To make the best shot of espresso I know how:
1. Start with the best, freshest espresso beans you can find. Alakef Roasteries in Duluth is the supplier of the shop I used to work at.
2. Grind the beans right before you make your shots.
3. Fill the basket with ground so it's even with the top, then tamp it down under about 25 pounds of pressure. (Some grinders have tampers built on, and you lift the basket into the tamper. For these, it's properly tamped when you barely lift the grinder.) If you tamp it too much, the water will not go through the grounds, and if it's not tamped enough, the water will run straight through.
A good shot will take about 20 seconds from start to finish (18-22 is usually acceptable), and the stream should be a smooth, constant drizzle. This has been likened to a rat tail, if this helps you picture the stream. Just picture a smooth stream coming from your kitchen faucet. It should look like that, only smaller. If a shot is too short or too long, there are two things to do:
1. If you are tamping by hand, change how hard you tamp, tighter if the shot was short, ligher if the shot was long. If you are using the tamper on your grinder, or you know you are tamping the proper amount, DO NOT TAMP HARDER OR LIGHTER.
2. Adjust the grind of the espresso beans. There is a knob on most commercial grinders which you can turn to adjust the distance between the burrs in the grinder. The grind and consistency of the espresso grounds varies with temperature, humidity, and quality of the beans. Again, if the shot was fast, make the grind smaller. If the shot was slow, make the grind larger. Once this is perfected, your shots should turn out perfect every time. Enjoy!
Coffee absorbs more caffeine the longer it's in contact with the coffee grounds. so, slow-drip coffee has quite a lot of caffeine in it, since it's in contact with the grounds for a few minutes.

However, the water used to make espresso is only in contact with the grounds for 20 seconds. therefore, espresso is a fairly low-level caffienated drink, albeit a strongly flavored one.

Espresso, being a traditional Italian beverage, has several characteristics; Parameters if you will. The true espresso (not eXpresso as most infidels like to spell it these days) extraction will take between 20-30 seconds. Tamping the espresso into the portafilter (30lbs of pressure is required. No mean feat for the limp wristed among us!) before preforming the extraction can only vary the length of the shot by one second either way. It is the grind which is most important in determining the quality of the espresso. A fine grind will compact quite easily, not allowing the water through. This causes a longer, overextracted shot. If the grind is too coarse, the water will flush through the espresso and hardly anything worth drinking will be extracted. It is important to note the condition of the grind during the day, and make constant adjustments; Changes in humidity, air pressure and temperature can affect it significantly in a short period of time.

Keeping all this in mind, the best shot of espresso one could pull would last exactly 30 seconds, be 1 - 1.25oz, have a thick, hazel coloured creme and very little or no white spots (they indicate overextraction -- a lot of white in the creme means bad news when the customer takes that first taste).

If your espresso machine is clean, properly calibrated (203 degrees F, 3 atmospheres of pressure), and your grind is correct, a nearly perfect espresso shot can be pulled rather easily. Nevertheless, there are some things that can screw up your image as a Barista if you're not careful:

  • If the portafilter is not dumped and cleaned of any remaining grounds after pulling a shot, you will have a hard time cleaning it at the end of the night. Not to mention that your shots will be substandard. The ground coffee gets stuck in the tiny holes at the bottom of the filter and is nearly impossible to remove with standard "espresso machine cleaner". The solution to this quandary is as easy as finding a toothpick. Simply hold the filter up to the light (after removing it from the handle) and use the toothpick to push the plugged holes clear... From the back to the front. Rinse and repeat until there are no plugged holes.
  • If the portafilter is not rotated into the gasket of the espresso machine tightly enough, the pressure will cause a blowout. I've seen this happen, and by God it makes a mess. To ensure this never happens, remove all excess grounds from the rim of the portafilter before inserting it into the gasket. The cleaner the rim of your gasket is, the tighter you can pull the handle. If you can pull the handle perpendicular to the front of the machine, effectively forming a "T" shape, you've got nothing to worry about.

I'm still learning the trade of the Barista, so I don't profess to know everything (in fact, I know relatively SFA). I just have a good teacher, I guess. Remember; practice makes perfect hotdogs!

I'd always been afraid to try espresso, but when I saw an eighty year old Spanish woman drinking her 8 o'clock shot in a Madrid train station I knew it was time to start. Some restaurants in Europe serve espresso when you ask for cafe or coffee.

It's not much liquid--a typical serving really is the equivalent of a shot of whiskey. The drinking, in slow sips, should still take time. Drink it with a glass of water.

It's bitter: people who drink their coffee black tend to like it, as do people who enjoy bitter stout beer. After you start you'll have a hard time going back to the watered down taste of plain coffee.

Good espresso is perhaps the most difficult coffee drink to create in the home. When we examine the other popular forms of extracting flavor from the humble coffee bean, we find classic drip, which can be easily screwed up, but which is easily enough done properly if one has a machine which brews to the proper temperature. The very inexpensive ones don't but there are a number of them which do, and are commonly available over the counter at Wal-Mart or Target. The delightful french press or press pot is a simple device which only requires a properly coarse grind. A coarse grind is pretty easy to do on a $50 conical burr grinder. When we look at Turkish/Arabic/Greek coffee, we have to get a very fine grind indeed, but the process is fairly simple from there.

