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New to Making Espresso? A Few Simple Mistakes That are Easy to Avoid

New to Making Espresso? A Few Simple Mistakes That are Easy to Avoid

How hard is it to make quality espresso, and froth some milk? It ISN'T hard, but there are a few simple things that you should/shouldn't do that most manuals don't mention. The experts that wrote the manuals took them for granted, and forgot to tell you.

We frequently have people call and ask us whether making espresso and a few associated drinks is difficult. Typically, these are small businesses that want to offer espresso-based drinks, but they don't have "a barista" or any trained staff. Is it difficult?

Answer: If you are competing in a National Barista Competition, it's VERY difficult, and takes lots of experience. But to make high-quality, basic, espresso-based drinks with consistency in your business or home is easy, and can be learned quickly. It does not take a Trained Barista. Again, it's EASY.

How easy? Can you make breakfast? Making good espresso is a little harder than learning to make toast. But it's easier than learning to fry an egg correctly. In all cases, there are a few simple things to not do, and a few simple things that you should make sure to do. The "trick" is knowing those things; it has nothing to do with manual dexterity or artistic skill.

Espresso: How can I tell if it's right?

Espresso should be rich without being bitter, and it should have a layer of "Crema" on top of it. Crema is thin layer of cream-colored microfoam that floats on top of the espresso. The picture below shows three different shots of espresso. The one on the left has NO crema - there's a problem here. A typical espresso shot should come out like the one in the middle.

What Crema Should and Should Not Look Like

Why would you get no crema? There are a few reasons. The obvious ones are

  1. Preground coffee was used, and the coffee is old and dried out. (Discard Coffee.)
  2. Portafilter was cold, so the extraction temperature was off. (Use WARM Portafilter.)
  3. The grind was too coarse, and the extraction was weak. (Adjust Grinder.)
  4. You didn't tamp the coffee into the portafilter to precompress it. (Use a Tamper.)
  5. You didn't use enough coffee and/or you used the wrong basket. (Common for Beginners.)

If your coffee is old and dried out, get new coffee. Espresso lovers tend to grind the beans fresh, although some people buy preground for convenience and because of space limitations. To get a good result, the coffee cannot be dry powder (which you can also get if you grind old coffee beans).

Espresso extraction (by machine) is done with water that is at 195-200 degrees Fahrenheit. Since the group is large and metal, if the group is at room temperature, the extraction will be too cold. You should keep the group handle locked into the machine when you are not using it. This will keep the group basket hot - at the same temperture as the group. You need to do this for good extractions.

If the grind is too coarse, the water will simply wash through the coffee puck without extracting very much, and you won't get crema - or much flavor either. The espresso will be weak. You need to adjust the grind downward and finer. Note that another sign of this is that the shot will extract too fast. An extraction should take about 25 seconds. Time it. If it is extracting much faster than this, your grind is too coarse. Or...

...you didn't TAMP it! You need a tamper, and you need to tamp the coffee to compress it in the group basket. Typical tamping pressure is 30-40 pounds. The extraction will not be that sensitive to how hard it's tamped, but it MUST be tamped, or it will not extract correctly. Again, it will be weak, and it will extract too quickly.

And what's obvious to Pros, but might not occur to beginners - it's a VERY COMMON mistake - is that you didn't use the right filter basket and/or the right amount of coffee. You've likely heard that the right amount of espresso "for a shot" is 7 grams. That is for a SINGLE shot. Most standard scoops are 7-gram scoops. The picture below shows what we mean.

A Tamper, a 7-Gram Scoop, and a Single and Double Filter Basket

This picture shows a tamper, a single-shot basket, a double-shot basket, and a 7-gram scoop. The 7-gram scoop is used to measure coffee for a SINGLE shot. If you are making a single shot, use the single-shot basket. If you are using the double-shot basket, use TWO scoops (14 grams) of coffee. If you use a single scoop of coffee in the double-shot basket, it will not extract properly. You'll get a weak brew with no crema.

If the shot is properly extracted, it will be rich and not bitter, and will have crema. Weak extractions (not enough coffee, too coarse a grind, poor extraction temperature) will run too quickly and will be disappointing. On the other hand, when the shot is over-extracted, it becomes bitter. You don't want this either. This can be a generational thing.

The modern espresso machine is made to do extractions under very high pressure (9-10 bars), which means that the water IS NOT at boiling temperature. The extraction is done between 195-200 degrees Fahrenheit. Until fairly late in the 20th century, what we call "espresso" was usually made in stovetop pots, like the ones shown below.

Stovetop Espresso Pots

On the stove, the water is brought to a boiling temperature (212 degrees Fahrenheit), where steam is produced. The steam is forced through the coffee puck by steam pressure, and it recondenses in the puck. The espresso runs out of the puck at near boiling temperature. This makes STRONG espresso, but it also makes bitter espresso.

Many older people, or people raised in families that came over from "The Old Country" grew up drinking espresso that was made this way. People with this kind of background think that espresso SHOULD taste like this. Many would say that the more refined flavor produced by sophisticated equipment was "not real espresso." They WANT the strength and the bitterness. That's fine.

