2016-11-23

Brew Guide: Espresso

Brewing espresso isn’t terribly complex, but a skill many of us don’t have unless we spent some of our formative years working at a coffee shop. So if you just splurged on a machine (investment piece, am I right?), it’s time to learn. Naturally.

So as with any brew method, grind, weight and time are key variables. When you get it right, it should be balanced, viscous, and sweet, with a joyous depth. So here we go, step by step.

Step 1: Clean & Dose
Remove the portafilter (the metal cup in the basket). Clean and wipe out the basket, removing any residue or oils from a previous use. Next? Grind and measure the coffee.

The traditional Italian standard for a double shot of espresso calls for only 14 grams, however, in modern specialty cafes the dose is significantly higher. We recommend experimenting with what you like but a typical dose for a double basket is anywhere between 16 to 22 or even 24 grams (if you are on the west coast).

The grind for espresso is very fine but it is still granular, if your grind has the consistency of powdered sugar is it likely too fine. Tap the basket with the heel of your hand to settle the grind and distribute the coffee evenly with your finger. Swipe back and forth.

Step 2: Level
Why is levelling so important? An unlevelled or lumpy coffee bed will have different pockets of thickness (density) once tamped, which causes water to run through the coffee more quickly than others. This results in uneven extraction yield. The espresso will have an abundance of tartness, and dry, bitter or unpleasant notes without much sweetness to balance them out. Improving your distribution is an easy and often overlooked way of improving your espresso shots.

Step 3: Tamp
Now tamp (with the tamper, of course) until it feels like the coffee is pushing back. Place the portafilter on a flat surface and place the tamper level on top of the grounds. Apply pressure downwards, not too hard, but enough to seal the coffee in evenly. You want to apply consistent, firm pressure. Then turn, polishing the grounds for an even extraction. Double check to see if your coffee bed is level. If it’s not, redistribute the grinds and tamp again.

Step 4: Flush
Purge water through the machine (or grouphead -- that is, push brew without the portafilter). This will clean any residue left on the screen.

Step 5: Extraction
Position the portafilter in the grouphead (you’re learning so many new words). It should be snug. And like a puzzle piece in the right place, you’ll know when it fits. (It should slide easily to 6 o’clock.) Ensure you don’t destabilize the puck you  worked so hard to form. You don’t want there to be any cracks or lumps.

Place the cup under the portafilter. Start a timer and press brew. It should take about 23 to 28 seconds to brew 1.5 to 2.0 ounces (by volume) of espresso. If it takes too long this means your grind is too fine; if it’s too fast it means it’s too coarse.

The shot should start with a slow drip, and develop into a gentle even stream. There should be crema on the top, the colour of the crema should be a brownish orange. If it is blond in colour it usually means your coffee is under extracted (next time grind finer); and if it has a dark brown ring around it that usually means it is over extracted (grind coarser).

Step 6: Serve
Serve! You can drink straight, with sugar, with a drop or two of milk, stirred, as is, or with sparkling water back. Try it and decide for yourself!

Step 7: Clean
One more step! Remove the portafilter from the grouphead and knock out the puck. Wipe the basket clean and flush the grouphead with hot water for 3 seconds. Now you’re done! Don’t miss this step. You don’t want the grind to dry in the portafilter, clogging things up for next time.

Prepare to dazzle at your next dinner party. Or just impress yourself in the morning.

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