How to Make The Perfect Espresso at Home
You watch your local barista grind the perfect coffee into an espresso basket and meticulously tamp it down. She steams the milk to the perfect temperature and pours a rosetta into your coffee cup. As you witness the magic happening in front of you, you begin to wonder how you can re-create this magic at home.
Making espresso at home is a popular subject among coffee enthusiasts. It’s almost a white whale of sorts, where there are an unlimited number of ways to improve this home craft and fine-tune the results.
Making espresso with an at-home espresso maker requires more maintenance and attention to detail that other coffee brewing methods. In this article, we’ll take you step-by-step into the world of using your espresso machine to its full capacity.
Let’s take a look.
Understanding Your Espresso Machine
Espresso machines in today’s market have a few things in common. Basically, the machine forces very hot water through a bed of coffee that’s finely ground (the puck) under extremely high pressure. This allows your coffee to quickly extract (typically within about 30 seconds). The machine creates a shot of intense coffee flavor with a head, referred to as the crema.
Your espresso machine is designed to brew coffee using its filter basket that you fill with very fine coffee grounds. This is then inserted into the holder, which is called the portafilter.
The fineness of your coffee grind is absolutely essential to achieve the best brewing results. Finely ground coffee provides resistance to water flow and helps create pressure while the coffee is brewing.
If you ground your coffee too coarsely, it cuts down on the brewing pressure. This causes espresso coffee to be thin, weak and a bit sour. However, if the coffee is too fine, the water will struggle to flow through the grounds. This will choke your flow rate, making the result bitter, too intense or, in some situations, non-existent due to the water’s inability to get through the puck.
There are espresso machines that are able to grind and dose the recommended amounts on their own without user input, although you will have to program the machine to make adjustments according to your taste.
The process of how your machine heats water and produces pressure will vary from machine to machine. For example, some have internal “boilers” that heat water to the desired temperature, then dispense the water with a pump that can sustain around 130 psi. Older machines utilize manual lever action pistons that provide the pressure.
Both types of espresso machines still exist, and are equally capable of making great espresso when used by people who know how to maximize results.
Classes of Espresso Machines
When looking at espresso machines, understand that there are four different classifications to choose from.
1. Manual Machines
These require users to start and stop the brewing process manually. They don’t contain electric pumps. Instead, they usually use a level-actuated piston as a way of applying pressure manually.
There are manual espresso machines that don’t use any electricity at all. For these, you’ll need to heat water on an external source.
2. Semi-Automatic Machines
These machines use a pump that’s electrically powered to give brew pressure. They also heat water internally in a thermoblock or boiler. As a user, you’ll need to begin and end the process of brewing on your own. However, the pump does all the brewing work.
You’ll still need to grind and tamp the grounds into the basket on your own.
3. Automatic Machines
These are basically semi-automatic espresso machines with additional programming capabilities that begin and end the process of brewing. They can be programmed based upon time or mass.
Typically, automatic espresso machines can also function as semi-automatic machines, with you starting and stopping the process manually.
Automatic machines also require you to grind and tamp on your own.
4. Super-Automatic Machines
These are truly do-it-all espresso machines. They dose your coffee, grind it, tamp it down, brew it and clean themselves after brewing. Most are highly programmable to your desired specifications. Some are even able to adjust themselves as coffee gets older and doesn’t perform quite as well in the machine.
With these super-automatic machines, all you need to do is select what drink you want and watch the machine take care of it for you. Some even include such functions as frothing and adding milk. Literally pressing one button will yield a completed drink in only a few minutes.
Of course, the more your espresso machine does, the more it will cost. Simple machines are very affordable but can frustrate users because they don’t produce consistent results. Other, more complex machines can be quite expensive by comparison. However, using them is much easier and they produce consistent results with each use.
Properly Brewing Espresso With Your Espresso Machine
Before getting too deep into your prep, first, let’s take a look at some variables that need to be addressed.
The espresso you brew will taste only as good as the water you use to brew it with. If there is scale or sediment in the boiler, your water is too soft or too hard, or the water has noticeable odors or flavors, it will definitely impact the result you get when making espresso.
To skirt these issues, buy a water test kit from a local hardware store. Compare the results you get with the posted water standards of the Specialty Coffee Association.
If your water is not in-line with the standards, consider the multitude of water treatment options that are available. You may only need a carbon filter to get your water the way you want it.
Standard roasted coffee needs to be ground down into much smaller parts before you can use it to brew espresso. This is because espresso requires a much finer consistency than any other coffee prep method. Coffee grounds used to make espresso should be even finer than standard table salt.
To achieve these results, a burr grinder works a lot better than a blade grinder.
Most espresso machines today brew what used to be considered a double shot of espresso. One brew will yield 2 fluid ounces of espresso liquid.
To achieve a double espresso, ideally you’ll use between 18-21 grams of finely ground coffee. Check the recommended dosage amount in your machine’s manual to verify this.
You can also check the sides of the basket for printed mass measurements. Stay within 1 gram of the recommended number to achieve the best brewing results. If your machine doesn’t recommend an amount, pick a number between 18 – 21 grams and begin there.
