Espresso is just as much art as it is science though, so while you can control some variables, you also need to have some skill. This takes practice and a lot of time, but you can, with some effort, make some pretty awesome espressos. But if you don’t want to get hand’s on pulling your own espresso shots, you can also opt to use a super automatic espresso machine to make a passable espresso without any knowhow on your part.
But even if you one-button-make an espresso, there are still some variables you can control to make a better espresso.
Why You Should Make Good Espressos
If you are trying to find out how to make really good espresso then you are probably already aware of what a truly well-made espresso can taste like.
Unfortunately, most commercially made espressos are not perfected in any way: they come out as merely extremely bitter and concentrated forms of coffee, and nothing like what an espresso – which is made properly – has the potential to be.
Done correctly, one should end up with a shot which is strong, aromatic, flavorful and full, but never overly bitter, sour, thin or burnt.
This is why many people do not enjoy espressos, and why a large number of those who do, still do not appreciate how with a little bit of extra effort, knowledge and sometimes expense, one can turn espressos into something truly lovely.
Before we get into what to do to achieve this, let’s quickly have a look at the origin of espressos.
The Birth of the Espresso
In the early 1500’s the first coffeehouse is Europe was established. The coffeehouse trend grew to the point that in the later 1800’s a demand arose in the busiest and most bustling of them for an ‘instant’ or faster method of making coffee. At which point the first espresso machine was designed and patented in Italy.
The espresso machine was made simply to produce coffee quickly, but over time the espresso has become a coffee beverage in a league all of its own. The principle behind espresso machines is that hot water is forced through a layer of coffee grounds, under a pressure of about 9-10 bars. This is what makes the espresso brewing method unique, in that no other coffee making method uses pressure for the extraction process, merely hot water and brewing time.
Ways to Make An Espresso
You have two methods: sia a true Espresso Machine or by the manual method, using a non-espresso machine.
1) Manual Espresso Making (Making an Espresso without a Machine)
As you can see, a true espresso needs to be made with an espresso machine, as there is not an already existing manual espresso maker. That said, you can emulate an espresso coffee using manual methods. You will not be able to get a proper espresso, but if you are really keen to brew up some ‘shots’, and do not feel invested enough yet in espresso making to shell out for a machine, there are two methods you can use: French Press brewing and Moka Pot Brewing.
Both of these will give you an approximation of an espresso made with a machine, though it will be inferior to the real thing.
Make an Espresso with a French Press
If you have a French press at home, and want to make a quick espresso imitation – then you can simply make it in the French press as you would a normal coffee. Approximately double the grounds quantity, and use espresso grounds, or the finest grounds which you can get hold of.
Note: Do not increase the steep time – in fact if you usually use course grounds for brewing in your French press, you should decrease the steep time to avoid bitterness when using a finer ground. Fine grounds have a larger cumulative surface area, which means that they can release their compounds into the hot water quicker than course grinds. You want to stop the steep at just the right time so that the coffee is flavorful and strong, and not bitter and acrid (the result of over steeping).
Using a French press to make espresso will never yield a true espresso, for this one needs the increased pressure which a espresso machine provides. But if you already have a French press, and want to shake up your coffee making, it will work reasonably well considering, and without costing you a dime.
Make an Espresso with a Moka Pot
The moka pot is another manual coffee maker which can be used to make a coffee which mimics an espresso. Moka pots are perhaps not as common as French presses, but are quite cheap to purchase if you want to get your hands on one.
Moka pots tend to produce a better espresso style coffee than a French press. Moka pots use steam and pressure to extract the coffee compounds. Because the pressure created by the steam is part of the extraction process, the finished coffee is more similar to an espresso than that from a French press. The amount of pressure is however quite a bit lower, 1.5 bars on average, as opposed to the standard 10 bars used for espresso making.
The way to make espresso in your moka pot is almost exactly the same as when making an ordinary coffee in it. The only changes you need to make are to up the concentration, and use very fine grounds – if you are buying the pre-ground, then preferably select the espresso specific blend.
The better choice of these two methods is definitely the moka pot, as you will be able to get a more true to type espresso style coffee out of it.
