Espresso 101: The Basics

by That's Coffee on March 15, 2011

Espresso is an Italian term commonly understood as “made quickly” just for you. Some may also say that espresso quickly perks you up and makes you more alert. Well with this article, I hope to quickly educate you on the basics of espresso and give you some tips for knowing how to identify good espresso and make good espresso yourself.

esprseso

What is Espresso?

You’ve likely noticed that espresso is the base of most specialty coffee beverages. In any coffee shop, espresso should be made to order and added to the rest of the drink or consumed immediately for best taste.  But what exactly is espresso besides a quick way to gain energy?

Some may think that espresso is espresso because of the bean, blend or roast of coffee. But the truth is espresso is espresso because of the method that is used to prepare it.

Essentially, espresso is made by pushing a highly pressurized stream of water through finely ground and firmly packed coffee beans. The end result is a small amount (1 to 2 oz) of a very dark, thick mixture that should have a foamy layer of crema on the top. Because of its very small amount, espresso has a much stronger taste than brewed coffee. You can think of it as a very concentrated coffee drink.

The Espresso Machine

Espresso machines can range in size from a personal one that sits on your kitchen counter to a heavy duty industrial one you see in your favorite coffee shop. While appearance and size may differ, there are common features to all machines:espresso-machine-components

  • Portafilter – has a “portable filter” attached to the handle where you place and pack the coffee grinds. The handle is then inserted up into the machine so that water can express the coffee.
  • Espresso Spout – two spigots at the bottom of the portafilter where streams of espresso pour into the cup below it.
  • Water Reservoir – industrial machines are usually connected to their own water source that fills the reservoir. At home machines will likely have an opening where water is manually added and then heated.
  • Cup Warming Tray – the tops of espresso machines are usually hot because of the steam and high pressure water. The benefit is that it provides a nice place to store and preheat your mugs!
  • Steam Wand – the same steam that creates pressure to make the espresso is also used to steam milk or milk substitutes that can be used for lattes, cappuccinos, mochas and so on. This is what creates that hissing sound you commonly  hear in a coffee shop.

Does it Matter What Beans I Use?

Some may argue yes – espresso is typically made from a dark roast bean similar to the French Roast. However, as with most coffee drinks, it is a matter of personal taste. Any roast you choose, if made right, will offer good espresso. If you like a stronger, bitter coffee choose a darker roast; if you like a lighter coffee; use a lighter roast.

Characteristics of Good Espresso

The term “tastes good” is extremely relative to the person doing the tasting. However, most coffee connoisseurs have a general agreement over what good espresso is.

  • Cream – known as crema, the layer that forms on the top of espresso should be a golden caramel color.
  • Aroma – taste is strongly governed by smell – good espresso should smell appealing to the nose. Often you can simply smell that the espresso is too bitter!
  • Body – should be filled with a creamy layer and the mouth should feel a sensation of fullness when drinking espresso
  • Flavor – ideal espresso has a very even balance between bitter and sweet. Often, poorly made espresso has a very strong bitter taste
  • Lasting Flavor – good espresso should leave an aftertaste on your tongue. Micro drops of oil and liquid from the espresso get trapped on the surface of the tongue and keep the flavor of espresso around for 15 minutes after drinking it

Tips for Making Great Espresso

Preheat the glass in which you are serving the espresso.

Grind your beans fresh just prior to making espresso. It may make the process longer but it is well worth it.

Use the right grind; the grind should be fine, but not too fine. There is a very fine line! One trick is to run a test shot. Ideally, it should run for 25 to 30 seconds. If it runs short, that means the water is running through it too fast and the grind is too course. If it runs too long, the water is taking too long to run through and the grind is too fine. I like to think of the coffee grounds as rocks – water runs faster over a pile of boulders but slowly through gravel. Adjust the grinds accordingly to get the perfect running time.

If you like a sweeter tasting espresso,  stop the flow of water after 17 seconds. If you like the stronger, bitter taste, top the flow after 25 to 30 seconds.

The stream of espresso should look like a spaghetti noodle or a mouse’s tail (I know it’s gross but this is what I was taught in Barista training) as it comes out the spout and into your cup.

A thick crema should form on the top of the espresso; it should have a dark golden caramel color. If you have achieved crema, congratulations, you mastered the art of making espresso!

Now What?

Some people enjoy pure espresso; it is a good boost in caffeine levels. But most find the taste too bitter and struggle to drink the 1 to 2 steaming ounces. Stay tuned for espresso-based specialty drinks such as Americanos, Mistos, Cappucinos, Mochas and Lattes!

“Espresso 101”
courtesy of your online coffee bean store:
Gourmet Coffee Beans

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