Coffee For Dummies
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According to coffee-loving Italians, you need four key elements for perfect espresso. Here they are:
  • Macchina: The espresso machine
  • Macinazione: The proper grinding of the beans—a uniform grind between fine and powdery—that is ideally created moments before brewing the drink
  • Miscela: The coffee blend and the roast
  • Mano: The skilled hand of the barista; even with the finest beans and the most advanced equipment, the shot depends on the touch of the barista
If all these elements come together in harmony, the result is an amazingly intense coffee experience, highlighted by a sweetness and richness that can’t be equaled.

How to make espresso, step by step

The four 'M's are the foundation for making espresso. Whether you’re the barista at home, or you’re in the hands of a professional barista, envision these steps to see the four 'M's in action:
  1. Remove the portafilter from the group head and flush the group head. Removing the portafilter and running hot water through the group head starts it all off.
  2. Wipe the basket clean and dry it. A bit of water and perhaps some older grounds need to be cleaned off in this step.
  3. Dose and distribute the desired grams of coffee. The size of the measured grind particles is the first important variable. Getting your perfectly ground, measured dose of coffee into the portafilter basket is generally a function of the grinder mechanism, but you can easily scoop it in as well.

    Next to particle size, the most important variable is the amount of coffee you use. Early baristas simply eyeballed or approximated how many grams would go into the portafilter basket, but today you can see specific basket sizes for single and double shots, and within those are baskets specific to gram weight so that the dose can be exact. Gram scale measurement of the dose is the rule today. A café or coffee shop will have a recipe—grams in the basket to grams in the liquid output. Here's my formula: 25 to 35ml (.85 to 1.2 ounces) of liquid for 7 to 9 grams of coffee grounds.

  4. Tamp consistently, ergonomically, and level. The barista uses the tamper tool to press down. Then they level the dose and do a bit of cleaning around it. The tamping step is crucial to compacting the coffee; the tamped coffee dose needs to be consistent and level so the water will flow evenly through the coffee.

    coffee tamping Tamping compacts the coffee.

    This step is physically challenging for a beginner, because it takes a bit of muscle. When done incorrectly, it can leave your wrist exposed to injury. (That’s why doing it ergonomically is important.) Watch a skilled barista execute this step, and you’ll see them use their arm as a kind of piston, working from the shoulder and elbow, not the wrist.

  5. Clean the loose grounds from the portafilter surfaces.
  6. Insert the portafilter into the group head and start the pump immediately, as one continuous motion.

    A barista inserts the tamper tool. A barista inserts the tamper tool.

    This moment of inserting and starting is often the most difficult for less experienced baristas, because they often engage the portafilter on the machine and then pause before they begin extraction. Precious seconds elapse, and the quality of the resulting shots is hurt by that delay because the group head is hot. You don’t want it to begin to heat the coffee, so the press the start button immediately to begin extraction.

  7. Observe the flow and stop the pump appropriately.
  8. Serve the espresso, or use it to make an espresso-based drink.
  9. Remove the portafilter and knock out the spent grounds.
  10. Wipe the basket clean and flush the group head; rinsing is optional.
  11. Return the portafilter to the group head to keep it preheated.

Steps 1 to 5 tell how to place the coffee in the portafilter, and a barista can assess its potential almost immediately in Steps 6 and 7. If the shot liquid comes out fast, the grind is probably too coarse; if it is slow or does not begin at all, the grind is most likely too fine.

The perfect shot

The breakdown of a perfect shot is well documented, and it should feature the following:

  • Heart: The deep, dark liquid core
  • Body: A golden brown liquid just above the heart that looks almost alive as it is pouring or streaming
  • Crema: A lighter-golden creamy layer on top.
You can see the breakdown here. You’re ready to enjoy this shot.

An espresso shot © John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
An espresso shot.

Adding milk or an alternative

Many espresso recipes call for steamed milk or an alternative like soymilk or almond milk, also steamed. If your drink order requires milk, the barista has it nearby and ready to go. The barista steams the milk or milk alternative with a steaming pitcher to accomplish two tasks:

barista steams the milk The barista steams the milk with the steaming wand.
  • To add air to the milk
  • To heat the milk
As the milk foams, it’s heating up, adding volume, becoming creamier, and getting sweeter. Your barista knows the milk is perfectly steamed when it seems to have the smooth, somewhat viscous texture of latex paint (without the taste, thank heaven). Milk with that look will have a rich, creamy sweetness. When it’s coupled with the sharper, complex flavor of the espresso in a drink, the result is a heavenly mixture enjoyed by millions of coffee drinkers around the world every day.

Getting the right temperature for the milk is key. Between 120°F and 140°F (49°C to 60°C) is considered ideal. Although opinions vary widely about what this perfect temperature is, milk that’s too hot (154°F or 68°C) can result in an unpleasant taste.

As to the temperature between lukewarm and scalding, I’ve always believed consumers know what they want. If you receive a beverage in a café that isn’t exactly what you want, it’s completely okay to ask for it be re-made. (Remember a little sweetness when asking goes a long way.) In fact, good baristas appreciate customers telling them the temperature they prefer when they order. It helps them make a perfect drink!

Espresso and milk beverages are rarely served today without an added element of latte art. Keep in mind that the latte art pour is just a beautiful finishing touch. A great deal needs to happen before that final flair to ensure a high-quality, great-tasting beverage.

If you make espresso at home and your drink recipe calls for dairy or an alternative, make sure you have the milk ready before you pull the necessary shots. You’ll want to use finished shots as soon as you make them.

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