How to Make Espresso at Home: The Ultimate Guide
This is it, folks. If you’ve been dying for a velvety dollop of caffeinated goodness in a demitasse made from the perfect, hip location known as your kitchen, here’s the everything-you-need-to-know guide on how to make espresso at home.
Before we get into the techniques and hacks and bits of well-polished wisdom, there are a few things you need to know. Most of which is this: everything you think you know about this delicious Italian beverage is wrong.
Yes, this just became bootcamp. No, you may not use the bathroom, brew warrior!
I’m just kidding. Take your ‘loo’ break but, while you’re in there, think about the fact that those espresso beans covered in chocolate that you’ve been indulging in over the year have been straight-up lies.
Your bladder empty? Can I continue now? Great!
Lies! All lies. “Espresso beans” aren’t, to put it plainly, a thing. There’s no roasting process that magically transforms them into espresso beans either — the espresso title gets slapped onto the demitasse thanks to the preparation process. In other words, it’s what you do to the beans that determines what fancy italian word it gets labeled with.
Any fresh bag of coffee beans can make you a top-notch espresso shot, as long as you have the appropriate equipment. There are, however, maker-recommended beans and roasts, and those are the ones you’ll (however erroneously) see labeled as “espresso beans.”
You can take the suggestion, if you’re just starting out. Know, though, that your favorite brand and roast of bean is likely to only be exemplified by the espresso process. Coffee is delicious, it’s my bread and butter, my meat and potatoes, the only way I get through my day, but some of its attraction is that I can sip on it for an hour.
Espresso is the essence of the 8 oz. cup in a hearty single ounce. It’s the total experience boiled down to a few heavenly minutes. A good pull is the total package, my friend, and getting that perfection in your very own kitchen is easier than you think.
I’m going to be completely honest: there are two ways to go about this from this point forward. You can read this in the order that I’m presenting it to you and really learn about espresso inside and out, really do this thing right, or you can skip to the bare-bones information and just get what you want right now without putting in the full effort.. Your call.
Anytime you learn something new, it’s sort of like diving headfirst into understanding a new language. I’m going to give you a leg up and give you a little dictionary right here, right now.
I can’t remember my last geography lesson. It was probably in high school sometime, if I even had one then. Are they supposed to do that in history now? I don’t have that answer, but what I do have the answer to is what countries you should be harvesting your coffee beans from.
I mean, not you personally, but some well-paid farmer overseas. I’m talking about the countries you need to keep your eyes peeled for while trolling the local grocery store or business aisles. Fresh beans always yield the best taste, so try a small, local shindig for some truly hot-off-the-press bags.
Now, here’s the thing about location: beans taste differently based upon the soil they’re grown in. Soil is, very obviously, different depending on which splotch of land it’s creating. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, espresso made from beans grown in different soils will taste differently.
It’s simple, really.
I’ll make it even simpler:
Central and South American/ Caribbean
When you think about coffee, you’re likely thinking about beans grown from these regions. It’s largely what US citizens think of when they think “coffee.” They have a light body, high acidity, and sweet notes. It’s the Dunkin-Starbucks standard, and it’s a good place to start if you’re looking to branch out but don’t want to shock your tastebuds.
African/ Middle Eastern
This is the stuff aficionados rave about. It’s syrupy, it’s often spoken about in the same verbiage as wine, and you have to give it a go at least once — even if just to feel like a true coffee scholar.
If your stomach can be a tad touchy, you may want to head on over to these lovely beans. You don’t lose anything either, with this lower acid level. They’re earthy, with floral notes, and they make for a complex espresso that’ll likely surprise you. They’re well known for mixing well with milks, too, so they’re great for all of your combo drinks: black and tans, macchiatos, etc.
This simplifies the coffee bean industry a lot. Brands have different signatures, have secret roasting methods, and market themselves differently. We can all sit around and pretend that a cool, trendy voice and color palette doesn’t change the way we taste the product, but I think we’d all be lying.
Find a bag from the region that’s most pleasing to your tongue, in a roast that makes you happy, with a branding that makes you smile, and you’ll be set.