Espresso, however, is a bit more complex. With every other brewing method, the three major variables which the brewer must be concerned are: temperature, grind, and steep time (the time in which hot water is actually in contact with coffee). To this mix, we add pressure, and consequently flow rate when speaking of espresso. Since we pack the coffee into the portafilter and force hot water through the bed of grounds for a short time, all the factors which we must be concerned with before, along with the new ones added, are magnified in importance. There is little margin for error. A slightly more coarse grind must be made up for with more tamping. This is the method utilized in what is known as Australian updosing. An overly fine grind will probably clog the portafilter and you will get a few wimpy drips, rather than the steady pour with thick, sienna colored crema. Therefore, unlike the other brewing methods, extreme care must be taken in the choice of equipment for even acceptable results. You are going to spend more money on equipment making espresso than you will making coffee via the other methods mentioned above.

The first thing to get is the grinder. It must be conical burr, and not just any old conical burr. Espresso is a very fine grind. Many of the less expensive grinders will not do the job. Prices start at about $150 for the entry level machines. You can easily spend $1000 on a grinder for espresso. Don't laugh. When the unfortunate obsession grips you, dear reader, it clutches you with a zealous grip. Blade grinders, by the way, aren't really useful for grinding the best coffee. They can do a pretty bang up job on spices, though! They grind unevenly, and you end up with what is known as boulders and dust. There is, fortunately, a way to get around the need for expensive equipment, but you will sacrifice convenience for your frugality. Remember when I mentioned that Turkish/Arabic/Greek coffee required a very fine grind? Well, that grind is just about coffee flour. There are two ways to do this popularly; a mortar and pestle or a stone wheel (which works the same way), or a Turkish mill. A Turkish mill is a conical burr grinder which substitutes the electric motor with a hand crank. They are usually adjustable, and since they must be capable of grinding the aforementioned coffee flour, they can frequently do a good job with espresso, which is not so fine a grind as that. I got one off ebay for 15 bucks, shipped. It does a fine job (I'm the only coffee lover in the house, apart from my 6 year old daughter, who gets the occasional decaf milk drink). Espresso enthusiasts will tell you to spend most of your money on the grinder, as this has a greater effect on the quality of the espresso than the machine. So, that takes care of the most important part, the grind.

The choice of machine is very important as well. Modern espresso is made with a pump and hot water. In the old days (and lo! giants were in the earth), espresso was made with steam, which was forced through the coffee at a couple of atomospheres of pressure. This burned the coffee, unfortunately. Nowadays, espresso machines have a pump to force hot water (around 95 degrees C or so) through the grinds. There are a lot of them on the market. The best ones use a boiler rather than a thermoplate to heat the water. Ideally, there should be one boiler for the grouphead (where the coffee comes out), and another for the steam wand (the attachment used for frothing and steaming milk for lattes and cappuccinos. That way water can be held at a lower temperature for the coffee and a higher one for the steam. Decent machines start in the same range as decent grinders, but you won't really get temperature stability until you spend about $400-$500. You can shoot the moon here as well. A 4 group La Marzocco could set you back $10000.

A word should be spoken on the roast. Traditional espresso uses a very dark roast, but espresso can be enjoyed at any darkness you wish. In fact, the flavor of the actual bean comes through better in lighter roasts. I tend towards a full city roast myself, but you should experiment in this regard to determine what suits your palate. Good espresso does not require sugar. Bitter espresso is a sign that something went wrong with the extraction process, usually. Sour espresso usually means old beans. You really want beans wtihin a month of the roast. Preferably within 2 weeks, really. The first couple of days after roasting, beans will generate a lot of froth because they are still de-gassing. Don't pre-grind espresso. Coffee loses a lot of aromatics within minutes of grinding. Espresso is really meant to extract the maximum flavor from the beans, so you will lose something noticeable if you grind the beans at the store and bring them home. Regarding the type of bean, since espresso is a very concentrated drink, blends work well. A good espresso has a lot of different flavors going on in that 2 or so ounces (in a double). Espresso blends may have 3 or more types of beans. There are single origin espresso beans, but they tend to be beans which provide a variety of flavors.

Wertperch messaged me remarking that he got a stovetop espresso pot. Stovetop espresso is also called a moka pot. Basically, you heat water in the bottom, and this heat forces the water through a bed of ground coffee in the middle into a reservoir at the top. It produces similar coffee to steam espresso, but does not burn the coffee so much, so is to be preferred. The resulting coffee, while not true espresso (and believe me, good enough for government work is not a saying among the hardcore coffee aficianados), is nonetheless, a very good cup o' joe. Since these things can be found for as little as 5 bucks at Ross for Less (yeah, I looked), you might find this a suitable substitute for an expensive machine. If you like good coffee, and not a specific idea of what you should have, you should use your own tastebuds to determine what you like.

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