Easy Step-By-Step Guide to the Perfect Espresso

Espresso dates to 1884, when Angelo Moriondo invented the first steam-powered espresso machine in Turin, Italy. Italian espresso has since come to define quality coffee, and it set the standard for cafes for at least a century thereafter.

Much like Arabic and Turkish coffee in the Middle East, espresso is a quintessential part of Italian culture – and coffee culture in general. Every urban American is familiar with the espresso’s heritage in modern coffee shops, as it remains the root of most major coffee drink on the menu from newer inventions like the frappe to the classic cappuccino and latte.

However, learning to make your own espresso can be a little intimidating. We’re here to assure you that it’s not a complicated process, provided you’ve got the right recipe, and are open to a little practice. Here’s a simple step-by-step guide to your first perfect cup of espresso.

Step 1: Selecting Your Beans

There are two basic philosophies behind selecting the right espresso blend – you can go single-origin (which means the beans all came from the same producer, in the same region, typically from the same kind of coffee plant), or you can go for an espresso blend (which usually combines Arabica beans with cheaper, but stronger Robusta beans).

Most coffee roasters sell a variety of espresso blends that offer some mixture of Arabica and Robusta beans from the same country, while larger supermarket brands will usually toss together the most cost-effective package they can to create an “espresso blend”.

The coffee market has vastly improved over the last few decades as coffee companies have more heavily invested in educating growers to produce better quality beans, and roasters are experimenting with new ways to unlock a bean’s potential.

Espresso blends typically use heavily roasted beans rather than lighter ones, especially because the extraction of an espresso is so quick that some of the drawbacks of very dark roasts are no longer an issue, whereas lighter roasts wouldn’t produce the same flavor, texture, and crema expected of an espresso.

In short: select an espresso blend from a nearby roaster and try to select a bag that contains beans that have been roasted recently (i.e. a few days or weeks ago, rather than months ago).

Step 2: Selecting Your Grind

Espresso coffee is made with a much finer grind than drip coffee, pour over/filter coffee, or French press coffee. This is important, and one of the ways supermarket espresso coffee differentiates itself from other supermarket coffees.

Most ground coffee has been made with drip coffee machines in mind, since that’s what most consumers tend to own. The same kind of grind works for pour over coffee. French press coffee usually wants a coarser grind, to avoid having too much silt and loose grinds at the bottom of the cup.

But espresso coffee needs a very fine grind. This is because espresso coffee is made by pressing hot water through a compact puck of tamped coffee, and a grind that’s too coarse will cause the water to rush through the coffee without making the kind of contact needed to extract all the oils and soluble materials within the coffee bean.

Again, the oils are key here. Just as how a darker roast is needed to ensure that your final product has that signature creaminess and mouth feel, a finer grind will allow for more of the bean to be extracted into your espresso cup.

If you have a grinder, it’s best to grind your beans just before using them – so grind your coffee sparingly. If you buy ground coffee, try to find an airtight container to store it in, and try to use it up within a week.

In short: pick a very fine grind and use a burr grinder rather than a blade grinder to avoid inconsistencies, which can easily ruin your coffee.

Step 3: Selecting Your Machine

Espresso machines range from “surprisingly cheap” to “mind-bogglingly expensive”. You’ll want to select a machine that fits your budget and your needs. Most espresso machines are either automatic, semi-automatic, or manual.

Automatic espresso machines are operated with nothing but the press of a few buttons. You buy and store your grounds, and they do the grinding, tamping, and pulling for you.

Semi-automatic espresso machines pull the espresso shot for you, and heat up your water, but they still require you to grind the beans and tamp them yourself.

They come with a portafilter that you fill up with your finely-ground coffee, which you then attach to the cylinder underneath the tank, while a motor-driven pump presses the water through the grinds at a set pressure (depending on the settings of your machine, anywhere from 2 to 15 bars of pressure).

A manual espresso machine is old school and requires you to use good old-fashioned arm strength to apply a very consistent and precise amount of pressure to “pull” the hot water through the coffee grinds for the final product.

Manual espresso machines typically still use power to heat up the water, but some are so old-school that they don’t need any electricity at all (you’ll still need to manually heat up the water and check its temperature).

Semi-automatic espresso machines are usually the best choice because they let you create a consistent espresso and control important variables such as pressure and water temperature, while still being in control of the coffee grinding and the tamping.

Fully automatic espresso machines create the same shot of coffee every time (provided you supply the same beans), and while the end result is rarely bad, it’s never exceptional.

In short: buy a machine that fits your budget and go for a semi-automatic or manual espresso machine if you want to work on making that perfect cup.

