Espresso 101: The Basics
The name espresso is Italian in origin. It was first coined around 1900 and, loosely translated, means a cup of coffee brewed expressly (just) for you. Today, you will often find that people incorrectly pronounce or spell it “expresso.”
So, what makes a true espresso?
It’s not the bean. It’s not the blend. It’s not the roast. It’s not that it has to be made by a certain kind of machine.
The fact is, you can use any type of bean, blend and roast, it just depends on your personal tastes.
What makes espresso is the way the coffee is prepared. Espresso coffee is a small (1 to 2 oz.) shot of pressure-brewed coffee, using about 1 Tablespoon of finely ground coffee. Brewing takes about 25 to 30 seconds and when done properly, it will feature a layer of rich, dark golden cream, called crema on the surface. This crema is one indictor of a quality espresso. Making a great espresso is truly an art as well as a science.
The Key Words of Espresso
Like any other field, espresso has its own little language that you should know. Below is a small list of key words that you’ll often hear when reading about anything espresso.
BAR: Pressure rating used on most pump driven espresso machines. 9 BAR, the typical accepted pressure for brewing espresso is 8.8 atmospheres of pressure or 130 pounds per square inch. Almost every consumer espresso machine is capable of producing this pressure consistently.
Burr Grinder: is the recommended type of grinder for proper espresso making. A burr grinder features two disks, one stationary, one rotating, which slice away portions of a coffee bean into very fine particles.
Crema: is one of the sure signs of a properly brewed shot of espresso (in non crema-enhancing machines) and is created by the dispersion of gases – air and carbon dioxide – in liquid at a high pressure. The liquid contains oils and forms a dark golden brown layer resembling foam on top of an espresso shot.
Demitasse: the cup that holds a traditional shot of espresso is called a demitasse – the fancy word for the small 3 ounce (or smaller) cup. Demitasses can be made of ceramic, stainless steel, or glass, though porcelain is often the preferred material. The thicker the better, as they must retain heat well in that small 1.5 ounce beverage you craft.
Dosage: refers to the amount of ground coffee used to produce a shot of espresso. Usually 7 grams per 1.5 ounce single espresso shots.
Doser: found on many burr grinders, especially those designed to be used with espresso machines. A doser releases a measure of coffee grounds as you pull on a lever that is built into the side of the doser.
Filter Basket: is a metal, flat bottomed “bowl” shaped insert that fits inside a portafilter. The filter basket holds your bed of ground coffee and has a multitude of tiny holes in the bottom to allow the extracted beverage to seep through and pour into a demitasse cup or other receptacle. Most espresso machines include two filter baskets, a single basket and a double basket, though some machines feature convertible baskets that allow either a single or double shot of espresso to be produced from the same basket.
Frothing Tip: refers to the perforated tip on a steaming wand. These can have between one and four holes, and the holes can be either angled to the side or pointing straight down. They allow the steam from the espresso machine to be forced into tiny jets which agitate and heat milk at a great pace and also facilitate proper frothing when used to introduce air into the milk.
Portafilter: (also known as a groupo) the device that holds a filter and finely ground coffee and facilitates quick attachment to an espresso machine. Portafilters almost always feature a handle for easy handling, and spouts underneath to allow your espresso to pour into cups. On better espresso machines, they are made of copper or brass, and are coated with chrome. The handles are usually wood, bakelite, or plastic. On less expensive machines they can be aluminum, steel, or other metals and plastics.
Pull: a term used to describe brewing a shot of espresso. Comes from the action used to prepare espresso in the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond – pulling on a lever to cock a spring in a piston group on an espresso machine. Also Espresso Pull, Pull a Shot.
Steam Wand: is a visible, external pipe found on most espresso machines that is used to froth and steam milk, to provide hot water (on some machines), and heat espresso cups. Some also use the steam wand to heat water. It is controlled by a steam knob that opens and closes the steam valve inside the machine.
Shot: another term to describe a brewed espresso.
Tamp: (also tamping) the act of pressing and compacting a bed of loose, finely ground coffee, in preparation for brewing espresso. Different machines require different tamping methods. Steam powered espresso requires a leveling tamp, where piston lever, spring lever, and pump espresso requires a more compacting action. Some prefer a heavy tamping action (using 25 or more pounds of pressure), others prefer a light tamping action (less than 15 pounds of pressure exerted).
