How to Make Espresso

How to Make Espresso

Now you know what espresso is, and you know it's for you. But where do you start? We'll point you in the right direction – and we promise you'll like where this is going.

Brewing variables

Before jumping in, let's make sure we're wearing the right clothes. There are a handful of things to consider as you prepare to take the plunge, and we call them "brewing variables". Most of these apply when making coffee of any kind, but some are unique to espresso. Let's sort 'em out.

WATER: Your espresso will taste only as good as the water you start with. Sediment, scale, and unwelcome minerals will doom your drink and your equipment if they're not dealt with up front, so, before you get too far, learn about the quality of your water. Most hardware stores have inexpensive water test kits available for purchase but you can also contact your local water source for details about what they pump to your pipes. With that information fresh in hand, check out the Specialty Coffee Association of America's water standards. If your H2O is off-the-charts funky, give us a call and we'll walk you through some water treatment solutions. And no matter your situation, you can keep out a lot of nasty stuff with a simple carbon filter, like that in a Brita pitcher.

GRIND: Before brewing, coffee beans need to be cut into smaller pieces. Making espresso requires a finer grind than most methods, with particles around the size of table salt. You know you're in the right neighborhood once the ground coffee begins to clump together. Later, you'll learn how to manipulate the grind to achieve different results.

DOSE: For a "double shot" – the standard serving size – we prefer to use between 18 and 21 grams of ground coffee. As you add more coffee, your shot will increase in both body and intensity. Feel free to adjust your dose according to taste and make use of the troubleshooting tips below.

TAMP: Compacting ground coffee with a tamper restricts the flow of water, forcing coffee and water to interact. Start with a 30-pound press (your bathroom scale can tell you what this feels like), applied evenly. A firm, level tamp is essential to even extraction.

TEMP: Water heated to 195-205ºF is ideal for preparing coffee, and some espresso machines allow you to control this temperature. (For most systems, this is made possible by a "PID controller".) If yours does, play within this range to find what you like. You'll notice that lower temperatures draw out more brightness, while cranking up the heat produces roasty flavors. If you're not able to choose the temperature for yourself, you can assume for now that the machine is doing its job.

YIELD: With brewed coffee, we measure coffee input and water input, but when making espresso it's coffee input and beverage output. Depending on your dose and basket size, shoot for about 2 ounces of espresso out, enough to fill a large shot glass. If you're weighing your shots, a 30-gram yield is a safe place to start.

Note: The density of espresso can be a tricky thing, as the gasses trapped in the crema can make for fluffy, heady shots that only weigh 30 grams, or thin and silky shots that weigh 60. With many espresso blends, you should have a decent cap of crema - say, a 1/2 inch or so - and a total mass of about 30-40 grams for a 2-ounce shot. But some coffees will skew one way or the other, leading to less dense crema-bombs or denser, juicier single origin marvels. Whichever way you like your espresso, our reference points of 2 ounces or 30 grams are merely places to start, so feel free to make adjustments until you're doing a happy little dance after every shot!

TIME: With our recommended dose and yield, about 25-30 seconds should pass between the beginning of extraction and the moment your glass is full. Half a minute for a happy tongue? Not bad.

Tools of the trade

With these tips in our pocket, we're about ready to go. First, let's get our gear together:

MACHINE: Our favorite espresso machines sport solid components, stable temperatures, and a sensible interface. If you're in the market for a new machine, you can rest assured that every model on our website meets these criteria. Skip to the end of this series for specific recommendations.

GRINDER: Consistently tasty espresso starts with consistently ground coffee. To get the most out of your beans, choose a "burr" (not a "blade") grinder that can grind finely with many steps of adjustment.

FILTER: Your espresso machine may have arrived with a few options. For starters, grab a two-spouted or bottomless portafilter and insert a double basket – that'll most likely be the largest of the baskets you received.

TAMPER: For a secure "coffee puck" and even extraction, pick a tamper that fits your portafilter basket snugly. Most baskets have a diameter of 58 millimeters, but our tampers are available in a wide variety of sizes. If you're serious about refining your technique, we highly recommend the Prima Tamp .

SCALE: With a gram scale, you'll be better equipped to monitor parameters, produce consistent results, and diagnose problems. We favor those with low resolutions, reading in 0.1- to 1-gram increments, and recommend that you weigh both dose and yield.

VESSEL: Something to catch that liquid gold. A volumetric shot glass can help you keep track of how much espresso you're pulling, especially if you don't have a scale handy.

Now, as Lil Jon once said, let's take some shots!

