In this post I'm hoping to help to simplify the home espresso-making process. So if you're wondering how to make an espresso at home without the complexity usually associated with espresso making, hopefully this will help.
How to Make an Espresso at Home
If you're already a customer of The Coffeeworks, and you already make espresso at home but you're just looking for some help to make espresso making more simple, then you can ignore the next couple of paragraphs, this first part of the article is for people who've landed here who are looking for more basic advice on how to make espresso.
So if you're wondering how to make an espresso at home, and you don't currently have an espresso machine, then the easiest way to make espresso (and the only way to make "true" espresso) is with an espresso machine.
If you have visions of installing a huge, expensive espresso machine in your kitchen and having to do a degree just to learn how to use the flipping thing, then fear not ;-). Home espresso making doesn't have to be that way.
It can be if you like, and some people do go to these lengths, but the vast majority of people who make espresso at home, do it with much smaller, much lower cost equipment, which is usually relatively simple to use.
The easiest way to to make espresso at home is with a bean to cup coffee machine. These are espresso machines, but the espresso making part comprises of a built in grinder and a brewing unit, and all you have to do is click a button. See my Best bean to cup coffee machines post at coffee blog.
If you want a more traditional home espresso making experience, not just to press a button, then you'll want a manual espresso machine. Popular home espresso machines these days at the more beginner side of things include the Sage Bambino, Sage Bambino Plus, Gaggia Classic Pro, and the Sage integrated grinder espresso machines including the Sage Barista Express, Barista Pro, and the new Barista Express Impress.
If you're quite new to home espresso, and you want to use a more traditional machine and you want espresso as close as possible to that which a pro barista would produce, then I'd look at the latest machine from Sage, the Barista Express Impress. I think a fairly large percentage of people who want the best of both espresso quality and convenience, would find this machine is perfect for them. The Sage Oracle or Oracle Touch achieves the same goal, but the Express Impress is much more affordable.
For more on espresso machines, see my best home espresso machines post.
Simplifying Home Espresso Making
OK so if you have a traditional espresso machine, and you're finding it all a bit mind-boggling, or if you're about to buy an espresso machine and you're concerned that it seems really complex, the following should help.
In a nutshell, home espresso making (using a traditional espresso machine) involves grinding coffee into the filter basket, tamping the ground coffee with the tamper, and then pressing the shot button to "pull" the shot of espresso. We call it "pulling" the shot, not "pushing" because the first espresso machines involved a lever that the barista would pull.
But it's not quite as simple as it might sound, simply because there are so many variables, but I'll hopefully make this much more simple, shortly.
First, let me just introduce all of the terminologies you'll hear for espresso making:
Brew ratio or just "ratio" is the output ratio of espresso vs the amount of ground coffee you've started out with. So if you end up with the same weight of espresso as ground coffee, that's a 1:1 ratio.
A "normale" or standard espresso shot would usually be about a 1:2 ratio, so if your starting dose is 18g, you'd be looking to pull a shot of approx 36g or ml (grams to ml is about the same for espresso).
A lungo is a longer extraction and a fairly standard ratio for lungo is about 1:3, while the 1:1 ratio I mentioned earlier would usually be regarded as a "ristretto".
So now you know that when you hear terms like "normale, lungo, ristretto", these are simply terms for espresso ratio, meaning how intense you make the shot.
This is the filter holder, sometimes referred to as filter handle, and it's the part that holds the filter, so the filter clips inside the portafilter (filter holder).
This is the basket that you dose with ground coffee, which clips into the portafilter to be then locked into the group of your espresso machine.
This is the part of your espresso machine that the portafilter locks into, usually referred to as group or grouphead.
The gap between the top of the coffee and the shower screen above, important for building up pressure in the basket.
This is the round piece of thin metal screwed into the group, where the water comes from.
This refers to how much coffee in weight (usually grams, in the UK) that is dosed into the basket.