When you compact your finely ground coffee with a tamper, it restricts water flow and forces coffee and water to interact with the right amount of pressure. Make your tamping action even and firm, with the intent of completely compacting the grounds without applying undue force.
Remember, once you’ve completely compacted the grounds, there’s no need to tamp any harder. All you’ll accomplish by adding more force is putting additional strain on your back and arms.
A good tamp can be thought of as “pressing until you feel the coffee push back.”
The recognized temperature standard for brewing coffee is between 195 – 205° F. That’s a good range to being with when making espresso.
Certain machines will provide a temperature control and display if you wish to experiment with different temperatures and results. If your machine doesn’t have a prominent temperature control on it, assume you’re automatically in the right temperature ballpark after it heats up.
Determining yield when brewing espresso is different than brewing drip coffee. For drip coffee, you measure water input and coffee input to get your brewing ratio. For espresso, you measure ratios based on coffee input and beverage output.
A typical espresso machine on the market today will brew best at a 1:2 ratio. What that means is that when you start with 20 grams of coffee grounds, you should yield around 40 grams of brewed espresso. To achieve the best tasting espresso, avoiding going out of the range of 1:1.5 – 1:2.5.
Brew time takes into account the total contact time between the puck and the brew water. The measurement begins at the time you initially engage your pump (or begin pre-infusion) to when you turn off the pump.
Most types of coffee will brew best in the 25-35-second range. When you go too far outside of this recommended range, you’ll probably end up with over-extracted or under-extracted coffee.
Choosing the Best Espresso Machine for You
There are tons of espresso machines available in today’s market. Choosing the best one for your needs might seem a little overwhelming.
Machines purchased for home use are typically much more forgiving than ones used in cafes. But you still want a machine that’s able to give you appropriate temperatures and the right pressure for brewing.
If you’re looking for a highly affordable machine, consider a level espresso maker. With one of these, you’ll manage temperature and pressure yourself.
As you climb up the price ladder into electric espresso machines, you’ll notice a lot of the single-boiler variety. These are used to make a few espresso drinks at a time. These are considered mid-range espresso machines. They will typically come equipped with a drip tray and reservoir that you’ll need to keep your eye on. They need to be filled and drained manually.
Depending on the type of boiler the machine has, you may not have the ability to simultaneously make espresso and steam milk.
When you get past the $2,000 price point, you’ll find machines that are fitted with cafe-quality features such as:
- Duel boiler operation
- Multiple controls for managing temperatures
- The ability to plumb into your water line and drains directly
- Top-quality rotary pumps that give more pressure consistency and extend the machine’s life
- Cool-touch steam wands
- Customizable exteriors
If you’re willing to make a larger investment in your espresso machine, you may find the brewing process and results much more favorable with these machines.
It’s Time to Brew
- To begin, fill the reservoir in your espresso machine or (depending on the machine you have) connect it directly to a water line with its built-in hookup. Ensure that the water you’re using matches with the brewing variables we mentioned earlier in the article.
- After you’ve taken care of the water, turn on your machine and give it enough time to heat. This process can take anywhere from 15 – 45 minutes, so step back and relax while it’s getting up to temp. If your machine has a built-in temperature display, be sure that when the water reaches the brewing temperature you let the rest of your machine continue to heat until it’s up to a steady operational temp. This includes the portafilter, group head and other internal components that need more energy than the water does to reach stable temperatures. Once everything is heated, allow the group to run for a few moments. This will help purge scale water from the group.
- Next, you’ll want to check how fine your grind is. To do this, run only a few beans through your grinder initially. As stated earlier, you need your coffee to be ground finer than standard table salt.
- After this, it’s time to grind your coffee into the portafilter basket. Make it a habit to distribute and settle the coffee grounds evenly throughout your basket before tamping. Do this by using a shaking/tapping/settling method, or by using a specialized tool for distribution.
- Now, you want to firmly tamp your dose of coffee. Be as even with your tamper as you can possibly be. When using a traditional tamp, be sure to keep your arm, elbow and wrist in line over the center of the basket while you tamp. This helps avoid strain and will keep your force evenly distributed throughout the basket.
- Carefully lock the portafilter into the grouphead. Take special care that you avoid knocking the portafilter against anything. This can cause dislodging or make your coffee puck crack. Next, position the vessel and scale under the portafilter and begin the brew. Depending on your machine, this will involve either engaging the pump or engaging the pre-infusion setting.
- Cut off the pump right before the extraction reaches the desired yield. Then allow the last few drips out of your portafilter to complete the brew.
- If you’re only drinking a shot, all you need to do now is stir, sip and enjoy. If you’re making another beverage and incorporating espresso into it, go ahead and mix in the espresso now.
- To finish, knock the used puck out of the portafilter. Flush out the grouphead to rinse coffee oils and debris from the screen, then wipe out the basket and keep it free from grime and debris.
Using an Espresso Machine Like a Pro
There you have it. You’re now an expert at using an espresso machine. Think of all the time and money you’ll save by making your own espresso at home rather than buying it at your local cafe.
Enjoy the process, and savor the results.