How to make espresso

  1. Fill your espresso machine's reservoir or hook it up to your water line. However your water is fetched, make sure it's cold, filtered, and not-too-hard-or-soft. Water treatment is an important first step: distilled water will do serious damage to your boiler, hard water will accumulate serious scale, and unfiltered water will taste seriously lame. Once you know that you're working with happy H2O, saunter down to step 2.
  2. Turn on your machine and give it plenty of time to heat up. Depending on the size of your machine, this could take anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes. Don't assume that you're ready to go as soon as you're up to brewing temperature, though; instead, wait a little longer until the entire machine feels nice and warm.
  3. Lock an empty portafilter in the grouphead and run the machine for a few seconds. This brings fresh water to the front and heats up the parts that get closest to your coffee. Then, wipe off the inside of the portafilter and the underside of the grouphead so that they're clean and dry.
  4. Grind a few beans to check for appropriate fineness and purge your grinder of stale grounds. The coffee should clump loosely and appear powdery, but should still feel gritty when rubbed between your fingers.
  5. Dose 18 to 21 grams of freshly ground coffee into the portafilter. As coffee exits the chute, rotate the portafilter so that the grounds settle evenly in the basket. Afterwards, use your forefinger to level the grounds and fill in any air pockets.
  6. Tamp with your wrist, arm, and elbow positioned directly over the center of the portafilter basket. Focus on pressing evenly, using your fingertips to feel the edge of the basket, then inspect the dry puck to see if the bed appears level.
  7. Return the portafilter to the grouphead and begin brewing. If your machine offers a separate pre-brew or "pre-infusion" stage, complete this first. By doing so, you'll allow stored gases to release before full infusion begins. With fresh coffee, pre-infuse until your see the first drops exit the portafilter.
  8. Begin infusion and end brew at predetermined yield: we like to start at 2 fluid ounces (if measuring by volume) or about 30 grams (if using a gram scale). Before serving, mix crema by stirring or pouring espresso into another cup.

Espresso tips and troubleshooting

How'd it go? Even when you think you nailed every step, sometimes things just don't taste right. If your espresso isn't everything you hoped for, think about what seems off and try some of these tricks. Still missing the mark? Make sure that you're starting with good, fresh coffee and a quality burr grinder.

  • My shot took too long. Something is preventing the water from flowing through the coffee in a reasonable amount of time. As a result, your espresso may taste bitter. To fix it,
    • Dose less coffee OR
    • Grind coarser OR
    • Tamp lighter
  • My shot went too fast. Your puck isn't putting up enough of a fight, the water is just flying through, and your espresso tastes lame. We're probably looking at "under-extraction". To fix it,
    • Dose more coffee OR
    • Grind finer OR
    • Tamp harder
  • My shot tastes bitter. "Over-extraction": isn't it gross? In this case, you got too much out of your coffee, like when you forget to take out your tea bag after 4 minutes. To fix it,
    • Decrease water temperature OR
    • Shorten brew time (see tips above)
  • My shot tastes sour. Like under-cooking food, it's possible to stop the chemical reaction that's taking place between coffee and water too early. When everything is in balance, you'll extract all the right things: not less, not more. To fix it,
    • Increase water temperature OR
    • Extend brew time (see tips above)
  • My shot tastes weird. It's not always that you went too far or not far enough: sometimes, water doesn't pass through the coffee evenly, and weird things happen. To fix it,
    • Check for "channeling" (holes in wet puck), THEN
    • Ensure even distribution AND
    • Ensure level tamp
  • My shot is watery. Espresso should have a thick, syrupy body, but achieving this requires a correct brewing ratio (dose:yield), adequate brewing time, and fresh coffee. Miss any of these, and your espresso will be thin. To fix it,
    • Decrease yield OR
    • Dose more coffee OR
    • Grind finer OR
    • Tamp harder OR
    • Use fresh coffee
  • My shot's stream was uneven. In its course through the portafilter, water will follow the path of least resistance. If the puck isn't level or secure, this path will be crooked and your espresso won't pour from the center in a single stream. To fix it,
    • Ensure even distribution AND
    • Ensure level tamp
  • My shot has little-to-no-crema. If you don't see any crema, either the puck isn't sufficiently resisting the pressurized water or your coffee is just too old. To fix it,
    • Dose more coffee OR
    • Grind finer OR
    • Use fresh coffee
  • My shot looks to be all crema. Beans that are still holding a lot of gas from the roasting process aren't quite ready for brewing. If your espressos have absurd amount of foam, all that's needed is a little patience. To fix it,
    • Allow coffee to rest for a couple more days

Espresso Tips and Troubleshooting


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