One of the signature marks of a well-pulled espresso is the silky fawn colored foam, frothy and aromatic. This foam is a product of the high pressure extraction – but there is a trick to manufacturing this after the brewing of your espresso, if you are using a manual method to make an espresso imitation.
Step 1: Make your ‘espresso’ as normal (with whatever manual method you choose)
Step 2: In a preheated container, mix 1 teaspoon of sugar (per serving of espresso) with a little of the made coffee. Mix vigorously with a spoon, adding more coffee as you go. You will start to develop a nice froth. Once you are done, simply pour gently into you espresso cups and serve. This technique for making froth will definitely elevate your aspiring espresso drink up a couple of notches, and makes for an attractive end result!
2) Using an Espresso Machine
And then there are the true espresso machines.
The principle behind espresso machines is that hot water is forced through a layer of coffee grounds, under a pressure of about 9-10 bars. This is what makes the espresso brewing method unique, in that no other coffee making method uses pressure for the extraction process, merely hot water and brewing time.
The process of the water passing through the coffee, and taking along with it the flavors and caffeine, is usually about 25 seconds.
About Espresso Machines
Since brewing great espressos is dependent on a) the skill of the barista and 2) the type of machine used, the machine you use is VERY important to the end product. While you can make a good espresso with a bad machine, you can always make a much better espresso with a good machine. And if you don’t have the right machine, you can’t make a real espresso.
Types of Espresso Machines
You typically have two machine methods of making espresso: pump-based brewing or steam-based brewing.
1) Pump Espresso Machines: Pump machines are the standard method of making espresso and the ‘true’ espresso making method. Pump brewing would be using an espresso machine.
You can further break pump machines into two categories of espresso makers:
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines: barista controls the length of the shot pull and tamps the ground.
Super Automatic Espresso Machines: the machine does everything — the user just hits a button and the espresso is made by the machine, from grinding the beans, pulling the shot, to cleaning.
2) Steam Coffee Machines: Steam brewing gives the approximation of an espresso, but since no pressure is utilized, you don’t get the rich crema indicative of a real espresso. Steam brewing methods would be trying to brew an espresso with a Moka pot or Percolator. This is the inferior method of making an espresso and does not give the real thing.
Espresso Machine Costs
As the machine which you use will have a huge part to play in the end result, lets quickly take a look at the different categories out there and how they perform:
Start of the Range $100 +
Espresso machines which fall into this category will typically be for home use. They are an attractive option when one does not want to spend a whole lot of money, but want to make espresso at home. Unfortunately, they are usually neither long lasting nor effective at making the type of espresso which all espresso lovers will want to drink. The reason for this is that low quality less costly machines usually do not produce adequate amounts of pressure, and the pressure and heat which they do produce is often not consistent throughout the whole shot. This means that the flavor and body of the cup will be compromised, and you will usually end up with something which is bitter and un-flavorful.
Middle of the Range $300 +
Middle of the range espresso machines are a pretty safe bet when it comes to what kind of espresso you will get. As long as you stick to well-known brands with good reviews, you can go for a machine which is at the lower end of this spectrum and still get really good results, and a long lasting good quality machine. When reading reviews, make sure that the machine is capable of maintaining steady water temps and pressure through shots.
- At about $300+, you get into the budget range of a semi-automatic machine. The price can vary wildly with home semi-automatic machines costing about 300, to commercial versions costing 5,000 or more.
- At about $500, you get the entry level super automatic espresso machines (the one button press make espresso machines). These range from $500 to about $3000 for the most expensive.
High End (Commerical) Range $10 000 +
While you can get a great shot from a machine which only costs a few hundred bucks, there are espresso machines out there which cost up to $20 000! Needless to say, it is not necessary to get one of these purely to get good espresso – but they are interesting to check out, especially with regards to the practical brewing features which are part of what makes them costly. You will often find that a very expensive espresso machine has functions which allow you to have complete control over the brewing process, from water heat to pressure and extraction time. This control is something that baristas and coffee connoisseurs covet, as it means that with tweaking you can come up with the truly perfect cup.