This refers to the amount of space in the basket taken up by the coffee, and really what this means is the height of the coffee in the basket and how much space there is above it.
This is the normal filter basket, also known as single-walled, it is basically a piece of mesh made into a basket shape, so it has holes that go all the way through.
These are also known as "dual-walled" baskets, they look like standard baskets from the inside, but if you look at the bottom, you'll usually see just one hole. If you have one of these, just keep in mind that these aren't intended to dial in with, in the traditional sense. You have very little control over the shot with these kinds of baskets, but in their defense they do make things a lot more simple, while also reducing the potential shot quality.
Most espresso machines will come with single and double-shot baskets, and single shot baskets are made for single shots, of course. It's worth noting that using single baskets is usually trickier than using double baskets, so you'd be well advised to start out with double baskets, and try using single baskets once you're more familiar with the process if you want single shots.
The baskets the majority of people tend to use, intended for double shots. Typically while a single shot is made for a guide dose weight of around 7-9g, a double basket is usually made for a dose weight of approx 14-19g.
The tool used to tamp the coffee, usually a flat metal head with a wooden or sometimes plastic handle. Some of the cheaper home espresso machines come with a scoop with a flat part intended to double as a tamper, if you have one of these I'd advise seeking a proper tamper compatible with the size of your portafilter, as these scoop tampers are about as much use as a chocolate fireguard.
The standard brew pressure used for espresso is 9 bars. If you're getting into really sophisticated pulls mainly aimed at lighter roasted beans for espresso, then you may want even lower pressure, or you may have a machine capable of varying the pressure, but most espresso machines have a fixed pressure, aimed at producing 9 bars in the basket. If you have heard that 15 or even 19 bars is better, you've probably read the marketing blurb of an entry-level home espresso machine and forgotten to take that with a rather large pinch of salt ;-).
This is a feature of espresso machines that introduce water to the ground coffee under lower pressure prior to the pressure being ramped up to full brew pressure. True preinfusion is done at line pressure, meaning that a commercial espresso machine which is plumbed in, would be set to introduce the water to the puck of coffee in the basket at the plumbed in water pressure, for the set preinfusion time before the pump applies the pressure. Some machines have a clever feature (Sage machines for example) which mimic true line pressure preinfusion by the machine being able to control the pump pressure, and dropping the pressure way down for the preinfusion time before ramping it up to full pressure.
This is the process of evenly distributing the ground coffee in the basket, and there are multiple ways to do it, the most popular approach and probably the most effective, is WDT, or Weiss Distribution Technique, which is often referred to as the "WDT method", which would mean the Weiss distribution technique method which always makes me giggle (small things amuse small minds). This involves using a thin pointy object such as a needle (or a tool with multiple needle-shaped impliments) which are put into the coffee in the basket and moved around in concentric circles to evenly distribute the ground coffee.
If the shot runs particularly slowly and tastes overly bitter, this is usually what we refer to as over-extraction, and we deal with this mainly by grinding more coarse, but brew temperature can also help here, dropping the brew temperature slightly if you have a machine with controllable brew temperature, can fix over extraction.
If the shot runs too quickly and tastes sour, this is what we refer to as under-extracted, and the most obvious solution is to grind finer, but as above, we can also make the brew temp hotter (if your machine has adjustable temp) in order to increase the extraction.
Shot time or Shot window
This refers to the time taken to pull the shot. The most universal shot time is 25-30 seconds, or sometimes 28-32 seconds.
OK so this is most of common the espresso-making jargon explained, so now let's jump into the main causes of confusion with espresso-making, so we can try to simplify them and make home espresso much more simple.
Beginner Trying to Hit the Bullseye.
As I explain in the above video, the issue with the usual 4 or 5 second shot window, is it's soooooo tiny. It's like playing darts for the first time, and trying to hit the bullseye, while of course if you're just learning to play darts, your first focus would be on simply trying to hit the board.
