Chapter six: The espresso-cappuccino experience is 50% preparation and 50% speculation.
Truth be told, you really never know what kind of espresso shot you are going to get until the liquid is streaming out of the machine into your shot glass or mug.
There is something about this mysterious process, I suppose, that makes it so interesting for so many aficionados. I guess that is why I never get that excited about making a piece of toast. There is nothing to it, right? Okay, I suppose I will get some e-mail now!
In a previous section, I pointed out that heat is crucial. Of course you have let your machine warm up for fifteen minutes or so, yes? Have you boiled a kettle of water? You will need that to warm up your cups. Pull down your breadboard. I told you this would come up. The board is a support for your portafilter. When you are tamping coffee at thirty pounds pressure, you will want something that will withstand the abuse.
Get your coffee handy. As a last check, flip the brew switch on your machine. Make sure that there is a waste cup under the machine to collect the hot water. I have gotten into the habit of doing a boiler flush every ten minutes or so if I am in an extended brewing session. Why do this? I like fresh hot water in the boiler. The coffee tastes better. A fresh boiler, of water, is less likely to pick up off flavors from the boiler wall.
If you are going to be steaming milk, for cappuccino and latte, get ready to do it now. It is standard practice, in the cafe world that it is your kitchen, to steam milk first and then brew espresso. It takes a couple of minutes to steam milk to the right temperature and this is too long for espresso coffee to be sitting. There is a separate article on milk steaming on this web site so go have a look now.
In summary, you should use the same milk each time. 2% milk is the best milk for producing the fluffy topping for your cappuccinos and thick micro foam for your latte art! Always steam milk in a stainless steel carafe. Never heat the milk beyond 165 degrees Fahrenheit because at 175 degrees, the milk is scalded. It is ruined for consumption at this point.
Did I mention that espresso coffee does not like to sit on the counter very long? Black coffee is exactly the same. Oxygen goes to work on coffee and espresso the moment that it is brewed. A person with average taste buds can perceive the deterioration within about 1 minute. I am not kidding. If you have ever wondered why every Starbucks has a minute timer on their machines, this is why. If there was ever a reason for not ordering an espresso coffee, for dessert, in a restaurant, this is it!
Okay, so time is of the essence. You are thinking, What do I look like anyway, a quarterback? ì You will get up to speed on all of this with practice. When I am in the kitchen cafe in the morning, I am not just coordinating the preparation of a cup of espresso. I am making tea, Cafe Americano, toast or assorted breakfast items all at the same time for my wife and I. Time coordination is key and practice is the secret. It took me about six months to master the task of boiling water, preparing espresso, making toast and tea in a fashion that would have it all ready within seconds of each other. One day I might just open a real cafe!
In case you were wondering: So, Colin, when I am going to be really good at this?
Fact is, you will keep getting better and better at making a great cup of coffee. You will hear from some of your friends: What is the big deal? It is only coffee!
Well taste this folks. One of the greatest pleasures of gourmet coffee is in the sharing. Like love, coffee is an experience best served for two. There is little that is more satisfying than hearing from a friend or colleague: Dude, I have been on vacation for two weeks. Man, do I miss your java.
These are some of the sentiments that I get in the lab and office. I make daily java for a lab full of techs every morning at ten at morning. They get the best of the best.
There are no corners cut. I do not scrimp on the technique and quality of ingredients when brewing up that critical first pot of the day. Ah, drip coffee. That is another chapter. Let's get back to the espresso.
Review; you have heated up your machinery. You have your ground coffee at the ready. Your cups have been filled with hot water or they are sitting in a saucepan of hot water on the stove. Tamper in hand. Steamed milk, if any, is at the ready. Any rituals or good luck trinkets have been stowed somewhere near your workspace. Letís make espresso!
Unlock the portafilter from the espresso machine. Place it on a stable surface. This is where the breadboard comes in. Dose ground espresso into the portafilter until the coffee is level with the top level of the portafilter basket. With your left hand (if you are right handed), hold the tamper down steady. With a tamper in your right hand, pack the coffee down into the portafilter with all your strength. I use a technique called NSEW when packing espresso.
What does this mean? It means North, South, East and West. This technique is rather difficult to describe in writing so I will not dwell on it if it is not obvious. Simply, I rock the tamper in these four directions applying a bit more pressure on the corners. Does it make a difference? I donít know!
Okay folks, lock and load. Remember, time is of the essence. Every second that the portafilter is out of the machine is a second that it is cooling off.
Lock the portafilter into the brew group. You do not need to use excessive locking pressure if your group gasket is in good shape. What is the gasket, Colin?
The brew group gasket is a large rubber washer that seals the portafilter and the brew group together that water does not fly all over the place when you hit the brew switch. This gasket should last about 3 to 5 years depending how often you put your machine through its paces.
Moment of truth! Press the brew switch. If your machine is like mine, it tends to rumble like a cement mixer. You would be amazed how many people return their machines, as broken, when they hear the pump running for the first time.
Some manufacturers even put a sticker on the front or the back stating: If I am loud, I am okay.
After two or three seconds, one of three things will take place. There could be a flood of muddy looking water into your cup. The coffee was either ground to coarse or you did not tamp it hard enough.
In the event that nothing comes out of the portafilter and the unit starts to sound somewhat ìdifferentî, this is because you have ground the coffee too fine or tamped too hard.
If the espresso coffee streams out of the portafilter spouts like honey from a jar, my friend, you have achieved coffee nirvana in short order! What are the chances of this happening in the first attempt? Well, if you have played around with your grinder and your coffee is fresh or if you have had your local roaster grind it for you, you might just score on the first breakaway. Success is measured in a variety of ways with the espresso shot.
Double or single shots take the same amount of time. Time, what kind of time, you ask? The ideal brew time for espresso is 20 to 24 seconds. Yes, you should have a watch or timer with a second hand or digital display.
Success is measured with the appearance of crema. Crema is the frothy topping that appears on the espresso shot as it is being brewed. Several things can be said of crema.
Crema can hold up a teaspoon of sugar for 10 to 15 seconds, sometimes more. Crema is only produced when the coffee is fresh. It cannot be produced with a steam powered espresso maker, a stovetop espresso maker or any kind of drip coffee brewer.
Some people tend to deconstruct the crema on the coffee to the point of tossing the shots if the crema does not look like tiger tail flecked butterscotch topping. Colin thinks this is b.s.
A lot of work goes into getting the coffee from the farmer to the cup. Waste is never excusable.
As the shot is happening, you may be reminded of several things. Gosh Colin, this stream of espresso looks like a mouse tail! Hey, I have heard that. If you are brewing into a shot glass it can look like a pour of Guinness Beer. You know, where the bubbles are going down instead of up? If you have never been in an English Pub and seen Guinness Beer being drawn, well, that is a life experience you have missed. Read all about that on some other webpage!
I am done! Thanks for reading.