How to Make Espresso at Home - Guide for Newby Baristas
Espresso, you are the juice of gods, the brain booster, the pick-me-up, the king of all things coffee.
If you are as much of an espresso fan as I am, you must be leaving a fortune at coffee shops and dying for a shot during the lockdown.
How about taking your espresso needs into your own hands? You don't need to spend years in college to become a professional barista to pull a shot or two every day. It does take courage to practice and experiment with grind settings, tamping, and brewing time, but in the end, you'll have the pleasure of a delicious cuppa at your fingertips and the knowledge that you brewed it on your own.
Ready to go barista? Let me be your guide and explain the origin of espresso, how to make it and have it taste good whether you have a machine at your disposal or not.
Espresso: Strong, Dark, and Powerful
Is espresso the only coffee for you? You are not alone in your dedication! It's no wonder this thick, syrupy, delicious drink that can be brewed in under a minute is so popular across the globe. But did you realize it's over 120 years old? Have you ever wondered why most coffee drinks have Italian names? It's because the history of the espresso machine is just as exciting as that of Apple!
By the end of the 19th century, coffee had conquered Europe, but with a brewing time of over 5 minutes per cup, it was becoming unsustainable for coffee shops. Angelo Moriondo was the first to come up with a machine that used steam to speed up the brewing process. After getting a patent in 1884, the inventor fell off the radar, but his idea took root. Luigi Bezzera and Desiderio Pavoni made most of the steam age's technical advancements to build an espresso machine that could serve up to a thousand shots per hour. The pressure was under two bars, and the overheated steam made espresso taste bitter, but it was gaining popularity among coffee drinkers by the hour.
Soon, the Victoria Arduino espresso machine joined the fight for coffee lovers' hearts, and Gaggia wasn't far behind. Italians dominated the market for over fifty years, and their craftsmanship and know-how are still sought-after but the most discerning gourmets. It's no wonder all the coffee drinks we know and love have Italian names. In fact, 'espresso' means a cup of coffee brewed at the spur of a moment (‘expresso’ may sound better for English speakers, but you'd better let it go if you want to become a true barista).
Now you know the bare bones of the exciting history of espresso to share with your guests over a cuppa. All you need to do now is learn how to make an espresso at home. Before your hands reach for a portafilter and tamper, remember that a good espresso starts long before you pull the lever or press the button.
Selecting Your Coffee
Have you heard of espresso beans? Have you researched how to make espresso with regular coffee online? Have you given up on espresso because it's too expensive and/or complicated?
Forget all about your struggles and misconceptions! For one, there's no such thing as an espresso bean. After all, espresso is a brewing method, not a particular blend or Arabica variety. Therefore, you can actually pull an espresso shot using any of your favorite beans. There are grinding considerations to consider, but I'll get to that in a moment. For now, I want you to remember that any coffee bean can become an espresso.
How come coffee snobs turn their noses on some blends for espresso? It comes down to flavor. After all, espresso brews in under a minute, and water has only so much time to extract every ounce of flavor from the grounds. For a long time, the dark roast was considered the only acceptable option for espresso, and that's where the myth of "espresso beans" stems from. Today, thousands of roasters experiment with java blends and roasting techniques, so even the lightest of roasts can taste sublime in an espresso shot.
So which beans should you use when making espresso for the first time? I suggest you start with whatever you have on hand. Your first shots are likely to be underwhelming, so there's no need to waste quality single-origin beans or to invest in a particular blend. Once you manage a passable shot, you can experiment with varieties from your regular rotation or try darker roasts.
Grinding and Measuring Your Coffee
Correct grinder setting is paramount when making espresso at home. You can't rely on the same grounds your filter machine or French press use. Instead, you have two options.
If you're serious about developing your barista skills, get a burr grinder (forget those cheaper blade models, they aren't worth even an honorable mention here). Set the grinder to a fine setting that produces powder-like grains the size of table salt or smaller. You might need to try a couple of settings until you find the right one, but brewing freshly ground java is always worth the time and money.
If your coffee budget was drained by an espresso maker purchase, you could settle for pre-ground beans. Make sure the bag says "Espresso Grind", and you're all set. Alternatively, you can get your beans ground at a local coffee shop or grocery store, but remember to specify you need the grind suitable for an espresso machine.
Why am I wasting so much of your time on the grind settings? Because it might just be one of the most crucial factors affecting espresso flavor! Use a coarse grind, and the water will pass through the filter too fast, and the under-extracted shot will be weak and sour. Use a grind too fine, and the brewing will last too long, making your cuppa bitterly undrinkable. You need to walk a fine line between these two undesirable outcomes to achieve a perfect shot.
Once you have the right grounds, whip up your kitchen scale because it's measuring time. While you're still a newbie barista, I highly recommend forgetting about tablespoons or scoops. You want to get the right bean-to-water ratio (usually 1:2), and you can't do that if you don't know exactly how much coffee goes into the filter. The exact numbers depend on the espresso maker of your choice, but around 7 g is a norm for a single shot, and 14 g is usually okay for a double espresso shot.
A final word of caution: you want your beans freshly roasted for the best results. After waiting a couple of days for outgassing, try to use them up within a month of the roasting date. Respectable roasters include both the roasting and best-by dates on the bag, so you'll know exactly how fast you need to use up the beans. You can even give home roasting a try after you master pulling shots.
Pulling a Good Shot
Pour the grounds you've carefully measured out into the portafilter, level the beans with your fingers. Then lean the portafilter against the counter and tamp the grounds down. Do not try to compress the coffee too much. Instead, use consistent pressure and rotate the tamper to ensure the beans are level and pressed equally across the puck. Before you insert the portafilter back, run the machine without it to purge the group head and preheat it for brewing.
