Making Espresso – Traditional & Alternative Brewing Methods

Espresso is a beautiful and complex beverage. For many coffee lovers, the essence of great coffee is best captured in the creamy, sweet syrup of a perfectly pulled shot of espresso.

The popularity of espresso in most parts of the world, though, has dwindled under the onslaught of giant, super-sweet, milky drinks.

A big part of the decline in espresso’s popularity is due to some fundamental misconceptions about this coffee preparation method. Mainstream coffee culture has painted the espresso as a bitter, noxious potion with no purpose other than to deliver large amounts of caffeine quickly. When people are brave enough to order one in a coffee shop or restaurant, they often get a poorly made shot that reinforces this negative image.

A well-prepared espresso should be sweet, smooth, and creamy, with just a hint of pleasant bitterness.

To gain a better understanding of this much-maligned coffee drink, let’s take a look at some of the most common questions people ask about espresso.

What is Espresso?

coffee cup in Espresso machine

The most common misconceptions about espresso are that it’s made from a specific type of coffee bean or that it’s a label for a particular style of roasting.

The definition of espresso has nothing to do with the origin or type of coffee bean, and it’s not a roasting style either (we’ll talk more about this in a second).

In reality, what makes espresso different from any other coffee is how it’s prepared. The official Specialty Coffee Association’s definition of espresso goes like this:

Espresso is a 25–35ml (. 85–1.2 ounce [×2 for double]) beverage prepared from 7–9 grams (14–18 grams for a double) of coffee through which clean water of 195–205F (90.5–96.1C) has been forced at 9–10 atmospheres of pressure, and where the grind of the coffee is such that the brew time is 20–30 seconds.

While that’s great for professionals in a lab setting or a high-end cafe, all you need to know is that espresso is a tiny, highly concentrated coffee beverage that’s brewed under high pressure in a short amount of time.

The most important thing to notice about the SCA definition of espresso is that it doesn’t mention the kind of coffee used, the roast, or any requirements other than how the drink is prepared.

What Coffee to Use (Espresso Roast VS Drip Roast)?

coffee cup with teapot with roasted beans

Coffee roasting is a diverse and complicated process. The number of different roasting styles and methods is limited only by the number of different people who roast coffee.

Most coffee consumers associate roasting with terms like dark, light, or bold. The problem is that none of these terms have any objective meaning.

There is no accepted definition of what counts as a “dark” roast or a “French” roast.

Even more meaningless is the commonly-used espresso roast” applied to coffee that is roasted very dark.

Espresso is a preparation method, not a roast, so this term is utterly meaningless. Worse, it has sown confusion among the coffee-drinking public and caused people to associate espresso with dark roasting.

The darker a coffee is roasted the more bitter it will taste. When coffee is roasted extremely dark, as with most so-called espresso roasts,” it will taste just like what it is: charred wood fibers.

In reality, the best espresso is made using medium-roasted, or even lightly roasted beans. At lighter roast levels, more of the oils and sugars are preserved in the coffee and this leads to a sweeter and more balanced espresso with a pleasing syrupy body.

How to Make Espresso

The first step to making espresso is to purchase an espresso machine. Unless you have serious engineering skills and access to specialized materials, there’s no way around it.

A good home espresso machine can run you more than $3,000, but there are a number of good options on the market these days.

Of course, owning an espresso machine will not make you an expert barista. Pulling great shots takes time, patience, and perseverance. Some people spend decades perfecting the craft of espresso extraction.

To get you started on your path to espresso mastery, let’s take a look at the basic steps to pulling a shot of espresso.

Grind coffee

Grind

Espresso is made using a very fine grind, but there’s more to it than just fineness. Commercial espresso grinders (and some high-end home grinders) use infinitely adjustable grind settings.

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This allows the barista to dial in an extremely fine-tuned grind coarseness that’s necessary to make espresso extract properly.
If your ground coffee particles are too big, the water will flow through quickly and you’ll get thin, over-extracted brown water in your cup.

If your coffee particles are too small, the water will be blocked entirely or you’ll get just a few drops of black oil with a taste like the floor of a coal-fired furnace.

 

Dose of coffee

Dose

The amount of coffee you use is just as important as the quality of your grind. A standard shot of espresso according to the Specialty Coffee Association is made using 7-9 grams of ground coffee.

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Of course, these days almost everyone pulls double shots, so you’ll usually put 14-18 grams of coffee in your basket. Using more coffee makes the resulting espresso stronger, and less coffee makes the brew weaker. A stronger double shot espresso is referred to as doppio, while a a lighter espresso is called a ristretto.

Where things get tricky is that the grind and dose are closely tied. If you change your dose even a tiny bit, you’ll also have to change the grind to maintain the same results.

 

coffee Tamping

Tamp

Tamping is the process of compressing the coffee grounds into the portafilter basket (the removable filter on the espresso machine). It’s important to make sure that the water flows through the coffee bed evenly to extract all the coffee to the same level.

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Tamping is crucial because it levels out the coffee and presses it into a uniform “puck” to help even out the flow. The tamp is one of the hardest things to learn as a barista. Even some high-profile professional baristas have not mastered proper tamping.

Even tamping is such a challenge that a few companies have invented automatic tamping machines to help baristas get an even extraction. These machines are great for consistency, but they take some of the art and individuality out of the espresso-making process.

 

Espresso extraction

Extract

Espresso extraction is beautiful and complicated. When it goes right, the coffee should fall from the tips of the spouts on the portafilter in a smooth, even stream about the consistency of warm honey.

