The perfect espresso

Espresso is my coffee of choice, although it wasn’t always. In fact, I came from the opposite end of the spectrum and by no reason other than the changing nature of my taste buds ended up preferring the taste of coffee in its purest form than with anything else.

The change was gradual and slow, spanning more years than I can remember. It began in the Philippines drinking Nescafe 3-in-1 (sugar, instant powdered milk and nescafe all mixed together in one small sachet), followed by drinking Cappuccinos/Moccas in high street coffee chains, to making my own coffee at home with milk and 3 1/2 heaping teaspoons of sugar (which gradually became 3… 2… 1… a half… then none), to moving on to flat-white’s, eventually macchiato’s, and then finally only in the last several months discovered that even the milk foam on a macchiato hampered my coffee enjoyment.

So I’ve arrived at the espresso.

Some people think making an espresso is the easiest of all the espresso based coffee drinks because you don’t have to worry about milk-frothing, balancing the perfect ratio of coffee to milk to foam, etc. These are probably the same people who don’t know how to make a great espresso.

Making a perfect cup of espresso requires good shots with lots of crema, and to do this you need to get ALL the variables right.

The variables:

Fresh Beans

Beans roasted 12-24 hours before you grind them are the freshest possible beans you could have, and definitely fresher than almost any storebought bean you could get. Most beans need to “degas” a bit after roasting, so 12 hours is a good wait time. Beans begin to oxidize almost immediately which in turn damages them. This means that beans capable of producing great crema a day after they were roasted might produce no crema at all 7 days after they were roasted (and kept in any environment that contains oxygen, including sealed tight jars). Fresh beans are key – and keep them whole until just before you want to brew. Of course, grind the beans only seconds before you pull your espresso shot.
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Adequate machine

This means you have a machine capable of heating water to desired brew temperatures (approximately 90 to 96C) and capable of delivering the water at least 9BAR (about 130PSI) of pressure in a consistent, sustained manner. It must also be able to maintain the brewing temperature during the shot. The machine should be well maintained and clean, especially around the brewhead and portafilter.

Adequate tamp

Some people claim tamping your espresso ground coffee isn’t necessary (and they let the brewhead of the machine do the tamping), but most most modern day espresso experts believe tamping is a variable you must control on your own to get consistently great shots. One noted expert, David Schomer, recommends a 30 pound tamp. 20lbs or less allows too much water to find a “path of least resistance” around your grinds, instead of fully saturating it. The result is less extraction from your grounds.

Adequate grind

This goes hand in hand with your tamp. You should grind to a fineness that, tied in with a 30 lb tamping pressure, delivers you a 25 second shot. If the shots are too short in time for 2.5 oz in a double, the grind needs to be finer. If the shots are too long in time, the grind needs to be coarser.

Extraction time

The ideal extraction time (when heated water touches a bed of coffee) is between 25 and 30 seconds. Under that time, and you end up with sour, underextracted coffee. Over that time, and you start to introduce unwanted bitters to the cup. The sweet spot is between 25 and 30 seconds, if all your other variables are spot on.

Fresh water

This one is a given, and quite obvious. Use fresh filtered water. Espresso is 97-98% water after all.

Getting all the variables above correct will guarantee an espresso with little to no bitterness on the taste, a  rich and full crema, a slight bitter-sweet aftertaste (like dark chocolate) and a good thick shot!

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