If you want to learn how to make espresso at home, you need to learn the basics. Be prepared to dedicate a little time for study and for practice. Even if you own a super automatic espresso machine you still need to have a basic knowledge about espresso. The super-automatic will do all the leg work for you, but it doesn’t know what kind of beans you are using, so you need to program it for that. This is why you need to understand how brewing espresso works. Espresso brewing is almost a science. Everything, from coffee quality to water temperature, extraction time and pressure to coffee grind and so on, needs to be perfect. When confronted with all of these precise details, many beginner home baristas lose interest fast.
If you don’t know what you are doing, the likelihood of ruining your shot is very high. Any step you oversee, no matter how insignificant might appear, will make the difference between an average espresso and the perfect espresso. This page is intended to give you the basic knowledge, and some advanced espresso brewing tips to teach you how to make espresso at home.
Espresso – A Race against Time
Espresso means fast in Italian. From preparation to drinking it everything is fast. It takes a round one minute to grind, tamp, and warm up the machine, and 30 seconds to pull the shot. Spend too much time between grinding and tamping and coffee oxidizes. Extract it longer than 30 seconds and you ruin the shot. Let it sit in your cup more than a few minutes and the crema vanishes and aromas are lost. In a typical Italian coffee shop customers are in and out within minutes during the morning rush. This is another reason to love espresso.
On the other hand, because of the preparation timeframe, details are easy to miss. Everything needs precision, at least in your rookie phase when you still figure out the various variables of the brewing method.
Espresso - Perfection in a Cup
The beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. In the same way coffee taste is a subjective matter. If you are used to a certain way of brewing your coffee you think that this is the norm. There is a joke with a man who never complimented his wife’s cooking skills, he ate it, but he never said it was good or anything. Until one day when the wife accidentally burnt the food. That day the husband complimented her for the meal she cooked, saying it was “just like his mama used to cook for him”. In the same way we might be used to bad coffee, and we perceive it as good because we are used to it.
While there is a general consensus about how a great espresso should taste, the personal taste plays a huge role too. Espresso, like any other types of coffee, is subject to particular and individual preferences and taste. We are not going to discuss personal taste here, that’s not the place for it. However, we’ll briefly touch on major deviations, such as the burnt beans at Starbucks.
Since I brought Starbuck in discussion, espresso is also the base for other drinks such as a latte, cappuccino, macchiato, cafe mocha, or caffè Americano. Their coffee beverages use espresso as the base. Because coffee is overpowered by milk and other flavors, the espresso taste dilutes completely. So, really, you don’t get the chance to taste the espresso. Don’t try to drink a neat espresso at Starbucks, it’s awful.
So, what makes a perfect espresso?
- Crema is probably the one most important thing to an espresso. If the espresso doesn’t have crema, you know the shot is bad. Crema is the layer of brown foam on top of the coffee. It contains a lot of aromatic coffee oils, and you stir in to mix it with your shot for a better tasting experience.
- The taste, unlike popular perception, doesn’t necessarily need to be bitter. A Starbucks espresso shot is bitter due to Starbucks’ choice of over-roasting the beans. The espresso taste variation can come from the bean type, but it typically depends on the roasting level. Over-roasting the beans will impart strong smoky notes to your beverage.
- There are also big differences in taste between the regular shot, (normale), the long shot, (lungo), and the short shot, (ristretto). This difference is not only the result of the different concentrations used, but due to the composition of the pulled coffee.
- Although the espresso aroma is not so far from other specific coffee aromas, it’s so well-defined and sharp that it’s unmistakable.
- Bitterness of an espresso is a quality. It needs, however, some acidity and a little sweetness. Hints of caramel and chocolate should be easily detectable in an espresso.
How to Make Espresso at Home - The Basics
The taste and aroma of an espresso is a unique combination of sugar, acids, proteins, and aromatic oils. The ideal proportion between these compounds is determined by the brewing parameters, such as water temperature, brewing pressure, tamping force, and coffee grind.