It's not as if it's worth the effort, either, because most of us when we're just starting out are at a point that our palate isn't all that well developed. This isn't always the case, but I know from speaking to many people (and I was the same) that most people when they start making espresso at home, don't have really developed palates where espresso is concerned.
There are people who're throwing shots of espresso away that would taste absolutely fine to them, simply because the shot didn't pull within this shot window.
When I first started making espresso at home I started out with a used Gaggia Classic (I paid £100 for it, which seems like a bargain now as their value has risen so much since then) and I paired it with a manual Hario Skerton grinder which I used with a cordless drill to speed it up.
I didn't really know what I was doing, and the espresso I was making back then, made me very happy. These days, I think if I made the same shots I was making back then, I'd be disappointed with it, because my palate for espresso has been developing over a period of several years, but the fact is, I was happy with it then.
It's also important to understand that using home espresso machines often isn't the same as using commercial espresso machines, and a lot of things in espresso including this shot window actually comes from professional barista training. Depending on your espresso machine, your grinder, and the coffee you're using, you might actually experience the worst results by managing land your shot within this particular small shot time window, not the best.
So my main tip to anyone who is new to home espresso, and especially if you're starting out with a relatively enty level setup is to forget the usual very small 4 or 5 second shot window of a total shot time of 25-30 seconds or 28-32 seconds, and instead to be mainly guided by taste.
Shot time is fine as a very rough guide, but I'd recommend a much bigger window of around 15 seconds, aiming for a shot at somewhere between 20 - 35 seconds.
If you're using a traditional espresso machine with standard baskets (not dual walled, pressurised baskets, if you're using these then shot time has no meaning) then I think 20-35 seconds is a much more helpful guide shot time. As long as you're not massively under or over this rough shot time window, most people will find that they're producing relatively good results within this window, and from here you can simply tweak things by taste.
Understanding Extraction Issues
When it comes to the taste of espresso, the two key things we're looking out to which point to something being wrong with extraction is sourness or bitterness.
If you imagine sourness on one side and bitterness on the other side, then speaking very generally, we'd expect a good extraction to result in a taste that doesn't deliver any harsh sourness or bitterness.
If you're picking out strong sourness, along the lines of lemons or grapefruit, just check the taste descriptors for the coffee you're using and check these flavour notes aren't supposed to be there. If they're not, then it's probably under extraction that you're tasting.
If you're tasting obvious bitterness in the shot, then if this is down to extraction, it will be over-extraction you're tasting. I say if it's down to extraction, because it may just be down to the beans you're using, and more on that shortly.
The main ways to deal with under or over-extraction, are to change the grind size, the ratio, (if you're able to) the brew temperature, and to change the coffee beans.
So if you're tasting sourness in the shot, and you suspect under extraction is going on, then the two most obvious things to tweak would be the grind size and the ratio.
Grind size is the obvious change to make, but I'd also encourage upping the ratio, but just change one thing at a time, I wouldn't recommend changing the grind size and the ratio at the same time.
If you're aiming for a 1:2 (for example 36ml of espresso from 18g of ground coffee) just try upping the yield to 45ml (1:2.5) or around 54ml (1:3) and see if the shot is more balanced.
In some cases, the bean you're using may just be particularly nonporous and trying to up the extraction with grind alone may be a struggle.
If you've ever tasted a salami shot (this doesn't involve sausages, it's just splitting a shot into several cups and tasting them at each point) then you'll know what I mean when I say that the first part of a shot usually contains the sourness, and the bitterness is usually towards the end of a shot.
If your shots are unbalanced on the sour side then upping the extraction for example from 1:2 to 1:2.5 or 1:3 is a relatively simple fix.
Tweaking the brew temperature is also a route to go down, but this will depend on your espresso machine and whether it has adjustable brew temperature.
The Importance of The Coffee Beans
What many people don't pay enough attention to when they're trying to figure out why their coffee tastes the way it does, is the beans they're using. If you don't like the taste of your coffee, the most simple fix is to use different coffee.
