Acing Espresso at Home

at-home espressoThe espresso machine can be a formidable piece of equipment, and mastering espresso at home can seem like an equally formidable task. But set the fears aside. With the right tools, a willingness to practice and focus, and some expert advice, you can be pulling perfect espresso shots in no time. Here, La Marzocco’s home education expert Zach Wright helps break down the nitty gritty of espresso prep.

First, to kick the intimidation factor, think about espresso—a concentrated shot of coffee produced by pressure brewing—as just another way to make coffee. “It’s a brew method, just like French press, pour-over, drip coffee,” says Wright. “It just has a much smaller ratio. Where a normal drip coffee might have a 1:16 ratio (coffee:water), espresso is more like 1:2.”

Another major difference? Speed. “Everything is quicker and more intense,” Wright says. While brewing a cup of drip coffee can take between 3-5 minutes, pulling an espresso shot takes, on average, between 20-35 seconds. “Because pressure is applied to the coffee to help with extraction (as opposed to letting gravity drain the water), the brewing process is expedited.”

This rapid process means exactitude is essential. To get that perfect cup, start by stocking up on the right equipment. In addition to a well-made espresso machine (such as the Linea Mini), you’ll need a scale, burr grinder and tamper. Wright’s go-to scale is the Acaia Lunar, which tracks users’ coffee-brewing habits on their journey to the perfect shot. Other more modestly priced options include features like auto-taring (subtracting the weight of the container to get an accurate read on the weight of the beans) for under $100. When purchasing a tamper, a flat and even surface is crucial. Also make sure it’s the correct size for your espresso machine’s portafilter basket as “covering the whole bed of coffee during tamping is key,” says Wright.

Similar to drip brewing, a burr grinder is the only way to go about cleanly milling uniformly ground beans for an espresso grind. At home, Wright uses La Marzocco’s quick and espresso-specific Lux-D by Mazzer, and Baratza’s Sette 30 AP is another great option, but there many choices available that feature a variety of grind settings for numerous brewing methods, including espresso, such as the Baratza Virtuoso.

But before you get to grinding, be sure to test the hardness of your water. Hard, sediment-filled water can cause blockage in the passageways of espresso machines, but water that is too soft can be corrosive. “Water makes up something like 98% of your brewed coffee, and all [of coffee’s fats, oils and sugars] can’t extract properly if your water is out of whack,” says Wright, who recommends chatting with the baristas at your favorite local café about water filtration. You can purchase affordable water softening and filtration systems online.

Once you’ve got your tools and you’re set up, it’s time to practice pulling shots. “Starting off, it’s important to have a recipe to shoot for,” Wright says. He recommends nailing down the specs (amount of ground coffee, water, time) before brewing and teaches the following process in-class:

  1. Remove your portafilter, clean and dry it completely.
  2. Place the portafilter on a scale and zero it out.
  3. With your dose ‘in’ of ground coffee in mind (usually 17-20 grams) grind the coffee directly into your portafilter.
  4. Tamp your coffee. You want to make sure you press evenly and enough to create a puck in your portafilter. We usually say, “Tamp until you feel the coffee push back.”
  5. In order to get rid of any old coffee grounds or oils from previous shots you’ve pulled, be sure to purge some water out of the group head (the spot that holds your portafilter in place during the brew process).
  6. Place your portafilter back into the group head, then place a scale and cup underneath—this is to brew your espresso into.
  7. Turn on the flow of the machine and watch for your target weight ‘out,’ stopping the flow a few grams before. “Starting with 17-20 grams in, you can aim for 34-40 grams of espresso out,” Wright says, however that approximation shouldn’t be thought of as a hard and fast rule. “Target weights out change from coffee to coffee, so it’s generally best to find out the recommended weight from your roaster and work toward that.”

Throughout the process, remember that patience and practice are key. “If you’re under your target shot time, you may need to grind finer. If you’re over your time, grind courser,” says Wright. “As a home barista, you have the freedom to make everything perfect, so enjoy the process and with patience and practice, you’ll most likely start making yourself some of the best coffee you’ve ever had.”

Finally, test for quality. Espresso’s concentrated form means that flavors are amplified. “There are definitely characteristics of a great espresso, but one of the first questions I think anybody tasting espresso should ask is, ‘Do I like the taste or not?’ Coffee should be delicious—otherwise why spend all of this time and energy preparing it?” Wright says. Ideally a great shot will carry a well-rounded balance of acidity, sweetness and bitterness. “Usually the first thing to change when your espresso is overly sour is to add more water to the same amount of coffee, and to add less when it’s overly bitter or ashy,” he says. “It gets super fun when you realize every coffee is different, too.”

“Tackling home espresso is challenging, but it’s a fun pursuit, and if you’re interested in diving in, you absolutely should—there are more educational resources available to home baristas now than ever before,” says Wright.

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