The Basics of Espresso
Espresso is often thought of as coffee's pure essence. Hot water is forced, under pressure, through finely-ground, dark-roasted coffee in a very short time to produce a strong, smooth demitasse (2 fluid ounce shot) of espresso. Successfully brewing espresso takes a lot of practice and the right equipment. Here are some guidelines for doing it right.
The key to perfect espresso is high pressure, high-bar pressure to be technical, 9-14 atmospheres or Bar actually. Since the brewing cycle is so short, hot, not boiling water must be forced through the coffee grounds at a very high pressure to achieve sufficient extraction.
It should be noted that all inexpensive steam-powered home machines cannot produce enough pressure to brew good espresso. If you have invested in a steam powered espresso-cappuccino unit, you may have to start from scratch with a new, pump-driven unit..
If you want to do it right, you have to spend some money and get an reasonably expensive machine. When I say expensive, I mean more than $300 dollars. No, you cannot get restaurant grade Espresso, Latte and Cappuccino from a department store bought toy. Cheap espresso-cappuccino machines, at best, produce coffee with a kick, much like the stove-top espresso maker does. We will discuss this at length in the Stovetop espresso chapter!
Let us know look at the essential espresso tool kit. There are some basics that I will list here:
- Your machine.
- Your coffee.
- Your grinder.
- Your wallet.
- Your sanity.
- Just add milk
You cannot produce true espresso coffee, the building block of all 'espresso-based' beverages like Latte, cappuccino and the like, without a pump driven or lever powered manual espresso 'machine'. In our machine guide we look at some of the machines our team at the CoffeeCrew have had the pleasure of playing with and using on a day to day basis. Bottom line: If you are truly serious about capturing that cafe and/or *gulp* gas-station convenience store espresso experience at home, you had better be prepared to belly up to that credit card and read these pages over and over until you get it right. The learning curve can be as steep, with espresso, but it is not about the destination, it is about the journey!
You cannot make espresso or cappuccino without instructions and nothing beats the manual that comes with a good machine. Do not and I repeat DO NOT buy an espresso machine without instructions. If you do, do not come crying to me. There are dozens and dozens of inferior machines out there and I could not possibly know how to operate them all. I do know a good machine when I see one having used a few and dismissed a couple.
The Espresso Coffee
Once you have the right machine, you need to get the right coffee. Coffee shops typically sell a bewildering variety of blends and single origin coffees that baffle the average consumer.
Rule One: Find a micro-roaster that does his/her roasting in reasonable quantities, that is, 4 to 20 pounds at a time. No one can have a store full of "Fresh-Roasted" coffee lazing in lucite bins exposed to the air. Look for a coffee hawker that has small samples of coffees, blends or otherwise that have been roasted in the last few days. Taste. Experiment. Buy small amounts at a time, as in enough for a few days.
The Coffee Grind
The beans must be ground very finely. They should not be ground to a powder, but almost. The grind must be very uniform, for any pockets of coarser coffee will provide a path of less resistance that the high-pressure water will exploit when the espresso is brewed. To insure uniform extraction, the coffee must be ground evenly, then packed firmly and evenly into the filter basket. Your success in this endeavor will vary day to day and you will develop great patience.
During the initial learning phase for the home barista, I would suggest having your coffee ground professionally by the person you buy it from. Sadly, the average Burr grinder for under $100 and all rotary grinders are NOT up to the espresso task.
The Issue of Money
You will do the following:
- You will throw out espresso as you learn the ropes.
- You will be at the mercy of humidity, air pressure and the mood of your cat. All of these things will effect the espresso brewing process.
- Home espresso can be a time-consuming, wasteful and messy process.
- You will tend to entertain more as your espresso brewing improves and your abilities to crank out Latte, Cappuccino, Mocha, Hot-Chocolate and Steamed Cider beverages increase.
- As a result you WILL save money. That Two-Latte-a-day habit at $3 dollars a crack will soon translate into a nice Italian made home espresso machine!
Most espresso machines have a brewing cycle that uses too much water. For best results, you should use about four ounces of water and four tablespoons of coffee for a two ounce demitasse. During the brew cycle, espresso will first dribble, then run easily from the spout. Think "mouse tail" or a stream of honey when you try and envision what the flow of espresso should look like. Keep this in mind when you are seconds into the extraction. When it begins to gush out with large, foamy bubbles, it's time to remove the carafe and let the rest go to waste. This is the bitter, over-extracted part. When the frothing begins, the extraction must end. This whole process takes about 25 seconds.
Your espresso should have a thick, brownish layer on top, the crema coating. If this coating fails to cover the entire top of the demitasse at least an eighth of an inch thick (who measures?), there was insufficient pressure during the brewing process. Crema is more sought after in the coffee world than any other aspect of the discipline. Once you have it, you have it always, for that machine anyway! As usual and as I have mentioned, you are at the mercy of the elements hence you may need to pack the grounds tighter, grind the beans finer. Any rituals or religious observations come in very handy at this point.
Espresso has a naturally bitter taste, but if your espresso is unusually bitter, you may have ground the coffee too fine for your machine. Or, you may have packed the grounds in the filter basket unevenly. Examine the grounds after you remove them from the machine to see if there are any dry spots that could indicate that the water went through only a portion of the grounds, overextracting them.
Coffee drinking leads to social behavior, voluble and senseless chatter, blethering and talking in circles. With espresso, this is accelerated and better known as insanity. Take heed!
Some thoughts on Milk
The building block of Cappuccino, Latte and other espresso based beverages is Espresso. The key added ingredient is Milk, almost always 2% or Skim. I cannot hope to describe the zen of heating, foaming and or steaming milk here but you can read my milk tutorial on the site... In summary, Cappuccino is created when foamed milk is added to freshly brewed espresso. It is often topped with Cinnamon or chocolate sprinkles. Latte is created when steamed milk, with very little foam added to the espresso.