Needless to say, it is not necessary to get one of these purely to get good espresso – but they are interesting to check out, especially with regards to the practical brewing features which are part of what makes them costly. You will often find that a very expensive espresso machine has functions which allow you to have complete control over the brewing process, from water heat to pressure and extraction time. This control is something that baristas and coffee connoisseurs covet, as it means that with tweaking you can come up with the truly perfect cup.
When it comes to purchasing an espresso machine look for something which is the right scale for your uses (is it just for you and one other person, for the whole family – or for parties, or your own coffee shop?). If you are interested with developing a knowledge of coffee, then invest in one which provides a decent level of control over the process, not a fully automated variety.
How to Perfect Your Espresso Making
Besides the type of machine you are using, there are other factors which can greatly influence the quality of the espresso which you pull.
1. Acquire the Best Coffee Beans
If you are buying coffee beans to make your own grounds, the quality and freshness of the beans which you select will go a long way towards making that extraordinary cup of espresso. The quality, region, type, and roast length will impact your espresso flavor MORE THAN ANY OTHER FACTOR.
And you should be grinding beans not using pre-ground beans if you are not. The flavors unlocked from grinding your own beans gives a much better espresso.
The Right Roast Time
You should be looking for a roast combo which is designed specifically for espresso making. You’ll usually find specific roasts tailored just for espresso. The perfect roast means the flavor won’t be too sweat or too bitter.
The Right Region
Different regions in the world produce different tasting beans, which produce different tasting espressos. When buying coffee beans for espresso making, you need to purchase ‘mild’s’. As a rule of thumb, these are the Arabica variety, grown at high altitudes, and are the best for espresso making. However, don’t limit yourself to just Arabica — by sampling different beans around the world, you may find exceptional coffee beans.
However, don’t limit yourself to just Arabica beans — by sampling different beans around the world, you may find exceptional coffee beans.
The Fresher the Better
If you are buying your own grounds then I probably do not need to tell you this, but when it comes to coffee beans the fresher they are the better. Most coffee is at its peak for brewing with at about 5-6 days after it is roasted. This is not a hard and fast rule, the general rule of thumb is that the lighter the roast, the longer it will take to peak and then decline towards being stale, and the darker the roast the shorter time it will take to reach its peak in flavor. Whether or not you get quite so specific about the freshness is up to you, but it remains that if you can find super fresh source of roasted beans, this means that you can keep it on hand for longer and still get the optimum espresso results.
Using Grounds Instead of Beans
If you are using grounds, you should switch to breans and grind them yourself. This gives a better flavor espresso hands down.
However, if you insist on purchasing pre-ground coffee, then pick the ‘espresso’ blend from a good quality brand. As opposed to grinding your own beans this is an inferior path to take, as grinding your own means that you can capture the most taste by grinding your beans shortly before each espresso making. However if you do not want the hassle of grinding your own beans, and prefer the convenience of pre-ground, make sure that once opened you store your grounds in an opaque, non-see-through container, at room temperature away from light, moisture and heat to preserve as much freshness and flavor as possible.
2) Use a Quality Burr Grinder
Do not use a blade grinder for your coffee grounds. This is very important, as blade grinders do not produce evenly ground coffee. If your grounds are not of an even size, this means that all of your precision when it comes to brewing will be out of the window and for waste, as it will be impossible to do an extraction to suit the ground size when they are
This is very important, as blade grinders do not produce evenly ground coffee. If your grounds are not of an even size, this means that all of your precision when it comes to brewing will be out of the window and for waste, as it will be impossible to do an extraction to suit the ground size when they are of all sorts of sizes. The result is then a shot which is inevitably either weak and watery, strong and bitter, or a combination of both, and you never get to achieve that espresso Mecca which you are aiming for. So, if you do not have one already, invest in a burr grinder. This will make a signifant difference in the quality of espressso you can produce!
Typically most coffee experts will tell you that you should be spending 1/3 of the cost of your espresso machine on a coffee grinder. That means for a very good one, you can expect to spend between $200 to $500! Your grinder is one of the most important variables in the espresso-taste equation.
So don’t ignore it. Next to your beans, the grinder is the most important factor that impacts the quality of the espresso.
