Espresso is a beautiful and fickle beast. I love it, but when it comes out wrong I want to cry. When done correctly it is smooth, sweet, rich, and beautifully topped with a caramel colored crema. When any number of mistakes plague the process it is bitter, thin, and burnt tasting.
Growing up, my mom acquired a mid 1990’s Gagia espresso maker. New, it likely cost upwards of $300.00, and I remember the painfully exact process she developed for the perfect draw. Grind that beans for exactly 14 seconds in her Krups grinder. Prime the machine. There was an intuitive science to the proper pressure with which to tamp the grinds into the basket. Watch the draw until the liquid became slightly translucent as it flowed from the machine. Enjoy black, preferably with a slice of something sweet.
Since growing up and acquiring a machine of my own, I have spent many hours attempting to replicate the espresso I recall from the Gagia machine in my mother’s kitchen. It’s a creation that may very well have eluded me, except for the specific actions and measures required by the old machine. By understanding why the steps had to take place, it helped me conquer the new machine my husband and I received as a wedding gift.
I have a Cuisinart EM-100 Espresso Maker which I love. It is easy to clean, makes a very nice frothed milk, and – with a little work and understanding of the finer points of coffee beans and the process behind the creation of a shot of espresso – a delicious cup of rich, smooth espresso to be added to my breve latte. One feature I especially like is the heated top. When the machine is on, the entire top acts as a heating plate – excellent for cups. When I worked at a restaurant in Little River, CA, the espresso machine had a heated top and all the coffee mugs were stored up there to take the morning chill off. There is almost nothing as luxurious as a pre-heated cup. Except maybe a pre-heated bed. On to espresso…
Step 1: Beans
Beans are truly a matter of individual preference. Dark roasts have richer, more flavorful notes but can taste burned or bitter. Light roasts produce a softer flavor, but lack the complexity of dark roasts. Coffee roasters often produce an espresso roast, but it is truly up to your individual preference which roast to use. Next is the grind. I will buy pre-ground beans for my drip coffee maker because it’s hard to mess that up, but I purchase whole beans for the espresso maker. My mom is sweet enough to keep me supplied with beans from a roaster in her town. Somehow, she has convinced them to sell her their proprietary espresso roast they use in the coffee shop and it is to die for. Thanks mom! Oh…and I am about ready for more beans…
Step 2: Grind
There are two factors which heavily influence the espresso draw: the grind and the tamping pressure. The coarseness or fineness of the grind and the pressure which the grinds are tamped in the basket actually varies from machine to machine based on the water pressure output from the machine. The owners manual goes into a detailed discussion about the coarseness of the grind and trouble shooting a bad cup of espresso. When the beans are ground too fine, they can become lodged in the fine holes of the basket and cause them to be blocked. This results in pressure build-up behind the grinds and a terrible sputtering as the machine forces water through the grinds. Splattering of your precious espresso all over the kitchen can happen. The resulting cup does not exhibit the beautiful layer of crema on top, and can taste bitter or burned. Alternately, beans that are too coarse allow water to flow through too freely without taking on the correct amount of flavor. The flavor will be weak and sometimes acidic. According to the manual, “If the grind is too fine, over-extraction and bitterness will occur with a spotted and uneven crema on the top. If the grind is too coarse, the water will pass through too rapidly and there will be an inadequate amount of crema on the top of the espresso.” As I mentioned, I always grind my own beans. Besides being able to control the grind for each cup, coffee beans contain volatile compounds that immediately begin to dissipate once released. Even coffee beans placed in the coffee maker the night before on an automatic setting can loose flavor. These compounds are primarily what makes up the flavor of good coffee, and pre-ground beans from the store can often sit for weeks before purchase. As a last ditch alternative, purchasing a bag of whole beans and grinding the bag at the grocery store may work for you. Unfortunately with this method, you may grind an entire bag at the wrong coarseness and adjusting is more difficult. Following my mother’s example, I have taken to grinding individual servings of beans for a prescribed amount of time: 11 seconds in my Braun coffee grinder. It’s a basic model, black with a clear lid, but it does a fair job. Inexpensive coffee grinders – like this one – don’t grind evenly as you would expect from a higher end model. The ones you find in espresso shops and on the counters of more judicious coffee connoisseurs are called burr grinders and provide a more uniform grind. I don’t have the financial means to procure one, but I hear they’re amazing.
