An art, a science, a philosophy and perhaps even a religion – the world of espresso can be a daunting and often overwhelming environment for a beginner. With a little bit of application, you can easily transcend the jazz and find the sweet spot which helps you brew your perfect espresso each and every time. We are going to simplify the concepts and the process associated with brewing a delicious espresso which can be hit neat or used as a base for a whole host of other beverages.
So let us get started on how to make Espresso. First you will need an espresso machine and a good grinder. There are several options available from single-serve capsule devices to fully automatic but this article focuses on the semi-automatic machine (what you typically find at coffee shops). While most roasters in India make espresso-ground coffee available, it is highly recommended that you have a grinder at your station as this gives you more control over the process. There are plenty of options available in the market and you can pick one that fits your budget and your style.
Now keep your portafilter, tamper and pitcher aside and focus on the first and most important step in the process on how to make Espresso – buying the right espresso coffee beans. If you are just starting out, we recommend buying medium-dark roasted beans. These are ideal as they are soluble enough, easy to dial in and carry the inherent flavors of the beans without entering into smoky/ashy territory. Look for coffee beans curated by the roaster particularly for espresso or single origin/estate coffees that the roaster explicitly states have been roasted for espresso. Once you’ve gotten better at the art, you can experiment with light to medium roasts which require a deeper understanding of espresso theory. Some coffees work very well as dark roasts, but while dark roasted beans are the easiest to tame for espresso, they aren’t necessarily the best.
Once you’ve got the right espresso coffee beans, applaud yourself as you’ve completed half the job. We’ll split the remaining half into the following easy steps. Mastering these will you help you develop a structured brewing routine and pull a delicious espresso shot more often than not. Our most important advice – in all this pursuit of perfection, don’t forget to have fun!
- Dosing – The first step in espresso brewing is fixing your dosage in grams. The range for this parameter depends on the basket size that you are using. There are three baskets available – single (7g – 12g), double (15g – 21g) and triple which can take more than 20g of coffee and is rarely used. You can check the configuration of your basket which will usually be printed on its outer edge. Let’s focus on the double as this is the most commonly used basket. For our recipe on how to make espresso, we will use a dose of 18g of coffee beans. You can choose anywhere between 17g – 19g for your dose depending on how you adjust the other parameters which we will soon discuss.
- Ratio – We will aim to extract 36g – 40g of espresso from an 18g dose of coffee in a time period of 26s – 28s. This is a ratio of 1:2 – 1:2.2 implying for every 1g of coffee used, we extract approximately 2 grams of espresso. Some folks use ratios as diluted as 1:4 (called a lungo) while others looking to extract a ristretto will use tighter ratios in the range of 1:1 – 1:1.5. This is a choice entirely up to you and is one of the many flexible aspects of espresso brewing that makes it so much fun. Feel free to explore and express your creativity! The final balance in your cup depends on how much of the solubles you have extracted from the coffee and how much water is in it. Without delving too deep into theory, let’s establish that a ratio in the range of 1:2 – 1:2.5 gives you the best balance as this is what we have observed. This is a parameter that is highly dependent on the quality of coffee beans, grind size, dosage and brew time and is therefore subject to vary depending on the other parameters. Confused? Things are only going to get simpler, read on!
- Grinding – Grind size is what determines how much surface area of coffee is exposed to the hot water pressuring through inside your portafilter. Easily the most important step in the espresso process, identifying the right grind size is key to achieving the best flavor that your coffee can offer. Begin by setting your grinder to the fine setting and grinding 18g of coffee into your basket. You will return to this step to make slight adjustments after the next two steps.
- Distribution & Tamping – Place your portafilter on a flat surface with a firm grip on the handle. Level the bed of coffee in your portafilter with a tamper (or a distributor if you have one). Ensure that the bed is perfectly horizontal before tamping as any gradient/slope will result in unevenly extracted coffee. Pick up your tamper, place it on the bed and tilt your hand to a 90-degree angle (straight and vertical). Push down with a considerable amount of pressure (don’t worry about the pressure numbers in bars and pounds mentioned in hundreds of espresso articles on the internet). When done, lift up your tamper after giving it a gentle twist on the tamped bed of coffee. To check if you have tamped right, place the tamper gently on the bed of coffee and give it a light spin. If you feel any resistance, the tamp was uneven. If it spins smoothly, great job! Make sure you always tamp at the 90–degree vertical angle as this will ensure your wrist is straight. A straight wristed tamp is key to avoiding any forms of injury.
- Dialing In – Now you can insert your portafilter and pull the first shot. Use the manual button and not any pre-configured setting. Ensure your weighing scale is tared to your espresso cup. You will need to write down the following parameters in a notebook – preinfusion time (time between the beginning of the shot and when your espresso begins to flow), total time for the full shot, and total espresso extracted. Stop brewing when you are around 34 – 35g out as we are looking to extract around 36g of espresso. The last few drops will make up for the remaining grammage. Rewinding a bit, when your espresso starts flowing, observe if the flow is consistent and smooth. If you find the flow rate suffocating or too fast, you will have to change the grind size (discussed in the next step) or check your distribution and tamping; it is also possible that the coffee is too fresh or too old. The ideal window within which you must use espresso coffee beans is 10 – 30 days after the roast date.
- Adjustments – Preinfusion time should be between 7 – 10 seconds and the total time of your shot should take between 26 – 28 seconds. If you extracted 36 – 38g in less than this time, you will have to make your grind size slightly finer. If you extracted the grammage in more than 28 seconds, you will have to make your grind size slightly coarser. This is assuming that distribution and tamping has been done correctly. Make the necessary adjustments and pull the next shot. Continue to adjust (very slight changes in grind size) until you extract 36g – 38g in 26 to 28 seconds. Note that your dosage must be kept constant at 18g for all your shots. If you are unable to achieve these ranges, you can slightly alter your dosage by half to one gram (higher or lower) and repeat the grind and extract process till you achieve the perfect range. Typically, you will rarely have to alter dose but you can experiment to ensure you get the flavor that perfectly matches your preference.
- Record Parameters – Once you have achieved the perfect ranges, you can note down the various parameters and use them every time you brew the same coffee. Note that slight adjustments may be required on a day-to-day basis (as temperature, humidity and age of your coffee beans will influence the dialing in process) but this is only if you want absolute perfection. If you change your coffee, you will have to repeat the whole process again as the parameters will vary for each type/blend of coffee.
- Additional Considerations – If you are using a double-spouted filter instead of a naked portafilter, we recommend that for all milk-based beverages, you use a double shot (both spouts brewed into a single cup) as a single shot will only be 18g of espresso and yield a weak beverage. Regarding flavor profile, on a basic level you must look for sweetness, good body, balanced acidity and a lingering aftertaste. If all these are achieved, you will also be able to identify the flavor notes mentioned by your roaster. A few notes may come through very explicitly but some notes will be subtle and require finetuning your espresso brewing profile. We will address dialing in for flavor profile in another article as this subject is slightly more complex and will require to be explained in detail.
Following the above process on how to make Espresso should launch you on a very exciting journey to espresso perfection. I hope I have addressed all the major points and made this a simple task for you. Remember, the most important rule is to enjoy the brewing process and have a ton load of fun! Happy Brewing!