3) Use Quality Water
The kind of water which you use for your espresso can play a role in its flavor if it has a definite taste to it. If this is the case, then it is best to use filtered water for your shots. Hard water is the most common problem, and build-ups of deposits can not only change the flavors of your coffee but also clog your machine.
4) The Perfect Machine Settings
When setting up to pull a great espresso shot, there are two things which you must make sure that you do:
Do a Purge Shot
Purge your heads by pulling a blank shot with purely hot water. This also helps to preheat everything. You can place the cup under to catch the hot water, and thereby preheating it as well.
Pack you Puck Right
When putting your grounds in, make sure that they make an even layer before applying pressure, otherwise the puck will be uneven, making for an unpredictable extraction.
If these two things are off, your espresso will suffer.
Aha! Now we come to the actual brewing process. 9 bars of pressure is considered the standard pressure at which to extract according to Italian and US associations and barista guilds. Stick to this pressure unless you are wanting to experiment, and if so change it only incrementally to be safe.
The ideal range at which good espresso is made is 190 o – 203.5o Fahrenheit (88o – 95.27 o Celsius). Within this range one can produce different effects. Generally, the hotter the water temps, the stronger the results. Too much heat will end in burnt flavors which are acrid. Too low and the tastes will be on the weak and sour side. Strike the balance between these two extremes and you should have yourself an aromatic delight!
Ideally, your espresso machine will have a PID temperature control unit that ensure the correct temperature. IF you are brewing espressos with a super automatic, you’ll want a dual boiler system which has a separate boiler for the coffee brewing process and for the milk steamer.
Super Automatic Espresso Machines: Dual Boiler vs Single Boiler
If you have a super automatic machine, the boiler system can impact your flavor since you may or may not be brewing your espresso at the right temperature, depending on what type of product you are brewing. If you are making cappuccinos with a single boiler system, your espresso brewing temperature MAY NOT be in the ideal range. Single boiler systems may give a temperature that’s slightly too hot, since the machine shares both the espresso making and milk steamer with the water boiler chamber’ and the temperature for EACH of these functions is not the same, especially if the milk foaming is made first, which heats the water beyond the ideal range needed for the espresso pull. Note that this is depending on the model and machine you have.
The term extraction refers to the time period when the water is forced through the grounds. Timing the exact extraction length is where the skill of the barista comes into play here. If the time is off, the espresso won’t taste (as) good.
Extraction times are usually anywhere between 22 and 40 seconds. The longer the extraction time, the stronger your espresso will be. The shorter, the lighter it will be. Too short, and the espresso will be sour and thin, and too long and it will be bitter and acrid.
The perfect extraction time is also dependant on your ground size. If your grounds are super fine, then the extraction time can be less, as the flavors and compounds will release very quickly. If the grounds size is slightly course for espresso making, upping the extraction time is a good way to still get the strength that you want. However, remember you must aim to get a nice fine grind which will give you the results which you are looking for.
One way to decide when to stop your extraction is to watch the stream. At first it will be a foamy, thick consistency. When it starts changing over to a more liquid water like texture – stop the extraction.
After use, make sure that you do a purging shot, to clear coffee residue from the surfaces. For more thorough cleaning, keep an eye on your machine, and make sure to take off the fittings and give them all a good scrub as soon as they start to look anything less that sparkly.
The reason for all of this cleanliness fuss is not so much for hygiene, but for taste. Coffee contains oils (these are what makes it possible for the crème to develop), and while most of them end up in the cup, some stay behind as residue. If not cleaned off, these deposits of oils go rancid within a few hours, and will imbue your espressos with unpleasant flavors.
When cleaning your machine, stay away from detergents (particularly scented ones) as these can also leave residues and taint your coffee.
Once you have had a truly good espresso, pulled by someone who knows what they are doing and made from good beans, it is difficult to not to want to recreate the same thing yourself. Making good espresso can be as satisfying as any other achievement, and knowing what to do and what you need to get to that ultimate cup is the first step towards the point of perfection.
If you choose to use a super automatic espresso machine, you can still control some things to produce the best espresso possible with your machine. But if you are using a semi automatic machine, your own skill as a barista comes into play as well, as you will be responsible for pulling the shot.