After a brief background on espresso myths and what espresso isn't, it's time to get down to business. Just what makes espresso happen? What do you mean there's more to it than the machine? Let's discuss what I consider to be the five most important ingredients of espresso making.
5 Factors contributing to successful espresso
In Italy there is a set of four basic elements which comprise the path to perfect espresso, commonly referred to as the "4 m's". Others tack on a fifth m, this one referring to maintenance. While I believe maintenance to be important I propose my own fifth element for the purpose of this post (related to the 4th, but in my opinion important enough to merit standing on its own). So the 4 m's and a p.
- Miscela: the espresso blend, the beans.
- Macinadosatore: the dosing grinder and the grind.
- Macchina: the machine.
- Mano dell'operatore: the hand of the operator, including the tamp and that which is under the control of the barista.
1. The Beans / Miscela
Coffee beans are grown around the world and fans will argue their preferences until blue in the face. Origin can play an important role and it's worth tasting a variety of coffees from around the world. The most accepted view is that Arabica beans are best, but most espresso is extracted from a blend of different coffees. Often these blends will include a small amount of the less favoured Robusta in order to ensure a good crema.
There are four different coffee roasts: light, medium, dark, and very dark, the latter two being what we generally conceive as best for espresso.
2. The Grind / Macinadosatore
It's funny to me how most people would agree fresh is always better but many let this concept slide when it comes to coffee. Fresh is important if you want a good shot and, coupled with an even grind, you'll really spot the difference between a shot made with pre-packaged or badly ground coffee versus a shot from a fresh and even grind.
There are two primary types of coffee grinders: the burr grinder and the more common blade grinder. The latter are what you'll mainly see for sale at the local shops and are not in any way suitable for grinding espresso. A burr grinder costs more, but if you are serious about coffee then this should arguably be your greatest investment. A good burr grinder can be adjusted to produce a variety of consistent grain sizes, an important factor when you consider your end goal, which is to produce a shot of good espresso.
To better explain that point, it's important to note just what espresso is. It's a drink made from 5-10 grams of finely ground coffee which, under 9 bar of brewing pressure and with water between 194-204 degrees Fahrenheit, produces a 30ml (approx) shot when extracted between 20-30 seconds.
This drink cannot be easily achieved with an uneven or too large grind no matter how hard you pack it down, and that's the sort of grind you will get with a cheap blade grinder.
Buy a £1,000 home espresso machine without a good burr grinder and you'll still only pull mediocre shots at best.
3. The Equipment / Macchina
I've already discussed the espresso machine to some extent (see point 3 in that post), but want to explain further why it's important to buy a pump machine and also why the machine won't ever be the solo star in your dream shot.
The definition of espresso I provided above is actually quite a basic one. You're probably thinking "how is that basic?"
That's my point. It's not. While many espresso machines will come with just 3 basic switches: power, pump, and steam, espresso is a beverage which demands some seriously precise conditions. You need a machine capable of producing 9 bar of pressure, but that's not enough on its own because the machine also needs to be able to maintain accurate temperatures on multiple levels (the boiler will reach different temperatures for espresso brewing and milk frothing, for instance).
And now, after demanding you find and pay for quality, I tell you the machine isn't the most important aspect of the process. Consider a chef who is attempting the creation of a stunning meal using only mediocre kitchen tools. Sure, the style may be lost and it may be a more cumbersome task, but the end result still streams from two more important factors: quality ingredients and an experienced chef. The same applies for coffee, only the ingredients are the freshly burr-ground coffee and the barista becomes the chef.
4. Barista Skills / Mano dell'operatore
This element, combined with the grinder, are in my opinion the most important factors to consider in the espresso process. You don't need to have a rack of barista championship trophies in order to make a good shot, but you do need some know-how.
The tamp (packing the coffee into a tight puck in the basket) is crucial in the espresso brewing process. People underestimate the importance of this step, one which ensures the water flow to extract your espresso shot under ideal conditions. Properly tamped coffee ensures the water is forced evenly through all of the coffee rather than through some of it, which is what happens when the tamp is uneven.
Think of it this way: you've got a powerful machine producing a whole lot of pressure and the water is trying to find its way down the path of lesser pressure (which in this case is out through the coffee). An even and solid tamp creates a resistance of sorts to the initial pressure, so instead of the water finding the path of least resistance (that is, the path of less densely packed coffee) it has to push evenly through the grind. The end result? You get a quality shot rather than just a measure of strong coffee.
The tamp really can make or break that shot.
There are always several parts to one whole, and this is perhaps one of the most overlooked. Unless you have a super automatic machine which does it all, you're going to spend some serious time getting the hang of this. And after you get the hang of it you'll spend yet more time making your shot better. That still won't be good enough, so after that you'll spend the rest of your days seeking absolute espresso perfection.
Don't be afraid to mess up, because that's how we best learn to do it better the next time. In fact I'd even recommend purposely going against all the recommended methods just to see how coffee shouldn't be. Consume shots from the chains, local establishments, and other wannabe home baristas. Try everything you can and learn to tell right from wrong when you taste a shot so can apply better techniques to your own efforts.
Oh, and don't do this for no reason other than to impress your partner's boss or your upper middle class neighbours. Do it because you want to learn how, a must if you want to pull a better shot (see above about time dedication). A machine which sits on the counter to be used as a declaration of your bank balance when the mom of your kid's friend collects them simply won't do; you have to learn how to use the sucker regularly to get anywhere.
Stay Tuned: What's behind the names: an espresso beverage guide
Espresso is complicated business, one which merits a constant education and never-ending practice. To further the confusion are the plethora of espresso based and other coffee drinks on the market, many of which are misrepresented by coffee shops. Stay tuned for the next post on coffee drinks and why Starbucks' ballsup of a macchiato is actually just a bad latte.