Brew at Home: Espresso Foundations

So you want to make Espresso? You've seen all those amazing Instagram pictures of Latte art and the creamy espresso shots and you're ready to do the same? You love sipping on a delicious espresso, latte, or flat white at your favorite coffee shop, but wish you could have that same great coffee at home?

Maybe you've had a machine for years but want to take the next step into creating better espresso at home. You feel the consistency of your shots could be better, and you want to make your loved one a cafe quality latte at home?

Or maybe you were gifted a machine and you feel you aren't using it to its full potential, or you just bought your first espresso machine and do not know where to start.

Preparing great espresso doesn’t have to be as complicated as you might think. With some equipment, and a little bit of know-how, you’ll soon be pulling great shots in the comfort of your own kitchen.

Espresso Machines

I have personally owned four espresso machines over the past 6 years, so I have learned to understand espresso machines and how they work. I won't talk much on espresso machines on this post as I'll save that for a future topic, but do yourself a favour and don't cheap out when it comes to purchasing your machine. Espresso is not something you can create on a small budget. Espresso machines are expensive and so are coffee grinders that can produce espresso. Again I don't want to go into this too much, but please do your research before buying. I'll be writing this post assuming you've got a machine and grinder at home.

Espresso 101

Often times, people mistake espresso as a specific type of coffee bean, which is totally untrue. Espresso is just a highly concentrated, pressurized brewing method to create a stronger, more potent coffee drink.While espresso can technically be made with any coffee beans, typically bags that are labeled as espresso blends are specifically designed to make better espresso.

The golden rule is to pour 30-40ml of espresso in a 25-30 second period. This is your extraction time. If the 40ml extracts in less time, then the grind of your coffee is too coarse and needs to be adjusted to a finer grind size. If the espresso is flowing too slowly, maybe not at all, then the grind needs to be made coarser. The closer you get to the correct shot time, the smaller the adjustment you should make to the grind size.

So, how do you do it? Making good espresso isn’t necessarily hard, but it does take practice and precision. Here are a few steps I think will help you get off to a good start:

1. Choose your Coffee

Choosing the right bean for your beverage is the most important step to this process. Brewing great coffee at home will never be great or simulate a cafe experience if you buy beans that are old, stale and just plain mediocre. Buying fresh coffee with a roast date from a reputable specialty roaster is a must for great espresso. If you're new to coffee this can sound overwhelming and scary, maybe even expensive. But I ensure you it's not much more expensive than the Starbucks beans you grab from your local grocery store.

2. Grinding your Coffee

Other than choosing your coffee, this is the most crucial step in espresso. Grind size is one of the ways flavour is governed, and how the timing of the shot is controlled. If you do not have a good grinder at home, I would suggest that you prioritize buying one or stay away from espresso for the time being. It really is that important!

Do not buy pre-ground coffee for espresso. Although some machines come with filters that are "Presurized" to compensate for the lack of freshness in your coffee, try to stay away from this if at all possible. These pressurized filters only simulate a fresh grind and will not taste near as good as fresh ground coffee.

If you're not sure if your grinder is capable of espresso at home, please don't hesitate to reach out! I've done research on these machines and would love to help. Beyond that, do some research online to see what others are saying about your grinder. Espresso grinders can range from $250 to $4000 and anywhere in between. Do your research! It will help you and save you in the long run.

When making espresso, the ideal grind size to start with will be a little finer than sugar. You want a shot of about 30-40ml in 25-30 seconds. If it comes out too quickly, adjust for a finer grind. Too slowly, and you can back out to a coarser setting.

3. Dose and Tamp

The dose or amount of coffee used in your portafilter will be directly impacted by the filter basket you are using. This may blow your mind, but a single dose basket will hold half of what a double basket will. Crazy I know.

More importantly each basket has different sudgested doses. A home appliance machine, like the Breville machines, use a 54mm double basket that can hold 14-16 grams of coffee. Meanwhile a machine like the Gaggia Classic has a commercial 58mm Portafilter that can hold 17-19 grams of coffee.

Overdosing or under-dosing your portafilter will lead to uneven extractions, over and under extracted coffee and the potential to harm your machine as the coffee puck is smashed up against the group head under pressure.

Once you have dosed and weighed your coffee with a scale, it's time to TAMP! I won't spend too much time on this but here is my one tip to remember when it comes to tamping:

It's not about how HARD you tamp but about how CONSISTENT your pressure is.

You don't need to push through the bed of coffee like you're trying to PR a one rep deadlift. Just choose a firm pressure, and be consistent with it. It's another variable in your "dial in" when you change your pressure of your tamp between brews.

4. Pulling your Shot!

Once you've tamped down your coffee, it's time to lock in the portafilter into the brew head. Once you've done so, time to brew! As we mentioned above, you want to aim for about 25-30 seconds a brew time for your shot. And you want to yield a total of 30-40 grams per shot.

The average brew ratio for espresso is 1 part coffee to two parts water. If you dosed 16 grams of coffee, you should yield around 32 grams of liquid. Only once you have a good rhythm within these parameters would I recommend trying different recipes. This 1:2 ratio should be your foundation.

With everything coffee, be sure to have a scale that works well and fits on your drip tray. This is not the time to eyeball a measurement and guess that your around your 1:2 ratio. If you want the best tasting espresso and you want it consistantly, do yourself a favour and purchase a scale.

Have Fun!

Be sure to enjoy the process and have fun with it! Espresso can be finicky and sometimes frustrating. If you find yourself stuck and unsure of what to do next, be sure to reread this post and troubleshoot your steps.

Enjoy the process of espresso. It should be as great an experience to make as it does taste.

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