experience, but Blue Bottle seems to be an extremely popular option.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT BEANS FOR A COFFEE SHOP
This is not so simple to answer. You might be leasing your espresso machine through the roaster, in which case you will not be able to use different beans. If you’ve purchased all your own equipment, then you are free to pick the best beans for your style and budget.
Knowing your customer base is the first step in choosing the right beans for your espresso menu. A sophisticated customer will expect a choice of lighter roasted speciality beans with complex flavours. These beans will come at a premium cost that you will have to factor into the price you charge.
If you go with a bean that has a complex flavour profile, then you will need the right equipment and training to consistently get the most out of each shot. This is not easy to do, so the cost of the bean is just one part of the equation. Remember what I said about profit margins before? You will waste a lot of coffee in doing the setup every time the weather changes, or you get a new batch of beans in. You will need to invest in training and more training when you get in new baristas.
MYTH OR REALITY, CAFFEINE IN ESPRESSO?
Espresso made from Arabica beans is not high in caffeine compared to other coffees, whatever coffee beans you use. Some of us seem to believe that a shot of espresso contains a huge amount of caffeine. But, in reality, it only provides between 50mg and 67mg on average.
By comparison, a french press coffee might contain 80-135mg for 8oz, and a drip coffee, 65-120mg of caffeine. These are levels based on Arabica beans, but if you use Robusta beans then the levels are much higher. The robusta bean is around 2.2- 2.7% caffeine, and the arabica bean is around 1.2 – 1.5%.
There isn’t a hard and fast rule on the exact level of caffeine, but the following chart can be used as a guideline.
This blog started at 850 words and finished with over 3,500. As I started it, I kept thinking of more to write. The joy of espresso is that there is so much to discover and enjoy.