Your Guide to the Basics of Making Espresso - Tips and Techniques for Brewing

Basics of Espresso BrewingSome people believe that espresso making is a skill. Others believe it to be an art. But the most experienced baristas would probably say that it is a combination of the two. Granted, when the barista at your favorite coffee house makes a heart or leaf on your latte, it is lovely and probably means that the milk has been steamed well. However, that foam art does not guarantee that your espresso has been brewed properly. Creating your favorite coffee drinks to perfection has to do with more than just making them pretty. But it is a craft that almost anyone can learn to do by carefully following just a few simple guidelines.  Read on and learn the basics of brewing espresso.


The Beans

TheCoffee Beans

First things first. Know the particulars of the coffee beans you are using and how to best extract their flavor. There is a misconception that the word espresso implies a certain type of roast or bean. Although some coffee roasters do create roasts which they label as "espresso", the brewing method is actually what makes it so.

This means that you are free to begin with any type of bean or roast that you prefer. There are, however, certain roasts which are more conducive to this type of brewing, and many people prefer the results given by a darker roast. This is the tradition from southern Italy which has influenced many coffee lovers in the United States. Please note that despite what the little mermaid and its clones likes to foist on the US (and now the rest of the world), dark roast does not mean burnt roast - ask for a full city or city+ roast and work your way darker from there.

Where coffee beans are concerned, a fresher roast is better. Unroasted beans (called green beans) can be stored for long periods of time, but once they are roasted it is best to use the beans within two to three weeks for the finest flavor although freezing them can extend the life (click here for more details).

Look on your package for the date on which it was roasted. If the package does not specify, it has probably been sitting on the shelf for awhile and the beans are stale (How do you tell?). You may want to find a different source for your beans. Some folks even like to roast their own to get the ultimate in freshness. See Cup And Brew's Guide to Home Coffee Bean Roasters for more details.


Bean Acquisition Tips

Hundreds of various coffee roasters have websites and offer expedite shipping for freshly roasted beans or you may be able to find some locally.  

If you want to quickly cut down on looking at various websites, GoCoffeeGo features a consolidated offering from various roasters that they've actually sampled.  

GoCoffeeGoGoCoffeeGo only lists what they feel is the best of the best and is a great resource to find different beans to experiment with.  Click here to go to their site (opens an external window or tab).

The Grind

The GrindBecause of the process used to pull the flavor out of the beans, the consistency of the grind is important in espresso brewing. Using a burr grinder is really the only way to get the most effective and consistent grind.

Since particles which are finely ground contain more surface area, the flavor can be extracted from the grounds faster. Coarse ground beans will not allow the water to pull the flavor from the beans in such a quick brewing method, but will work better for a slower method such as a French Press (what is this?).

The best consistency for an espresso grind should be rather fine, while still retaining the appearance of individual grains that stick together somewhat when pinched--not quite as fine as powdered sugar, but finer than regular sugar. A grind that is extremely fine and powdery will over extract and create a bitter quality.  

Coffee Grinder Tips

Coffee Grinder TipsYou've probably read ad nauseam either from us or other resources on the net that the quality of the coffee grinder is paramount to the taste in any brewing system and it is critical for proper espresso extraction. It is more important, by far, than the quality of the espresso machine. Please do yourself a favor and purchase the best grinder that you can afford even if it means waiting for the espresso machine of your dreams. In full disclosure, there is very little mark up on grinders but we want to make sure that you have the best brewing experience possible and a quality grinder is that important. For more detail please check out "Cup And Brew's Grinder Buying Guide" here and the "7 Top Rated Coffee Grinders for the Home" Blog Post here. Those articles should get you started off on the right foot.

The Water

The WaterAll water is not created equal. Minerals and impurities in water used in the brewing process will directly affect the taste, so it is best to use purified water. Also, the temperature of the water is important. Boiling water will overheat the coffee and kill the flavor. In contrast, water which is not hot enough can make a drink which is flat and tasteless. Normally, 200 degrees F is the best temperature at which to brew espresso.

Many aficionados hook their espresso machines up to water filtration systems such as the Mavea Purity C Water Filter Systems (less expensive Hydrogen Ion Exchange) or in extremely hard water areas or for commercial use, the Mavea Purity ST Water Filtration System (Sodium Ion Exchange).

For more information on how water affects the taste of coffee based drinks, please see our blog post "In Hot Water:  Optimizing Your H20."

The Measure

Measuring Espresso GroundsDumping a pile of grounds into your pot each morning might work out okay for just your average cup of joe. But for a fine espresso, it is important to measure the amount of grounds you are using. A single shot should use around 3 tablespoons of ground coffee, based upon the freshness of the grind, and should be ground directly into a clean, dry portafilter. The coffee should create a small mound above the top of the basket, and should then be leveled across the surface. This leveling makes sure that there are no uneven pockets of air caught inside.  

Many people measure their grounds with a scale to accurately measure the grounds and a few grinders, such as the Baratza Vario-W and Forte models, feature built in scales that do the measuring for you.

Also, the Baratza Esatto Scale is an additional attachment that can be added to Baratza’s lower cost conical models such as the Encore, Virtuoso, and Preciso. For more information on Baratza Grinders check out our comparison article.

Other models such as the MACAP M7, Compak K8 Fresh, Mazzer Super Jolly Electronic, and the Mahlkonig K30 Vario offer advance time based measuring (also called dosing).