But now, in America, we are striving for a richer and more refined flavor in espresso. This is WHY we now use espresso machines instead of stovetop-pots. Espresso machines contain compressors that make the pressure to push hot - but not boiling - water through the puck with sufficient force to extract flavor without burning the coffee and turning it acidic.

Doing this correctly requires that we adjust the grind, use the right amount of coffee, tamp it in under some pressure, and perform the extraction in about 25 seconds. Just as we had said that if the extraction goes too quickly the espresso will be weak and flavorless, if the extraction takes too long it will be acidic and bitter.

If the espresso isn't satisfactory, then TIME YOUR SHOT! We have timers to do this. The extraction is not that sensitive to how well you tamp, so don't focus on this. But use the right amount of coffee, the right grind, and the right basket, and shoot for 25 seconds. This isn't that hard to do.

If you just want espresso, then we're all set. But if you want latte or cappuccino, then...

Frothing Milk for Cappuccino, and Steaming it for Latte

Again, these are not hard to do, but you need real steam pressure to do them at the same level of quality that you would expect at a coffee shop. The main difference between commercial espresso machines and home espresso machines is that commercial machines have actual boilers, and most home machines merely have heat-exchange units to create "flashes" of steam.

Real boilers will produce real pressure, and will keep that pressure going consistently so that you can froth the milk professionally. Frankly, heat-exchange units will not give you the same result. So if the froth and/or foam is VERY important to you, you will have to either use a high-end espresso machine with a real boiler, or you'll need to use a steam unit on your stovetop. If it's not that important to you, then don't spend the money or take the trouble to do this. We show both solutions in the figure below.

Equipment to do High Quality Frothing

This shows two espresso machines that are in the high price range, but that have real boilers, and that produce real froth. The Pasquini and the Vibiemme are commercial quality brands, and the machines range between $1,500 and $2,000. If that's way outside your limit for good froth (as it is for most of us), you can use a stovetop frother to produce real steam for a little more than $50. Or you can choose to live with the froth produced by a heat exchanger - which will be lower quality, but can be OK.

Now we'll explain how to froth and steam milk correctly, and for a good result. Froth is a light consistent foam that will float on the espresso to make a cappuccino. Steamed milk is a velvety, thick form of milk that mixes with the espresso to make it taste creamy. In both cases, we would start with the same volume of milk as we will have espresso. In the steamed milk, the volume stays the same. In the frothed milk, the volume doubles. The picture below shows how either is done.

Equipment for Frothing Milk

In either case, we want to start with very cold milk in a very cold pitcher. The colder, the better. The pitcher should be filled about 1/3 of the way. When the milk is frothed, it will fill about 2/3 of the pitcher. Sometimes, it's helpful to use a frothing thermometer. You can clip the thermometer to the side of the frothing pitcher, with its tip submerged in the milk. The frothing wand is on the side of the espresso machine (see picture). The frothing wand has a tip that has tiny holes through which steam will blow.

Water will condense within the steam wand between uses. So BEFORE you start steaming the milk, amd BEFORE you put the pitcher of milk under the steam wand, open the steam wand. A little bit of hot water will blow out, and then steam will start to emerge. When it starts to blow steam, shut it off again. Then put the pitcher of milk under the wand, and completely submerge the tip of the wand, nearly to the bottom of the milk. Open the wand again, and the steam will start blowing into the bottom of the milk.

The pictures below show how to steam milk for latte, and how to froth it for cappuccino. On the left, we see what steaming milk looks like - with the wand fully submerged, and the milk NOT increasing in volume. And on the right, we see what frothing looks like - with the wand riding the surface of the milk to make a rich foam and double the volume. Below each, we show a latte made with steamed milk, and a cappuccino made with frothed milk.

Steaming Milk for Latte, and Frothing it for Cappuccino

If you are steaming the milk, keep the wand completely submerged until the very end. If you are frothing the milk, lower the pitcher until the tip of the wand is just below the surface of the milk, but keep it submerged. You will hear the steam blowing loudly if you've lowered the pitcher enough to froth the milk. If the milk is being frothed, its volume will begin to increase. Lower the pitcher as the volume increases to keep the tip at the same level below the surface.

In both cases, keep an eye on the thermometer. Remember that the thermometer does not give an instantaneous read, so you want to finish up when the temperature hits the low end of the scale - 140 degrees. If you are steaming, you can lower the pitcher at this point to put a small amount of froth on your steamed milk, then shut the wand off. The volume of the milk should not have increased much, but it will feel velvety. If you are frothing, the milk should have doubled by now. Shut the wand off. A good froth will NOT have bubbles of different sizes. There should be very few large bubbles. The milk should simply be a homogenous thick foam.

After removing the milk from beneath the wand, open the wand again breifly so as to blow any milk residue out of its nozzle. You should also wipe the wand off with a cleaning cloth (which we sell) so that it does not get milk baked onto it. You can use the steam and the cloth together to clean it. Be careful not to burn yourself!

Finish the drink by pouring the frothed milk onto your espresso to make cappuccino, or by pouring steamed milk into your espresso to make latte.

...written by your friends at The Coffee Brewers