The best way to make espresso shots consistent is to time your brewing time. First, time how long the machine takes to pull a shot on a default automated cycle. Ideally, it should be from 24 to 30 seconds (use a time or a stopwatch feature on your smartphone to be precise). If brewing time is shorter, you haven't tamped the grounds enough, and if the machine takes longer, your tamping was too tight. Neither of these options will produce a good shot, so analyze your mistakes and avoid them next time.
Some espresso makers come with manual controls that let you start and stop the brewing process. If that's the case with your model, figure out your tamping technique first, and then you can aim for the same brewing time I've mentioned (24 to 30 seconds).
If you go for a manual lever machine, you need to follow the same general guidelines, though it may take a while for you to figure out how to pull the lever slow enough to extract the beans just right. Don't despair if your first attempts are nowhere near the 30-second mark. Once you find the right tempo and repeat it a couple of dozen times, muscle memory will kick in.
I suggest you start your barista experiments with a clear glass cup. It will let you oversee the brewing process and watch the layers of espresso build inside the cup. Your shot should look like a combination of a thick, dark brew at the bottom with a thin layer of caramel-colored crema. There may be some blond spots within the crema, but if it's too light, the brew might taste sour, meaning your grind setting was too coarse for espresso.
Taste the results of your efforts and take note of aroma and flavor profiles. From there, it's all up to you to experiment with different blends, grind settings, tamping techniques. If you're serious about getting better, consider starting a brewing journal. You can jot down your brewing parameters and tasting notes for each shot and analyze them for further improvements. Filming your efforts is another way to go.
Don't forget to clean up the mess you make of your kitchen. Clear out, wash, and dry the portafilter and purge the steam wand after every cycle to prevent unhygienic buildup and keep your espresso machine in tip-top shape.
The beauty of espresso lies in its versatility. You can drink it black to enjoy the tiniest of flavor nuances, and adding sugar is classic. But once you add a milk frother to your home espresso setup, the drink options become endless. You can experiment with cappuccino, latte, and macchiato before graduating to latte art and more complex drinks.
To create that delicious, velvety microfoam, you'll need your milk of choice. Full-fat cow milk is an option, though there are plenty of plant-based varieties for vegans, vegetarians, and the lactose-intolerant. Purge the steam wand to get rid of the condensation and prevent water from diluting your milk, then put the wand under the surface of the milk in a steel pitcher.
You can either move the pitcher around to create a whirlpool or set the nozzle off-center and let it do the work for you. Remember to keep both hands on the milk pitcher to gauge the temperature. Stop frothing once it feels the same temperature as your hands. Otherwise, you'll overheat the milk and create large bubbles instead of soft foam. If you overdo it on your first couple of tries, swirl the milk around to diffuse the largest of the bubbles or thump the pitcher against the counter.
Mastering the steam wand takes time, so don't be disappointed by wasting a couple of milk cartons. Practice makes perfect, and you'll feel so proud of yourself once you build your first picture-perfect cappuccino!
Keep Learning and Improving
There are plenty of helpful guides on how to make espresso at home, and this is nothing but a feeble attempt of pointing you in the right direction. If you're serious about learning the barista art, check out Youtube channels to watch professionals pull shots, or binge the World Barista Championship. And if you prefer reading clear instructions, The Professional Barista's Handbook by Scott Rao is a good place to start.
Let professionals be an inspiration for your studies and experimentation. Remember that none of them could pull a perfect shot on the first try, and it took them years to get to where they are now. It's up to you to research, learn, and practice your espresso brewing to treat yourself and others to delicious home-brewed espresso.
And if you're still on the lookout for an espresso machine within your budget, let me share a few ways you can cheat the system and brew an espresso-like drink without all the expensive equipment.
3 Ways to Make Espresso Without an Espresso Machine
If you're after a true espresso, you'll have to get an espresso machine or trek to the closest coffee shop to buy one. However, there are a couple of ways you can brew something very similar to espresso without all the fuss. The brew won't be as strong or punchy, but it will taste similar enough to satisfy your cravings until you get your hands on an espresso machine.
Let me tell you how to make espresso without a machine (least to most espresso-like):
- Espresso in French press. You'll need finely ground beans, twice as much as you usually load into your press. First, soak the grounds with a bit of hot water for about 30 seconds to let them release aroma and flavor. Then pour the rest of the water in and let the beans steep for around 4 minutes. Press the plunger halfway down, pull it up, and press it all the way down. You got yourself an espresso-like drink, strong with a hint of bitterness. It's definitely not the best way to brew an espresso, but it can be a last resort if you have nothing else on hand.
- Moka pot espresso. Another Italian invention works similar to the traditional espresso machine by pushing steam through the tamped grounds. However, the pressure isn't as high, and the brew is nowhere as syrupy as a genuine espresso. All you need to do is fill up the bottom reservoir (don't go over the max level), scoop and tamp the beans in the filter, fit the top part on, and put the Moka pot on the stove. Keep a close eye on the lid. Once the upper half of the pot is full, take it off the heat, pour and enjoy. It's fast, simple, and closer to an espresso than a French press espresso.
- Aeropress espresso. Aeropress is yet another invention striving to replicate the espresso experience without expensive equipment and complicated brewing process. For an espresso-like shot, put a filter or two into the drain cup, wet it with water, and load with as much coffee grounds as you can fit. Pour the water in, mixing it with the beans. Place the press over a sturdy mug and press the plunger. You want to generate as much pressure as possible to get your drink closer to espresso standards. This is my personal favorite when it comes to brewing espresso without a machine, so if you have an Aeropress at hand, give it a try.