This isn't necessarily because the coffee beans you're using taste bad, it may just because they're not particularly compatible with your setup.
If you're plagued by overly bitter and burnt-tasting shots, then this could be that you're using supermarket bought coffee, AKA commodity coffee. This is the mainstream of coffee, it's bought roasted and sold in massive volumes, it comes with only a best before date, no roasted on date, and this kind of coffee is often described as tasting bitter.
So if you're struggling with bitterness and you're not using freshly roasted coffee beans, then just be aware that your choice of beans is usually going to be the reason for the bitterness you're experiencing.
If on the other hand, you're finding that you're plagued by sour-tasting shots (and this is very common with people who're getting into speciality coffee, buying from small batch roasters) again this could be to do with the coffee you're using.
Generally speaking, single origins are less forgiving to work with than blends.
It isn't that single origin coffee is sour, it's simply that blends - especially blends that have been specifically created for espresso, are more forgiving on barista skills and equipment.
So someone who is relatively new to espresso and/or someone with a relatively entry level home barista setup will find it easier to get good results with espresso blends, usually, than single origins.
If you wonder why some people spend thousands of pounds on seemingly ridiculously priced espresso setups, quite often this is because the setups in question make it easier to get better results with single origins, and with lighter roasts.
I say "and" with lighter roasts, because it's often the roast level alone that is cited when talking about beans which can be trickier to work with, but I think that's just part of it, it's also down to the bean itself, the altitude, the varietal, the processing method and also the roast level.
If you want to start out with more forgiving blends that will be more likely to give you great results without lots of frustration, I'd highly recommend these blends:
Simplifying Espresso Dose
One final thing to mention when talking about simplifying making espresso at home, is dose.
The dose refers to how much ground coffee is put into the basket, in the portafilter, but it's quite a bit more complex than it sounds.
Usually, you'll be instructed to dose a particular weight of coffee into the basket, for example 18 grams, but what many people don't give credit for is how much a difference the beans and the grind can have on the weight.
The dose in weight is only really important in and of itself to the ratio, meaning that you need to know the dose in grams so that you can achieve the target yield, but the weight of the dose doesn't actually directly impact on extraction, it's only the weight in volume that does.
The headspace (the space between the top of the puck of coffee in the basket, and the shower screen above) is important, because if you overdose the basket resulting on too small a headspace, this can cause problems with the shot.
If the headspace is too small, it doesn't cause problems as such, other than causing a soggy puck which isn't as satisfying to knock out of the portafilter.
When you're adjusting the grind size, and you're focusing purely on dose weight, the volume in the basket will change, so this means that if you're only keeping an eye on the dose weight and not the dose volume (the height of the puck in the basket) then you're changing two variables at the same time, which can make things very confusing.
If you have one of the Sage espresso machines which comes with the razor tool, this is the main job that this clever little tool does. It ensures that the puck height is the same each time, so headspace is one variable that isn't constantly changing.
If you don't have a Sage machine, you can keep an eye on the dose by how far out of the basket the tamper is stands.
I'd usually expect it to look something like this:
So that none (or very little) of the flat part of the tamper is standing proud from the rim. This may differ depending on the tamper you're using though.
Making Home Espresso More Simple, Conclusion
To conclude, espresso making is a complex thing. We're novices (myself included in comparison to professional baristas) trying to develop skills with a small amount of practice each day that pro baristas spend a heck of a lot of time developing.
So while you certainly can work on developing your knowledge and skills, and I do very much hope that this post helps in that regard, we do all need to be realistic, I think, and just go easy on ourselves when it comes to our level of expectation when we're just getting started, especially if we're starting out with a very modest budget.
So just keep in mind that taste is all that really matters, and your palate will develop along with your skill, so I'd recommend not paying too much attention to the numbers (especially shot time), and remember that the coffee beans themselves are the biggest contributing factor to the way your espresso tastes.