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Brewing a shot of espresso takes about 30 seconds and during that time there’s a lot to pay attention to. At the beginning of the extraction, the streams will be dark and oily. A few seconds in, the streams change to a nut-brown or golden-brown, creamy-looking flow. As the extraction completes (the good part anyway), the streams will begin to change to a lighter almost yellow color.

Stopping your extraction at just the right instant makes the difference between a perfectly sweet, balanced shot and a bitter, over-extracted, watery mess.

The exact colors and consistencies will be different for every coffee bean, but a good espresso generally will have the following visual characteristics in the cup:

  • A thick, golden-brown or red-brown layer foam called crema.
  • Flecks of darker oils on top of the crema.
  • A viscous consistency that sticks to the sides of the cup when swirled.

If you see little spots of white or very light brown in the middle of your cup, it probably means that you’ve gone too far. The white spots are a sign of over-extraction and usually indicate that your espresso will taste bitter.


Other Ways to Make an Espresso Shot

There are many ways to make a cup of coffee, but there are few methods that will give you a genuine shot of espresso. These methods might sound more practical than others and you’ll want to know which ones are going to work the best. Here are some of the easiest methods to get excellent results each and every time. The trick is to follow these practical steps that can give you the kind of espresso you’ll love to drink by itself or in a coffee drink.

Aeropress

Aeropress parts

Aeropress is a great way to great a shot of espresso when you start with these steps:

  1. Instead of one filter in your Aeropress, you’ll want to use two. If you use a screen or mesh filter, then use a regular mesh filter with a regular paper filter. The secret is to pre-soak the filter so it’s already primed. Once you’re ready to brew, get your Aeropress vessel ready for the coffee grounds.
  2. The grind for making good espresso starts with having a grind that is similar to fine sand because the Aeropress isn’t going to act like a real espresso machine. Using fine powdery coffee grounds will simply clog your Aeropress, so don’t do it. Now add about 2 tablespoons of coffee grounds to your vessel, adding a bit more than you normally would add will increase the flavor intensity.
  3. Now you add 3 ounces of clean and filtered water that’s been heated to 200F degrees. Mix your coffee as quickly as you can for 20 seconds allowing the coffee to bloom and off-gas. Now put in the plunger and using steady and hard pressure, extract the coffee into your mug. Be careful to not push like a madman since steady and substantial pressure will produce a great espresso result.

Moka Pot

man presenting coffee in cup from moka pot

You can always make a fine espresso from a Moka pot since the pressure is just right.

  1. When you want to produce a smooth and tasty espresso blend, it doesn’t matter how powdery your coffee beans have been ground into, it will force the water through the built-in filter just fine. The best grind setting for a Moka Pot is medium-fine to finely ground coffee. Instead of adding the entire amount of water for a single serving, only use half the water.
  2. Prepare your water by using clean filtered water rather than regular tap water. To get great results, preheat your water before adding it by warming it up in the microwave. Not only will this produce a double shot of espresso, but it also gives you the foamy crema that you’ll always get with real espresso machines. Another thing to remember with a Moka pot is to keep the heat on medium-low since the heat is not what makes it work.
  3. The pressure that builds inside a Moka pot is sufficient enough to force finely ground coffee through the filter of any Moka Press. If you want to have a very fine espresso with no grit in it, requires that you add a small piece of coffee filter pressed into the area where your filter is sitting. Trim around the filter to cut off the excess paper.

French Press

french press with coffee beans pack and cup

A French press can produce espresso-like coffee if you follow these tips to get the best results:

  1. Select the grind of your coffee beans to be a finely ground powder. Your French Press won’t have a filter that can keep the fine grip out of your coffee so you need to add a coffee over your regular filter. Wrap it around the filter and spring coil that’s inserted into the vessel. Use about 2 tablespoons of coffee that will go into the water.
  2. Preheat your water in a kettle up to 200F degrees and add half a cup of water into your French Press vessel. Then add your 2 tablespoons (or more) of fine-ground coffee beans. Give this a good mix for at least 20 seconds, allowing it to bloom. Give it a final mix before you put the plunger on top.
  3. The coffee filter that you wrap around your French Press filter is not so tricky, just be careful to keep the edges nice and uniform with no wrinkles along the rounded edges. This is then inserted into the vessel and the cap is secured. The real challenge here is to make a slow and steady plunge to the bottom. There’s more than enough clean-up afterward cleaning out your press, but the results are worth it.

Manual pull espresso machines

flair espresso pro

These manual level single espresso makers are showing up everywhere can also do the trick:

  1. The biggest noob mistake you can make with these level espresso machines is not making the right amount of pressure while pushing down on the handle. it’s a single pump to get one single shot of espresso, so having the upper hand (so-to-speak) is the key to success. Put the machine on a table that is lower than your hips. A chair or coffee table will work perfectly.
  2. Load up your filter chamber with finely ground coffee beans. Then pour in pre-boiled water that is 200F degrees in a kettle up to the waterline. Place the plunger on top and a ready cup underneath. Using a nice and steady single push, you can get the espresso coffee to filter through in a quick and even push downward. Optimally, you want to have at least 45 pounds of pressure working in your favor.
  3. Because you are using gravity to your advantage, there is little or no straining and you’re using your body weight to give the force needed work to your advantage. This way, you can make several cups of espresso in record time for many people who want great tasting espresso. Always make sure your kettle has a thermometer to ensure the temperature is always 200F degrees when you pour it into the lever-operated machine.