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How to make espresso at home like a pro

If you are new to making espresso coffee at home, it may take a little practice to be able to extract that perfect cup of espresso, that is to say, one that is rich in crema.  But don't be put off; it's really not that hard to master, and is well worth the time and effort. 

Making the perfect cup of espresso coffee is a combination of both art and science.  You provide the art by practicing and fine tuning; the science comes from having quality beans and equipment that is up to the task.
You don't have to fear that the highest quality beans and equipment necessarily mean "the most expensive".  That is not necessarily the case.

If you are wanting to make espresso-based drinks that incorporate milk, such as latte, cappuccino, flat-white, macchiato, and the like, then you will still need to make a perfect espresso shot first.
So work on perfecting making the espresso first, and then once you have done that, learn how to prepare the milk for your milk-based espresso drink.

9 Steps to Making Perfect Espresso Coffee

  • Buy quality espresso beans
  • Use quality water
    • Don't use water straight from the tap.  Although it's fine for drinking, most tap water has a taste that is specific to your area and time of year.  Some local waters are harder than others, meaning they have more or less dissolved minerals in them that affect taste.  Hard water with high calcium content will also build up deposits on the inside of the plumbing in the machine, restricting water flow over time.  All tap water is also treated with chemicals such as chlorine that impart an unpleasant taste to the water.  You don't want to introduce any competition for the flavor of your fine beans.  So at a minimum, use water that is filtered.  If you can get it, used distilled water, or even consider buying yourself a water distiller
  • Preheat your espresso machine and cup. 
    • The temperature at which the espresso coffee is extracted is critical to the production of crema.  So give your machine long enough to heat up.  Most machines will have an indicator light for when the machine has reached the right temperature.  Don't make your coffee until the light has come on. 

      Such a small amount of coffee is actually extracted for an espresso shot, so it loses heat rapidly.  Extracting it into a cold cup will draw much of the heat out of the coffee immediately, so your cup should always be preheated.  Many machines have a flat area for preheating your cup on the top of the machine that is located above the brewing head.  If you haven't got anything like this, or you forgot to preheat your cup, the fill the cup with some hot water and give it a few seconds to warm, or put it in the microwave oven with a small amount of water in it for 30 seconds or so.
  • Grind your coffee to the right consistency using a good burr coffee grinder
    • Play around with getting the right grind since it is critical.  The grind for espresso coffee is actually pretty fine.  Every different roast needs adjustment of the grind till you find the perfect grind for good production of crema.  I like to start a new batch around the setting that I judge to be about right, but it may need to be moved up or down a little.  If you aren't getting any or much crema produced and the water is flowing out of the portafilter without any strain on the pump, grind a little finer.  Keep adjusting till you reach the point where the most crema is produced but the pump is not straining.  You will be quite surprised when you "hit the sweet spot" on your grinder.
  • Fill the portafilter with ground coffee; not too much, not too little
    • There should not be so much coffee in the portafilter that you have to force the portafilter handle to lock it in place.  Neither should there be so little that after extracting the coffee and removing the portafilter there is a pool of water on top of the coffee.  You will no doubt have a measuring spoon that you got with your coffee machine.  Typically two scoops of this should fill the portafilter intended for a double-shot, but sometimes I find it needs just a little more or a little less.
  • Tamp the coffee with the appropriate amount of pressure for your grind. 
    • Tamping is the process of pressing down on the ground coffee in the portafilter to compact it. Approximately 30lb of pressure should be applied, more or less depending on the grind of your coffee.  If the coffee is flowing through too fast in the extraction process, tamp with greater pressure on the next extraction, or grind the coffee a little more finely.  Of tamp with less pressure if the water is flowing through too slowly and straining the pump.
  • Extract the espresso coffee using a quality espresso machine.
    • If your machine "just doesn't cut it", then you're never going to get good crema production.  Believe me in my early days on the road to "espresso coffee snobism" I wasted more than a few bucks buy cheaper machines.  All the bells and whistles that are available on many modern machines aside, the two most important things about your espresso machine are whether it can maintain the correct temperature, and second, that it can produce sufficient pressure. (Don't miss my separate section on how to make perfect crema).
  • Wipe the coffee grinds from the portafilter and shower screen between each extraction, and rinse the portafilter with clean water when finished with a round of brewing
    • It is critical that you always remove the coffee from the portafilter and shower head of the machine.  Spent coffee grinds and coffee oil quickly go rancid and start to spoil the flavor of subsequent brews. 
  • Maintain a regular routine of cleaning and decalcifying your machine.
    • Apart from the wipe and rinse referred to above, you should also regularly clean your machine with a special decalcifying cleaning solution that you run through the machine.  Most water, other than water collected from evaporation ("distilled water"), contains minerals and salts, including calcium.  Calcium forms deposits against the surfaces with which it comes in contact, as you may have witnessed in a kettle that gets frequent usage, or in plumbing of an older house.  The pipe lines in an espresso machine are much smaller than any plumbing in a house, so will clog a lot sooner.  Once they start to clog, more load is placed upon the pump in your machine, causing strain and restricted flow through the coffee grinds.  Special cleaning solutions that you run through the machine dissolve the calcium deposits in the tubing and also dissolve the residue left by the coffee oils in the shower head and portafilter.  I personally use Cleancaf. It's cheap, so buy a big box of it at a time.

1 comment:

  1. Iain from WellingtonFebruary 10, 2012 5:50 PM

    Your doing good work here my friend!

    Following your advice, my homr expresso coffee is already better than anything that I can get in the south island of New Zealand!


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