Espresso! - Brewing your first shot with the Gaggia Classic

In a previous article, we took a brief first look at the Gaggia Classic espresso machine. Now that it is unpacked, assembled, primed and warmed up we are now ready to produce your very first shot of espresso.

Gaggia ClassicThese instructions are by no means, specific to the Gaggia machine. They apply to just about any pump-driven espresso machine.

OK, you need ground coffee, so how are you going to get it? if you've done your research, you will quickly find out that a high quality coffee grinder is pretty much mandatory. Acceptable grinders for espresso would be the Solis Maestro, Rocky, Gaggia MDF, Mazzer, etc.  Colin will explore the grinder market in a future article.

I am going to assume that you have or recently purchased a decent high quality grinder or at the very least, have access to a very patient local roaster that is willing to grind some reasonably fresh beans for you at a few different grind levels.

You are chomping at the bit to fire up your new machine I bet. However, not so fast!  Espresso is all about forcing very hot (not boiling) water at very high pressure through a tightly packed, compressed puck of coffee grounds. Your first espresso shot(s) can and will be frustrating. Grind too coarse and the thin watery drivel that gushes out can hardly be described as espresso. Grind too fine and you'll plug everything solid and nothing at all may come out. Somewhere between these two extremes is a happy medium where the coffee beans are ground just right and you will get an extraction of say, a couple of ounces in about 25 seconds.  Which reminds me, you will need to buy a couple of shot glasses so you will know what 2 oz is. Somewhere packed with your new machine is the el-cheapo plastic tamper. You use this thing to compress the ground coffee in the filter basket.

Grab the bathroom scale. Put your filled portafilter on the scale and exert about 30 lbs force while you are tamping. You don't have to use the scale each time as you'll soon get the general idea of how much pressure to use. One of the hardest parts about tamping is to actually get a level surface on the puck. Try to keep things straight! You will soon want to replace the undersized plastic tamper with a much better quality tamper - ideally stainless steel with a diameter that exactly fits the filter basket - for the Gaggia, that's 58mm. You did snap in the filter basket into the portafilter before tamping I hope? And you are using the larger basket - called the double basket? Good.

Insert and tighten the portafilter. If you can't figure this out, take a look at the manual. Put your shot glasses under each spout. Hit the brew switch and start timing. There is only one caution here. It is quite possible that your initial coffee grounds were ground too fine and nary a drop of espresso is coming out. You are choking the machine. If you do not see any espresso come out from the portafilter spouts in several seconds, turn off the brew switch immediately. No use putting unnecessary strain on your brand new pump! Dump out the grounds, clean and dry the filter basket and put in coarser grounds. Try again. Start timing. You want to time for 25 seconds as soon as you hit the brew switch. Got a flow - good! After 25 seconds has elapsed, see how much espresso you've got in the shot glasses. If you got a total of 2 oz in 25 seconds, praise the espresso gods. Do the dance of joy. You might even want to drink it or steam some milk and make a latte. If it tastes fabulous, then the gods truly are smiling upon you.

OK back to reality. What I've described is nirvana on the first try. Your first shots could likely taste quite vile. Perhaps, akin to sour vomit. Your lips and gums could be puckered for some days. You will want to extract your own teeth. OK - you get the point.

Keep at it. If you get far less than an ounce in 25 seconds, your grounds are too fine - grind coarser. If you get way more than 2 oz in 25 seconds, your grounds are too course so you will need to grind finer. You can also compensate by tamping a little harder or a little lighter. With a little trial and error, soon you will be in the Zone.

Now that you've got the essentials and there is far more to it than what's in this article, you can concentrate on the variables;  tamping pressure, tamping techniques, the amount of coffee in the filter basket, temperature surfing, etc. Then there's trying the different varieties of coffee beans, espresso blends, home roasting, etc, etc. The adventure continues. Have fun.