Espresso has its origins in steam power and convenience. Inventor Angelo Moriondo found that the traditional way of making coffee (by steeping grounds in hot water) was incredibly long-winded, and combined his love for machinery with coffee making by inventing a way of pressing hot water through coffee grounds to produce a strong cup in mere seconds.
Named for its “instant” nature, the espresso (as in “express”) was simply a quick-and-easy beverage that could be ordered and served in a minute or two, to hundreds of bar patrons per day.
Its popularity soared shortly after its invention, and Italian café culture was forever transformed – to the point that the price of a cup of espresso is regulated by the government, and some consider it an intangible cultural heritage.
Even when interpreting it at its loosest, the simple definition of an espresso is a beverage created quickly by pressing water through coffee. To do so requires a certain level of machinery – because we can’t really produce the same sort of force needed to create an espresso by hand, especially for the time it takes to make one cup.
We can, however, find other ways to produce similar levels of pressure without complex machinery – or create analogous coffee drinks that, while not necessarily “espresso”, are close enough for most mornings.
What Is an Espresso Maker?
The modern recipe for espresso is a ratio of about two parts water to one part coffee and 9 bars of pressure, or about 130 PSI. Espresso makers produce that amount of pressure either manually or automatically via a piston or motor-driven pump and are operated either traditionally (with a lever) or via an electronic interface.
Espresso machines range in price from under $100 to well over $10,000, and are usually categorized as either manual, semiautomatic, or fully automatic (the difference between the three categories is how much human input is needed to make a single cup).
While you can’t make espresso coffee without an espresso maker, it’s important to note that espresso makers aren’t always prohibitively expensive.
Renowned brands like DeLonghi specialize in affordable espresso machines, and if space is an issue, then look no further than manual portable machines like the WACACO Minipresso, the STARESSO portable espresso machine, and the Flair Classic and NEO.
These machines require a kettle and grinder to get started but work at the press of a button and can easily be carried around on camping trips and on-the-road.
But if you’ve got access to nothing but the usual coffee making methods, it’s important to be straight with you and explain that there’s no way to make espresso without some form of espresso maker. Unless you want to expand your definition of “espresso”.
Making Moka Pot Coffee
You can generate pressure in other ways, including with an aeropress or a Moka pot. But the resulting coffee won’t have the strength of an espresso because the pressure isn’t enough to produce the same extraction effect on the grinds. You can make a pretty mean cup of great tasting and dark coffee, however, provided you closely follow instructions.
Moka pots are sometimes advertised as stovetop espresso makers, but that’s a misnomer. It’s true that they generally make a darker and thicker cup of coffee than filter, drip, or French press coffee, but it’s not quite an espresso (and the difference is noticeable).
Nevertheless, it’s a fairly cheap and easy way to make Italian coffee, and it’s worth knowing that nearly every Italian household sports a Moka pot because of its reliable and affordable nature. You can easily get a great Moka pot for less than a quarter of what you’d spend on an equivalent quality espresso machine.
To beginners, this coffee-making device can be a little bit intimidating, and it’s very easy to over-extract or burn your coffee, leaving lots of people with a really bad first impression. But with a little practice, you can get a good result. Here’s the basic anatomy of a Moka pot:
- The topmost portion is the upper chamber. This is where the coffee is going to go after it percolates to the top.
- The middle bit is the filter basket. This sits on top of the bottom chamber, and it’s where you put your coffee grounds.
- The bottom chamber is the water tank. It’s got a little indicator for how much water you’re allowed to boil at once, and a safety valve sitting just above that limit. The safety valve needs to be free from water in order to function properly.
Water goes in the bottom chamber, and coffee goes in the basket. Once the water is brought to a boil, it will travel up through the spout at the bottom of the filter basket and through the coffee, and the resulting hot coffee will travel out through a spout in the upper chamber and collect for you to pour.
Leave it on the heat for too long, and you’ll burn your coffee. Keep it too cool, and it’ll overextract as it very slowly makes its way through. Learning to speak the “language” of the Moka pot will help you make the best coffee with it.
Let’s go over what we’re going to need:
- The Moka pot, of course.
- Enough filtered water to fill the bottom chamber.
- About a tenth as much finely-ground coffee (i.e. 14 grams for 140ml of water).
- A stovetop that the Moka pot can sit on comfortably.
When making your Moka pot coffee, follow these instructions closely:
- Fill the bottom chamber to its indicator under the safety valve.
- Place your grounds into the filter basket and gently let them settle (don’t tamp them!)
- Place the bottom chamber onto a direct flame until it comes to a slow boil, then turn off the flame.
- Drop in the filter and carefully attach the top chamber (use mitts or a towel to avoid burning yourself).
- Turn the flame back on, as hot as it goes. Keep the lid of the upper chamber up so you can observe.
- Once the coffee begins to come out of the spout, listen for a sputtering noise. As soon as the pot begins to sputter, take it off the flame immediately.
- Wait another minute or so, then pour and enjoy your coffee.
And that’s it! It’s important to turn the heat up once you attach the top chamber and take it off the heat the second it begins to sputter. This makes for a consistently good coffee, provided your beans are ground up finely (not as fine as espresso, but finer than other coffee brewing methods).
The end result should be a strong coffee, reminiscent of an espresso but without quite as much body and nowhere near as much crema.
Strong Coffees with Other Brewing Methods
A Moka pot will produce the closest thing to an espresso without calling it an espresso, but if you’re simply craving for strong coffee then a French press will work fine – provided you use a darker roast, a coarse grind, and give a little extra time for steeping (about four minutes).
If you’ve got an Aeropress, you can actually use two paper filters and a tamper to create a compact coffee puck at the bottom of your Aeropress, and then by pressing down as hard as you can (without crushing the mug below) you can create a pretty close espresso analog. I’ll let Steven show you how.
An Espresso is an Espresso
For the sake of being thorough, I want to drive home the point that you need an espresso machine to make an espresso.
However, espresso machines don’t have to weigh 40lbs and cost an arm and a leg. Portable espresso machines can and do make good espresso.
But if you’re not in a position to buy new coffee equipment and want an easy hack, the closest you can get to an espresso is through your Moka pot, or a nice strong brew with a full-bodied darker roast.