The basic recipe doesn’t look like much trouble, and for the experienced barista it really is not. And considering that the modern espresso brewers are so advanced, much of the guess work is eliminated. Here is what it takes for that awesome espresso shot to come to life.
- For a classic espresso shot, (normale), we need to use 6 to 8 g of ground coffee extracted into 1 oz of brewed liquid.
- The coffee goes in a filter basket, which is placed into the portafilter. The ground coffee is compacted with a tamper, using approximately 30 pounds of force.
- The espresso machine then passes hot water, (190-200° F / 88-94° C), through the compacted coffee layer.
- The water is passed under pressure in order to extract volatile compounds and soluble solids into the cup. The pressure is 9 bars. Most machines advertise 15 bars, but the pressure needs to be normalized to 9 bars the standard for brewing espresso. This where the OPV, (over pressure valve), comes to rescue.
- The grind size should be the only variable, in this mix. The espresso grind size is actually a range on the finer register of the scale. This is variable to compensate for the differences between various bean types.
- All things being equal, and following the recipe, pulling the shot should take about 30 seconds.
- Use the freshest coffee possible. Yes, the recipe calls for freshly ground coffee, stale coffee doesn’t make crema.
- Use good tasting water. If the water is too mineralized it will impart its taste to the shot.
This is the basic recipe, and if you stick to it religiously, you can become a great home barista. And we recommend you to stick to this recipe until you feel very confident. However, if you are an adventurous, or simply, you like to try new things, you probably feel the need to spiff up your espresso ritual. For the adventurous home barista, there is room for small adjustments everywhere.
How to Make Espresso at Home - Video
Espresso experts will tell you that espresso making is a matter of seconds. The difference between a perfect shot and an average one could be a few seconds. The 30 seconds needed to pull a great shot can be divided into two phases:
- The pre-infusion which takes place in the first 5 seconds after turning the machine on. During pre-infusion the water will wet all of the grounds, and the coffee will start to expand.
- The shot pulling phase happens during the next 25 seconds. This is when the coffee starts to pour into cups.
When using a semi automatic you can tweak many of the parameters of a shot. Depending on how the shot pours, it could take a bit longer to get the 30 ml of coffee. You can visually examine the shot, and if the color and the aspect are nice you can let it extract for longer than that standard 30 seconds. Many baristas pull the shot relying solely on the visual aspect. If the shot starts to “blonde”, you stop the extraction.
The extraction time will affect the final cup not only in terms of volume, but will also affect the taste. If the extraction time is longer, you will get a shot with more caffeine. On the other hand it will have more bitterness and fewer flavors. If the extraction time is shorter, you will get a low volume short espresso with more acidic notes.
When the pull is over, the crema receives a brown color. This foam needs to be dense and compact, and without large bubbles. If you have white spots or air bubbles in your foam, the shot is average. Here are a few important things to avoid in your home barista career:
- Stale/Oxidized coffee.
Stale coffee does not produce crema, and it misses the volatile aromatic oils.
- Uneven tamping or tamping too hard or too mild.
Tamping too hard will compact the grounds too much and the extraction will be too slow, resulting in over-extraction. Tamping too mild will result into a fast extraction, and low pressure, coffee will be under-extracted.
- Too long or too short extraction time.
If your shot takes longer than 30 seconds, you will extract more bitter compounds. It’s another way to over-extract.
- The espresso machine and the grinder are not properly maintained.
Cleaning the espresso brewer and the grinding machine ensures you don’t get coffee residues from previous shots. Descaling your espresso machine regularly ensures proper functioning.
- Poor quality coffee beans.
Espresso is more unforgiving for using poor quality beans. The poor quality will reflect in the taste of the shot.
- Incorrect grind size.
Grind size affect the pressure during extraction, and the flowing rate. A too fine grind will take forever to extract, a too coarse grind will pass through the coffee layer too fast.
Espresso Brewing Advanced Tips
When you start to make your own espresso at home, you focus first on the basics. But after you master the basics, you will want more. If you want to experiment and play with your shots here are a few things that you can play with.