Step 4: Coffee-to-Water Ratio

Most espresso machines predetermine the water-to-coffee ratio, but if you’re making an espresso manually, you get to control how much coffee you’re using for how much water.

The standard recipe is to use double the amount of water in weight as your dry coffee. The amount of dry coffee you use will depend on your portafilter.

Most portafilters come with at least two filters for either a single pull or a double pull (solo or doppio). The default for most machines is a double, but they’ll sport two spouts, so you can still create a single by putting one cup under each spout rather than having both spouts drip into a single cup.

The portafilter matters here because it will usually determine how much coffee you use. The standard practice is to loosely fill the portafilter with grinds and then use a finger to swab off the excess, so it’s level.

Measure that to get your dry coffee weight. Say it’s 19g. That means you’ll use 38g of water, which is exactly 38ml as well.

Then, use the tamper to press the coffee into a puck with a consistent amount of force (baristas are taught to apply about 30-35 pounds of force, which is easily measured with an electronic kitchen scale), and voila.

If your machine came with one portafilter and has two spouts, that’s typically a double, so expect to run 60ml of water through however much coffee you can fit into that portafilter before pressing down on the grinds.

Know that you can be flexible here. The Italians have developed two other ways to prepare espresso based on the amount of coffee and water used, which in turn also affects the length of the pull.

A ristretto, for example, uses a 1:1 ratio of dry coffee to water, and a much shorter pull. The result is a thicker, smaller coffee – but not one that’s offensively bitter, because the actual time the water spent getting through the coffee is appreciably shorter.

The opposite is a lungo, which doubles the water requirement (1:4 ratio). This requires a longer pull, since you’re using the same amount of force on every cup of espresso. The result is a taller cup with less crema and a different flavor.

In short: when starting out, go with the standard 1:2 coffee-to-water ratio, if your machine requires that information. When pulling manually, remember that the key is to apply the same level of force on every pull, so the more or less water you use, the longer or shorter a pull will be.

Step 5: What’s in a Tamper?

The process of tamping your coffee is important, and it’s where a lot of recipes differentiate. Once you’ve filled up your portafilter and measured how much dry coffee you’re using, it’s time to tamp it down.

A tamper is a small metallic puck-like object used to press the coffee into a tamped disc at the bottom of the filter. The reason espresso coffee grinds are tamped is to compress the grinds in such a way that the coffee extracts properly and evenly.

It takes a little bit of practice to do this right, so start by using a scale to measure the force and get an idea of how hard you should tamp your coffee.

The key is to press down on it with a set amount of force until you can feel it compress into a hard puck – and then stop. Before pulling your tamper out, twist it around in both directions a few times to ensure that the top of the tamped coffee is perfectly distributed.

This step is key.

In short: press on the coffee grinds in your portafilter until you feel you’ve made a compact disc, measuring the force you’re using until it becomes second nature. Twist the tamper to even out the disc, then pull it out.

Step 6: Water Temperature and Pressure

Like most coffee, espresso is made with hot water – but it’s important that the water is hot, not boiling. The industry standard is 93-94 degrees Celsius, or about 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Most espresso machines are built in such a way that they heat up the water in their tank and maintain a set temperature for as long as the machine is in use. If you need to boil and measure your water separately, make sure to purchase a reliable thermostat and heat the water to 200 degrees F.

Pressure is the next point. The first espresso machines used steam to produce their coffee, but the result was often burnt and not very tasty. It was quick coffee with a great mouthfeel and an instant shot of caffeine, so it quickly became popular.

But the nuance and quality behind a lot of espresso cups first came through piston-powered espresso machines, which relied on a lever and piston to press the hot water through the coffee in the portafilter.

Today’s espresso machines apply a consistent amount of pressure in each “pull” via a motor-driven pump, with settings for different levels of pressure measured in bars.

The industry standard is 9-9.5 bars of pressure, and most machines go up to 15 bars. You can experiment with the pressure to see what kind of a result you get.  

In short: the water should be 94 degrees Celsius (200 degrees Fahrenheit), and you want 9 bars of pressure.

Step 7: Practice and Perfect

A good espresso is, much like any drink or dish, a matter of practice. Good baristas make hundreds of cups of espresso a day, to the point that it becomes a matter of muscle memory for them.

While you might not make quite the same coffee as a trained and experienced barista, you can easily control the variables that go into making an espresso now that you know how it all comes together.

Bean quality, roasting date, grind size, water temperature, pressure, coffee-to-water ratio, tamping your coffee, and pulling the espresso short or long – these are all elements that affect the final product, and you should feel free to play around with them until you find the method that best suits your tastes.

That’s the fun behind espresso! It’s not as rigid as you’d think, and once the ritual solidifies itself, you can start pulling shots in well under a minute.

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