Fundamentals of Creating Great Espresso

So you have a nice, shiny new espresso machine. Just having a good quality machine doesn’t mean it will automatically produce good espresso. The freshest, best coffee beans in the world can taste like the worst beans in the world if not brewed properly. This is especially true when making espresso, as this type of coffee extraction process is the least forgiving of all types, such as drip-brewing, press-pot, cowboy coffee (yuk), etc. The art of making true espresso has to include three main fundamentals:

  1. The temperature of the water must be constant 195F degrees to 205F degrees. Some of the newer commercial espresso machines feature PID (Proportion, Integral, Derivative) controllers that can actually maintain water temperatures within ½ degree throughout the extraction cycle! This kind of control does not come cheap, but does indeed produce the highest quality shots with a high degree of consistency. A unit that can maintain the temperatures listed above (within 10F degrees) is adequate for home use.
  2. The extraction pressure of the water passing through the portafilter must be at 9-10 bars. This is approximately 130-145psi. Unfortunately, pressure gages only seem to appear on the more expensive models; typically these start at $1,000. This makes it impossible to know how much pressure is actually being produced in models without a pressure gage. However, most models in the $200-$1,000 range seem to produce adequate pressure (but it sure would be nice to know exactly how much pressure they do produce!).
  3. The grind and tamp pressure must combine to produce a shot in the range of 23 – 30 seconds. We cannot over emphasize the importance of the quality of the grind. A blade grinder (whirlybird) will simply not work because of the wide variance of grind particle sizes. They must be relatively uniform, and they must be the correct size. Too coarse, and the shot pull-times will be too short resulting in a watery dribble. Too fine, and the portafilter can actually plug up with nothing, or maybe but a few drops, coming out of the nozzles. About a 30lb tamp pressure is recommended for a starting point. More or less may be used depending on the barista’s preference, and can also be varied to accommodate for a *slightly* incorrect grind setting.

These are the main parameters that must be followed to produce good espresso with nice, golden crema on top. Here are some other tips to aid in good espresso making:

  1. Make sure the portafilter is hot. This is accomplished by:
    1. Let the machine fully warm up with the portafilter mounted. Espresso machines are designed to work best when all of their components have reached thermal equilibrium.
    2. Keep the portafilter mounted on the machine when not in use.
    3. Run a “blank shot” of water through the porta-filter to help heat it up quickly between shots.
  2. Pre-heat the cups! Most home units don’t have adequate cup warmers on the tops of them, as do commercial espresso units. Run a blank shot of water (maybe the same one you used to heat the portafilter?) into the cup and let sit for 30 seconds or so. For best results, pour the water out and dry the inside of the cup with a paper towel so as to not risk diluting the precious espresso that will be flowing into it soon.
  3. Espresso coffee beans are at their best four days after being roasted. Using them immediately after roasting is not a good idea, unless of course you don’t have any others and can’t wait four full days!
  4. Last, but not least; use fresh roasted espresso blends from The Lost Dutchman Coffee Company, such as Jacob’s Dynamite Shack Espresso (for a sweet, powerful tasting espresso), or Black Gold Premium Espresso (a dark roasted, heavy bodied blend).