- The coffee roast degree will determine the taste of your shot. Experiment with lighter roasts. Even though roasters sell “espresso roast”, you can also use “Vienna” or “Full City” roasts. They are really great. You can even roast your own coffee.
- An espresso blend is the safest route, but sometimes it’s just boring. Why not try African beans single origin? Or Kona peaberry? A safer route, Brazilian beans are also great. Try your own blend, and mix beans from different geographic areas. This is how the roasters do it.
- The perfect brewing temperature during extraction is 195° to 205° F (90° - 96° C). Your semi-automatic most probably needs pre-warming, so that the brew group doesn’t cool down the water during extraction. If your machine doesn’t have a warm-up option, you can pull a blank shot before pulling the real one. A blank shot is just a shot without any coffee in the portafilter.
- If you own an espresso machine with water temperature adjustment function, it’s a nice idea to try tweak it. Brewing at lower temperatures makes your shot sweeter.
- If you are a beginner, stick with the traditional quantity of ground coffee (7-8 g). You can later experiment with more or less coffee, depending on the beans.
- The golden rule is to tamp with 30 lb pressure, and adjust the grind size until the shot flows perfectly. Some experienced baristas will slightly adjust the tamping pressure, but this requires a great hand. As a newbie, you should tamp at 30 lb. The grind size needs to be adjusted.
- The objective is to get about 1 oz of espresso in approximately 30 seconds. With a semiautomatic you can play with 5 seconds increments or decrements.
Normale, Lungo, Americano, Ristretto – Espresso Taste Is Subjective
My wife doesn’t like espresso. She can drink it, but it’s not her favorite drink. I love espresso lungo most of the times, however, sometimes I’d make myself a ristretto. Some other times, I brew for myself a caffè crema. My point is even one person's taste can be different from one day to another. People's taste is different, so it’s hard to declare what is the perfect espresso.
The extraction time can give you a lot of room to play, so you can tweak your shot. A 30 seconds extraction time will give you a “normale” which is the traditional espresso shot. A longer extraction time, will get you a “lungo” which is a diluted espresso, in terms of flavors. A lungo, however, contains a bit more caffeine than the normale per shot. By pulling around 20 seconds you will get a ristretto, which is the most concentrated of the three, but contains the least caffeine per shot. This is because the extraction is too fast to dissolve enough caffeine.
Ristretto is obtained by using a shorter extraction time, and by using the same grounds quantity and the same water volume as for normale. The technique involves cutting back on the extraction time while pushing the same quantity of water through the coffee grinds. Ristretto will be less potent in caffeine levels, but richer in aromatic oils and flavor. You need a special machine to pull a ristretto this way. The more accessible alternative is to just stop the extraction earlier.
Espresso vs Doppio vs Ristretto
A type of coffee that is very popular in Europe is a longer extracted lungo. This coffee will have the espresso taste and aroma, but milder, and will contain more caffeine per cup. This is called “caffè crema”.
The American counterpart is “caffè Americano” which is espresso pulled over hot water. The advantage of the Americano is that the bitter compounds associated with longer pulled espresso are eliminated.
Some people like to mix the high caffeine content drip coffee with the flavor oomph of an espresso. This coffee is called red eye, and it’s very different from caffè crema.
Espresso More Tips for the Perfect Experience
A good way of enhancing your espresso experience is to drink a little water before you start drinking the shot. This helps cleanse your palate.
Sip small drinks of water while you’re enjoying your espresso. This will prevent dehydration and will dilute the coffee in your stomach, for those with sensitive stomachs.
Because of the small quantity, espresso cools off fast. Porcelain cups, or double wall glass cups are very practical, maintain the coffee temperature long enough. Warm up the cups before brewing. Many machines have cup warmers on top. If yours doesn’t have one, just use warm water, works great.
Many people like to add some sugar to their espresso or serve it with something sweet.
Stirring in your cup a bit before the first sip makes the crema and the coffee to mix. You can mix it even if you didn’t put any sugar in it.
Armed with all this information, you should be able now to start your journey to become a home barista. We wish you "Good Luck!"