Step 3: Tamping
Tamping your espresso in the basket removes excess pockets of air, allowing the pressure of the water to uniformly flow through the grinds. Similar to coarseness of the grind, tamping pressure heavily influences the rate of flow and the resultant cup of espresso. Tamping that is too heavy has a similar effect to grinding the beans too fine, and the coffee will be over extracted as the time the water spends in contact with the beans increases; tamping too gently allows too much water to flow through, resulting in under extracted espresso. I received an additional tamper with my espresso machine aside from the standard scoop/tamp combination included with the packaging. The tamper I have has two ends – one large, one small – and is made of weighted aluminum. I have found that the weight of the tamper is enough that by simply placing the tamper on the grinds in the basket without applying pressure I achieve the proper tamp.
From my experience with this particular combination of equipment, that is all the pressure required. I do have to mention that this is not a common trend in my experience. The Gagia machine in my mom’s kitchen requires much more pressure, as do many commercial grade machines. I believe this has to do with the water pressure coming through the espresso machine. I believe this particular machine (whether it is a defect of the one I own or a trend in this line of machines) does not produce comparable pressure to many machines I have used. I notice that the grinds are still swimming in liquid when I remove the holder from the machine, and the reduced tamping pressure compared to other machines also makes me question the pressure. This is the only little, tiny problem I have with this machine, and it can be overcome with the appropriate knowledge of espresso extraction.
Once the grind has been tamped to the correct pressure for your machine, wipe the excess grinds from the rim of the basket, place the basket in the holder, and secure it in the machine.
Step 4: The Draw
My mother’s espresso machine required a prime before actually drawing the espresso. Some machines require this, and some don’t. I have tried this machine primed and unprimed, and did not notice any difference, but I will address it here, should your machine and cup benefit from it. Priming essentially clears the water lines in the machine. When the machine is off or sitting between uses, the water in the lines can cool, affecting the initial temperature of water being forced through the grounds. The purpose is to clear the cool water from the lines, replacing it with hot water of the appropriate temperature to produce a good draw of espresso. To prime your machine, do so prior to placing the basket full of ground espresso beans in the holder. Place your cup under the holder as shown in the above photo to direct the water into the cup, and turn the machine on. This will warm your cup if you don’t have a built-in cup warmer, and it will remove the cooler water from the water lines. Fill the cup about half way (depending on the size of the cup – I find about an inch of water in the bottom of the cup is sufficient to prime the machine), and let it sit before discarding it. Your machine has been primed.
One reason I like this machine is because the draw time is manual. Some have a pre-determined length of time for the draw, which is fine for pods, but can alter the results from a ground, tamped basket of beans. When this machine is turned on, it forces just enough water into the basket to “bloom” the grinds. Then it pauses. This allows warm water to permeate the coffee grinds, warm them, release the volatile compounds in the beans, and begin the extraction process resulting in a richer cup of espresso. The machine will automatically resume and you will see two streams of creamy, dark liquid flow into the cup (which is exceptionally dramatic if your cup is white). The ideal draw is dark and caramel with reddish reflections. I allow the liquid to flow until the stream begins to become translucent. It sounds a little vague, but it begins to look more like water than espresso. If the preparations and techniques have been done correctly, the liquid in the cup should have a creamy, light brown foam on top that resembles frothed cream, as shown below.
There is no milk in this cup – yet. That is all espresso and can be enjoyed as-is. To finish it off, froth some milk or half-and-half (my choice – though I have heard that nonfat milk actually froth’s better since the fat in the half-and-half can deflate the air bubbles captured in the foam created by the milk proteins. This is similar to the proteins created by whipping egg whites to make meringue which I wrote about here) and enjoy on the porch with a slice of cake or scone or some other delicious morsel.