Tamper: the device used to tamp a bed of loose, finely ground coffee in a portafilter, in preparation for brewing espresso. Most espresso machines include a plastic tamper as an accessory, and after market tampers can be bought. They are measured in millimeter sizes, corresponding with the filter basket internal diameter of your espresso machine. Most commercial, prosumer, and high end consumer espresso machines use a 58mm tamper; other common sizes are 49mm, 53mm, and 57mm.
Thermoblock: in some espresso machines, the heating system is shaped similar to that of a car radiator, a series of heated metal coils or channels which water must pass through and become progressively hotter as it reaches the boiler.
The Espresso Machine
Let’s start with the machine itself. What it does is force heated water through finely ground, packed (tamped) grounds. There are different types of machines out there, however. There are super-automatic machines, semi-automatics, manuals, pod machines and stovetops. What are they?
With just the push of a button, super-automatic espresso machines do everything necessary to brew the perfect shot of espresso, latte or cappuccino. They grind whole beans and deposit grounds into the filter, they tamp them and then brew them. Super-automatics have very powerful conical burr grinders with gear reduction systems and lots of settings to control the strength of your brew. Steaming and frothing milk is very easy with the frothing adaptor.
These machines are the easiest to use on the market, but they are also the most expensive type of machine. Some people say that super-automatic means less control and lower quality brews, however in actual testing, these machines produce a very consistent and quality espresso. You do lose some control over the brew pressure and tamping pressure, but these things are not necessarily bad and they can be compensated for with other features that allow you to adjust the grind settings, doser settings and serving size.
Semi-automatic machines are the most popular style for home use because they produce excellent coffee and are fairly easy to use. The main difference between a super- and semi-automatic machine is that the semi-automatic machine doesn’t grind the beans. Some super-automatics also rinse and clean themselves. Semi-automatics must be rinsed and cleaned by you.
Most semi-automatic machines use a boiler to heat water as it passes from a separate water tank, however, some models use a thermoblock system which heats water instantly and reduces wait time. Some have an “On/Off” switch users must push once to start extraction and then must push again to stop extraction. Other semi-automatics only require one push of the button to begin the extraction and then will automatically stop after a pre-programmed time has passed. Frothing with semi-automatics can be simple with some machines but can require some skill with others. This really depends on whether the machine comes with a frothing adaptor or not. The adaptor makes this process simpler for the user while the traditional steam wands that take a little bit of practice to perfect.
These old-world style machines look great and reflect the original prototypes invented to create a consistent and flavorful cup of espresso. Also called “Piston-Style” machines, they were the first models to use a hand pump capable of generating the 8 to 9 atmospheres of pressure that is necessary to force the water through the condensed grounds–the way to make a proper cup of espresso.
These machines are recommended for true coffee aficionados and those who enjoy the process and effort involved in making a cup of espresso the traditional way. These machines are tough to use and require a higher skill level than the automatic machines. Also, they have a small water tank, making them impractical for large gatherings. The cleaning and maintenance for manuals is fairly straightforward, however the outer finishes, typically brass, chrome or copper, will require special cleaning to remove tarnishing and fingerprints. The milk frothers are standard and powerful enough for home use.
It’s also worth noting is that pulling down the handle to force water through the espresso grounds does require a bit of arm strength and the consistency of the pull is critical to the espresso quality.
Pod espresso machines can be either semi- or super automatic machines. They are called “pod” machines because they use “pods” of prepared grounds that you simply throw away after use. No grinding or tamping. You buy more pods to make more coffee.
Something to note is that using pods means you will not be able to adjust the taste of your coffee through the dosage or the fineness of the grounds. Another drawback is that some machines require that you buy their brand of pod, so if you can’t find a pod you love, you’re out of luck. Brands like Nespresso and Tassimo will only function with their own brand of espresso pods.
For those on a budget who would still like to enjoy a home-brewed cup of espresso, stovetop espresso makers are a great option. These are very basic devices that are fairly simple to use and care for and require no electricity (this also makes them great for camping!) They also continue to be the most popular method for making espresso in Italy, which must say something for the authenticity of the results they produce.
The Espresso Grinder
The perfect cup of espresso begins with properly ground coffee beans. If you don’t have a super-automatic machine and you plan to brew whole-bean espresso (the most flavorful way to brew), you will need to buy a grinder. Espresso beans need to be ground to a much finer consistency than typical coffee beans, so you can’t buy just any grinder.
The Espresso Beans
As you know, you can use any blend or roast for espresso, it simply depends on your tastes. If you don’t have any particular preferences, we recommend that you first try a dark roast for your espresso. Buy a light roast too and see which you like the most!