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How to Make Better Espresso at Home
contributed by Oli Baise 2023
Data from the National Coffee Association of the USA suggest that sales of espresso machines have risen by over 50% since 2020.
Brewing a good espresso at home is a bit more fiddly than making drip coffee. This is largely because you are brewing with much smaller quantities of water and therefore have to be more precise to achieve optimal extraction.
Here, we will go through the steps you need to take to make an excellent espresso at home every morning.
I will start with the basics, such as the beans and the tools you need to use, and then move onto the more advanced aspects of espresso making such as temperature control and how to avoid channelling.
1 – Use Dark or Medium Dark Roast Beans
I’d advise using dark or medium-dark roast beans when making espresso because espresso has been traditionally made with these types of beans.
While making a nice espresso with light roast coffee is possible, all the current best practices associated with espresso making assume that you are using dark or medium dark roasts.
Therefore, if you use lighter roasts, you will need to experiment a lot more with variables such as brewing times, grind size and brewing temperature.
With dark roasts, you can just follow the established wisdom with espresso making and end up with an excellent final drink.
2 – Either Grind Your Beans With A Burr Grinder Or Use A Pressurized Portafilter Basket
How your coffee is ground is much more important for espresso than for filter coffee.
For an espresso to extract evenly, the coffee that you brew needs to be ground evenly.
You can only achieve such an even grind with a burr grinder. If you grind your own coffee, then it’s well worth investing in this type of grinder (they are usually more expensive than blade grinders).
You can still make espresso with pre-ground coffee, or coffee ground with a blade grinder, however, you will need to use a pressurized portafilter basket when brewing with coffee ground in this way.
A pressurized portafilter basket forces all your espresso through one tiny hole. This assists with the evenness of extraction.
You can tell if a portafilter basket is pressurized or not by the number of holes in the bottom of it (see the image below – the red circle highlights the single hole in the pressurized portafilter basket on the right).
If you are brewing with coffee ground in a burr grinder, then you should use a non-pressurized portafilter (in the left of the photo). These make a better quality espresso so long as your beans are ground and tamped correctly.
Most espresso machines come with both types of baskets so you can brew with both pre-ground and freshly ground coffee.
3 – Weigh Your Ground Beans and Final Coffee
Espresso should be brewed at between a 1:2 to 1:2.5 ground coffee to liquid coffee ratio.
You can only tell if you are brewing at this ratio by weighing out your ground coffee and your final drink.
It’s well worth investing in a small scale that can measure accurately to the nearest gram. You want the scale to be small enough to fit it under your cup when brewing.
Even though one millilitre of water weighs one gram, measuring your final espresso by volume rather than by weight is not accurate. This is because espresso has a layer of crema (foam) on top of it which significantly adds to its volume without there being that much additional liquid.
Weighing your final espresso, rather than measuring it out by volume, takes crema into account.
4 – Use the Dose of Coffee That Your Portafilter Basket Was Designed For
Your portafilter basket is the part of your espresso machine where the ground coffee sits during brewing.
Each portafilter basket has been designed only to hold a certain volume of coffee. If you overfill your portafilter basket, then your brewing water will not be dispersed evenly across the bed of coffee, and small sections of your coffee will be over-extracted.
This creates a harsh, bitter espresso.
Your portafilter basket’s maximum volume is usually printed on its side. If you cannot find it there, it will be in your espresso machine’s manual.
Use this maximum volume as a guide to how much ground coffee you brew with then dose out your water based on your ideal brewing ratio.
5 – Time Your Shot to Guide Tamping
One of the most difficult parts of making espresso is tamping your puck of coffee.
You want to tamp with just enough pressure that there is enough space between your coffee grounds that water can run through it, but not too much space that water runs through the coffee too quickly to extract properly.
The best way to know whether you have tamped your coffee in an ideal way is by timing how long it takes for your espresso to brew.
Espresso should ideally take 25-30 seconds to brew. This time starts when you press the brew button on your machine and finishes when espresso stops running out of your machine.
If your shot takes over 30 seconds to pull, then you have likely tamped with too much pressure. Your ground coffee is so tightly packed that water cannot run through it, and this excessive contact time between ground coffee and water will create a very harsh, bitter drink.
If your shot takes under 30 seconds to pull, then you haven’t tamped your coffee with enough pressure. Your coffee is packed too loosely, and water can run through it too quickly to extract properly. Your final drink will be either sharp or just a bit bland due to this lack of extraction.
6- Warm Up Your Espresso Machine Prior To Brewing
Espresso should be brewed at a temperature between 195 and 205 Fahrenheit.
While espresso machines heat up your water to this temperature, if your portafilter’s metal head is cold, your brewing water will be significantly cooler than this when it makes contact with your coffee.
You can mitigate this cooling by warming up your portafilter before brewing.
You have two ways of doing this.
You can either put your portafilter head in a cup of hot water before brewing or brew a couple of shots with your machine without putting any coffee in your portafilter.
Brewing at an ideal temperature ensures that extraction happens as efficiently as possible, resulting in a more complex flavored espresso.
7 – A Quick Guide to Steaming Milk
Almost all espresso machines have steam wands that allow you to make frothed milk for drinks like cappuccino and latte.
Here is a quick guide on how to use steamed milk:
You first want to hold the steam wand’s tip on the milk’s surface. Holding the steam wand in this position on the milk is what causes the milk to expand in size.
Hold the wand on the surface of the milk until it is the volume and consistency that you want. The longer the want is on the surface of the milk, the thicker the texture will be.
Once the milk is the volume and texture you desire, move the steam wand into the center of the milk. The purpose of this is to get the milk to the temperature that you want.
You know the milk is at your desired temperature when you can barely keep your hand on the milk jug. Using an aluminum milk jug is best for this, as touching its surface gives you a really good idea of how hot the milk is.
Now you know how to make espresso and steam milk, it’s time to experiment with different types of espresso drinks.
If you need some support in choosing the perfect coffee for your espresso, you can contact us today to learn more about the varieties of beans we have for sale.