The Tamp

Tamping Grounds in a Portafilter BasketTamping, or compacting, the grounds into the filter is an important step in the brewing process. Pressing down on the tamper with firm, consistent pressure is the way to achieve this. In order for espresso to be extracted properly, it must be packed densely enough to allow the water to pull out the flavor while the water is being forced through the grounds. Your tamper should pack the grounds into the basket firmly to create a smooth surface. "Fluffy", untamped grounds will not allow for the flavor to be evenly extracted.

Although simple in concept, tamping is a detailed skill-set that must be acquired through practice. Advanced baristas can utilize their tamping skills to "compensate" for a grind that is not quite perfect. If it is too fine, you can tamp with less pressure to counteract this, or with more pressure to make up for too loose a grind. Once the coffee has been tamped, treat it carefully to avoid creating a disturbance in the tamping. Brush off any extra powder around the outside with a brush to clear the way for a clean pull.

Tamping Tips

Brew temperature, tamping pressure, grinding levels, bean variety and roast level, and even environmental factors such as humidity are all variable within the espresso extraction process. The key to espresso brewing is consistency and anytime one of these variables can be eliminated improves your ability to dial in the shots.

Many folks new to espresso brewing have troubles getting their tamping skills down so that they are tamping at a consistent pressure each and every time. However, there is a product that can mitigate lack of barista experience.

Espro Calibrated Tamper

This is the Espro Calibrated Tamper.  You merely press down with the device and twist as you would with normal a normal tamper but the Espro features a spring loaded insert that gives a audible and tactile sensation when 30 lbs of pressure is reached.

The Brewing

Espresso Brewing into 2 Shot GlassesBefore starting each cup, the head of the machine must be flushed. This clears out the screen from any old coffee, and allows fresh water to be used. Flushing for 3-5 seconds should be enough for E61 Brew Group equipped machines and less for double boilers. After inserting the portafilter with tamped grounds into the machine, turn to make sure it is properly secured.

Once the extraction process begins, you will see a stream that is thin and dark. As it moves throughout the process, the stream will lighten and thicken a bit. If you see a pale, almost transparent stream, the brewing process should be finishing up. This should take around 25 seconds, if it takes more or less time, adjust your grinder accordingly. Ideally, a thin layer of crema (what is this?) will appear on the top of your cup to reveal that the pull has been successful. This crema will only last for about a minute, revealing the freshness of the beverage.

If you see a bond stream as you are beginning the pull, this is known as “channeling” and is not good as water is forcing a hole through the grinds leading to a severally under-extracted shot.  Click here to read our Portafilter Guide and find more about the effects of channeling and measures that you can take to combat it.

The Size vs the Extraction Length

A Double Espresso PullA single shot of espresso or a solo is generally one fluid ounce (30 ml) while a double or doppio usually matches an approximate two fluid ounce (60 ml) shot.  A triple or triplo rounds out the sets of standard shots at the three fluid ounce mark. These shots use a proportionate quantity of coffee grounds around 7-8, 14-16, and 21-24 grams respectively. The single shot is considered the classic shot volume, being the greatest amount which could effectively be drawn using the older spring lever machines, although the double is now considered to be the normal volume.

Once you get into more advance espresso brewing techniques you will find that the taste, texture, and quantity can also be affected by the extraction length or the amount of time the espresso is pulled. This is often confused with the size of standard espresso shots but the terminology actually refers to amount of heated water that is allowed to pass through the puck (the coffee grounds held in the portafilter basket) for any given quantity of grounds. However, merely adjusting the time that the shot is pulled may result in under (weak and/or sour) or over (bitterness) extraction. Instead of the amount or weight of grinds being adjusted as in the single/double/triple examples, the particle size of the grounds is modified at the grinder to dial in the espresso pull to the "sweet spot." The length of the shot is then adjusted based off of the grind level to get the taste that is desired.

This technique can produce at least four different types of espresso beverages and the first three include the ristretto, the normale, and the lungo. The ristretto is believed to be the absolute best and is the smallest portion of pure espresso at just three-quarters of an ounce to one fluid ounce and is generally a 1:1 ratio of coffee grounds to water. A normale is around two fluid ounces and usually a 1:2 ratio and lungo is usually a three to four fluid ounce serving and is normally a 1:3 or 1:4 ratio.

To reiterate as this can be confusing, the grind level of the coffee grounds is fine-tuned with the ristretto receiving a much finer grind that that of lungo with the normale being somewhere in the middle. 

A fourth type, that is much rarer, is the caffe crema and its generally 4-8 fluid ounces featuring a much coarser grind than the standard ristretto, normale, or lungo. 

Dialing It All In

Using a new espresso machine may take some getting used to. It might take several tries and adjustments in the process in order to find the "sweet spot" for your machine. To perfect your craft, keep a notebook of the changes you have made each time. Then make adjustments to find the most even, smooth cup of espresso which is perfect for your personal taste. This is where the heart of the artist comes into play. And if it takes lots of practice? Well, that is just a good excuse to do "research" while drinking numerous cups of your favorite beverage.  Also don't forget to clean your machine - old and dried gunk can have noticeable impact on flavor as well as clogging things up!

Related Guides and Articles

Cup And Brew's Guide to Espresso Machines

Cup And Brew's Guide to Auto/Semi-Auto Espresso Machines

Cup And Brew's Guide to Coffee Grinders

Cup And Brew on the Basics of Home Grinding and Coffee Bean Storage

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Mike Gillispie

By Michael Gillispie

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