All right, kids. You’ve got your espresso machine. You’ve got your coffee. You’re all set to make coffee-shop quality coffee drinks – especially espresso – right in your own kitchen. You pack your portafilter, flip the switch and get…. something that doesn’t even resemble espresso. What went wrong?
While you can’t expect to pull the perfect shot of espresso your first time out – some world-class baristas practice for years and are never quite satisfied with the results – understanding the elements of the espresso process can help you improve your shots, and eventually, get you to the point where you can consistently pull excellent shots of espresso.
In a Nutshell
There are multiple elements to getting your espresso shot right, which is why many baristas – home and pro versions – develop a ritual that ensures they don’t miss any of the steps Each of these elements affects the others, and the closer to right you get each of them, the closer to perfect your espresso shot will be. Pulling the perfect espresso shot is an exercise in experimentation and constant adjustment to get everything working together and produce consistently excellent coffee.
Before you start, pull a blank shot – that is, run water through the portafilter into your cup without any coffee. Warming the group head, portafilter and holder will help keep the temperature right while you pull your shot.
The grind texture of your coffee is one of the most important aspects of pulling a good shot of espresso. Consider this: the flavor of your coffee is determined by the amount of coffee oils and chemicals extracted by the water as it flows through the ground coffee. The longer the water is in contact with the coffee, the more various flavors are developed. If the grind is too coarse, the water flows through too quickly and your coffee will be weak. If it is to fine, the water will take too long to flow through and will extract many of the bitter constituents of coffee, resulting in a cup that is sour and cooked.
The texture you want for espresso is close to granulated sugar, but every coffee has its own precise grind that works best. To make it even more complicated, the same coffee may need a finer or coarser grind if the weather is humid, or if the coffee is older.
Experiment to get the right flow rate for your coffee – about 20 to 30 seconds to pull a 2 oz. double shot of espresso.
Baristas refer to the amount of coffee grounds used for a shot as the “dose”, like a dose of medicine, and express the doses in grams of weight, which is a much more accurate measurement than volume. You can buy a small digitial pocket scale for less than $20, and it will make an amazing difference in your espresso quality.
The starting point for a double shot of espresso is 14 to 18 grams, adjusted for your espresso machine and your personal tastes.
Tamping the coffee grounds levels and packs them so that you get uniform extraction. When water is forced through the coffee in the portafilter, it will seek out the paths of least resistance – where coffee is packed more loosely – if there are any. If your tamper is too small for the portafilter, for example, the coffee will be loose around the edges and water will flow through there without touching the bulk of the coffee in the center, and you’ll have a weak, under-extracted shot.
Use a tamper that’s the right size for the portafilter.
Hold your elbow at 90 degrees, put the portafilter on an even, flat surface, and apply 30 lbs. of pressure until the coffee looks smooth and polished. Finer coffee will need less pressure and coarser coffee will need more.
Place the portafilter into the espresso machine’s brew group and put your cup – preheated, of course – under the spout.
Start the pull based on your machine and your experience. Some espresso machines are very finicky and require you to get the temperature precisely right to get the best espresso shot. Others are very forgiving and hold the temperature well. Semi-automatic machines often signal that the boiler has reached the correct temperature with a light or something similar. When the machine is heated and ready, check your watch (so you can time the shot, which is critical) and start the pour.
If you’ve done a good job of dosing, grinding and tamping, the espresso should start out dark, then turn into a thin, golden brown stream of foam that just holds together. It should take between 20 and 30 seconds to pull a 2-ounce shot. If you’re not getting that volume in that amount of time, check your grind, dose and tamp, make adjustments and try again.
If the espresso comes out unevenly from the two spouts, your tamp is uneven. If the flow is too fast, your grind needs to be finer or the tamp firmer, or a combination of both. If the flow is too slow, go coarser on the grind to slow the water down.
The end result should be a rich, dark brew topped with a thick layer of fine, gold crema – the foamy end of the shot. When you taste the shots you’re pulling, you’ll thank yourself for taking the time to learn how to pull a proper shot of espresso.