How To Brew: Espresso

I really enjoy drinking espresso but I dislike the hassle and the cost of having to go to a cafe or restaurant every time I want to enjoy some. I want to start brewing espresso at home, but the process looks so intimidating! Is making espresso as hard and complex as my hipster barista makes it seem? How do I make delicious espresso from the comfort of home?

The Italians have a saying that effortlessly breaks down the secrets of making exquisite espresso: "miscela, macinazione, macchina, mano". In English, these words translate to the blend, the grind, the machine, and the hand. As with most of life's true pleasures, simple is usually best. This same rule of thumb applies to brewing espresso. The secret of espresso does not lie in some sacred ancient code passed down through generations of Italians. Rather, it is a process anyone, in any part of the world, can master as long as they follow the above four keys to making espresso.

Semi-Automatic Espresso MakerWe have explored "macchina," the espresso machine or espresso maker part of the equation in's Espresso Maker Buying Guide. We have also explored "macinazione" or the grinder in our Coffee Grinder Buying Guide Section. Now it is time to explore the part of espresso making that is more practice than talent, more art than science: "mano" or the hand of the barista. The hand of the barista (that's you my friend) is what makes all the four ingredients come together to actually brew espresso. In the following step by step guide, I will explain the Espresso brewing process simply and efficiently so that your espresso will truly rival anything found this side of Milano.

For Pump Driven Espresso Makers such as Piston machines and Semi-Automatic Espresso Makers, the following applies:

Step 1: The Coffee
The first step you can take on your journey to homemade espresso glory is to buy the right coffee bean and roast. Your beans should be of the Arabica variety and contrary to popular belief, the roast does not need to be extremely dark or oily. In fact, when brewing espresso it is best to purchase a medium to dark roast whose beans have just a trace of oils.

Step 2: The Grind
Conical Burr Grinder For optimal espresso brewing with your espresso maker of choice, you will want to grind your coffee so it resembles the look and feel of fine pepper. The best way to achieve this is with the use of a Burr Coffee Grinder which will insure a uniform grind size. With a fine and even coffee grind, you insure that water saturates all grinds leading to even extraction and pressure. One thing to keep in mind if you own an espresso maker with a pressurized portafilter is that your grind will need to be a bit coarser as it builds the pressure for you.

Step 3: Pre-heating
To preserve the true nature and flavors of the coffee beans, it is necessary to pre-heat both your espresso maker and your cup. While this step may seem arbitrary, it is extremely important! If not done, your espresso will never fulfill its true potential. The mouth feel will not be smooth like honey or taste richer than a fine mousse. Instead your cold espresso maker will produce a flat and bitter brew.

To avoid such pitfalls, simply warm up your espresso maker by turning it on about 6 minutes before you are ready to brew. You may also pull a "blank" shot which involves running your espresso maker like you were pulling espresso sans the ground coffee. In addition, be sure to warm your cup either in hot water or if your espresso maker includes one, use the cup warmer on top.

Step 4: Fill the Portafilter
Okay, so you have chosen the correct coffee beans, ground them to the correct fineness, pre-heated your espresso maker and are wondering what is next. Well, you have to do something about those coffee grinds! Espresso makers, like all coffee makers, have a filter. Pump driven espresso maker's have a filter that is separate from the machine and attaches to it. An espresso maker's filter is known as a portafilter and it is in the portafilter basket that you place the ground coffee. When brewing espresso, the following rule applies:

7 grams of ground coffee = 1 shot of espresso
14 grams of ground coffee = 2 shots of espresso

This is the amount you will want to add to your portafilter. Another handy trick: 1 tablespoon of ground coffee is equal to 7 grams.

So you've added the coffee, to the portafilter, now what?

TamperStep 5: Tamping
Tamping is the amount of force applied to the portafilter to compact the coffee grounds at the necessary pressure of 30lbs. This is perhaps the trickiest part for a barista to master as it requires you to use a "tamp" or a round flat tool that presses down on the coffee. Made of wood, aluminum, stainless steel, or plastic, the best way to create the 30 pounds of pressure is by placing the portafilter on you counter top while leaning into it with the tamp covering the beans.

If you have a pressurized portafilter, you can basically skip the above step and give it a light tamp as pressurized portafilters are equipped with an internal resistance technology that insures correct pressure is met for brewing.

Step 6: Attach the Portafilter
Congratulations! You are almost ready to brew. Just a few more quick steps the first being to look at your tamped coffee and make sure it is compact and level. The coffee should look shiny and even. If there are any loose grinds mulling about the edges, just brush them away.

Now you are ready to attach the portafilter to your espresso maker! Simply place it in its spot on the machine, place your pre-heated cup underneath the dispenser, and press brew!

Step 7: Timing
Brewing Espresso Step number seven is really more of a useful gauge for you than an action. How fast your shot brews will be an indicator as to how effectively you completed earlier steps. The general rule of espresso excellence states that your double shot of espresso should equal an extraction time of 20 to 25 seconds. If your extraction time is longer than 25 seconds, you may want to grind your beans coarser or lighten up your tamp a bit. If your extraction runs under 20 seconds, make your grind finer.

Step 8: Enjoy!
Now it is time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. If all the steps have been successfully completed, you will be left with 2 to 2.5 ounces of espresso bliss! Your brew will be golden brown, with a fine, thick, creamy, crema on top. It will feel full and thick on your tongue, and taste exquisite.


How To Brew: Super-Automatic Espresso Maker

Now what about those of you have a super-automatic espresso maker? Well, really you have no work to do. No need to worry about tamping and grinding, extraction time, etc. All you have to do is provide the beans. Your super-automatic will do the rest!

Want more espresso types and guides? Check out the following links!

Buying Guide: Semi-Automatic Espresso Maker
Buying Guide: Super-Automatic Espresso Maker
How To Brew: Coffee
This Beans For You: A Guide to Coffee Roasts


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