To truly pull a shot with hundreds of years of wisdom behind you, you have to know what happened, how this beautiful machine before you came to be way back in the 19th century. I won’t go into the actual machines themselves right now, but you can check the low-down on the best espresso beauts here.
You’ll see a very similar breakdown of the history of the espresso machine, starting with Moriondo, an Italian man who had an idea, and Martina, the woman who executed it. Women know how to get things done; what can I say?
For all of Martina’s hard work on the initial prototypes of the espresso machine, though, which were products of the steam age, Moriondo jealously guarded them. He did nothing more than tweak bits here and there and, when he died, it gave others the opportunity to take a stab at the venture.
Bezzera made strides on these prototypes by adding brewheads and the portafilter. He even achieved temperature perfection — 195 degrees F. It was Desiderio Pavoni, though, who finally did the entire world a service and presented these machines to the public.
Pavoni added the first pressure valve, which is where our old-timey slang comes from — you had to pull the lever to express the water, now mostly referred to as “pulling a shot.”
If you want the more in-depth version of this story, the Smithsonian tells the full tale here.
What this ultimately comes down to is this: there’s a well-experimented-on science to making an espresso, and that’s what creates the perfect espresso shot. It’s a 25 oz. layer of ground (and tamped) coffee, 195 degrees F water, with 1.5 bars of pressure, resulting in 30ml of deliciousness. Those words come directly from Illy, the Italian coffee maker’s mouth, through several other sources, to me, and then directly to you, so you know they’re good.
Tools & Variables
If you thought that you would get away with just picking the right coffee and you’d be all hunky-dory, well... I mean, you’re not wrong. Picking the right coffee is half the battle, but there are plenty of other factors you need to take into consideration. Your environment needs to be ideal, so let’s make it happen.
The last thing you want is your shot tainted from something as silly as the water. Use a Brita filter to fill your machine’s tank or, even easier, opt for a machine with a built-in water filter. Just make sure you keep track of how often it needs to be changed. If your brew suddenly takes on a funky edge, the water filter is one of the first things you should scrutinize.
Next, you’ll want to spend a decent amount of time focusing on how you grind up your whole beans. If you cave and buy pre-ground, make sure that they’re fine, fine, fine, like Ryan Reynolds or Blake Lively. Or the two of them together. You catch my drift. To achieve this from whole beans, you’ll want a conical burr grinder.
After you’ve set your coffee grinder to the right setting, you’ll want to think about the grind-to-water ratio. Start with between 18 to 21 grams of grinds for a double shot of espresso, and you can modify from there, either more or less, depending upon your own unique, snowflake taste buds. This ratio is called a dose. If you want to bring out the big guns, you can use a scale, and this amount will clock in at about 30 grams. The grinds should start to clump loosely, appear powdery, and feel gritty.
Keep in mind that, with espresso, we talk about coffee input and beverage yield. An average espresso shot should weight about 30-40 grams (or 2 oz.), but, depending on the crema, that can vary.
Those 18-to-21-grams of the good stuff are going to need to be tamped into the portafilter (the gizmo that holds the grounds during the brewing process). Tamping in the coffee world is exactly the same as tamping in the Webster world — we may not be packing a blast hole full of clay or sand, but the idea is pretty similar. You need to pack the grind in nice and tight so that the water has no choice but to mix and mingle and drag out all of that delicious flavor and subtle notes.
This brings me to the last thing you’ll need: an espresso tamper. You can spend 6 bucks or 100 on it, that’s totally your call, but this gadget is what clinches the deal. It’s simple to use — just evenly press down the grounds. Not too hard, just with enough force to pack them in. The ideal weight is 30 pounds of pressure, and you can haul out your bathroom scale to be sure, but eventually you’ll just know. It’ll become second nature.
What I’m saying is that you should do your time feeling silly pressing down with the tamper on the bathroom scale now so you can impress the holy heck out of your friends the next time you have a small gathering.
Oh! You do need one more thing! I didn’t necessarily lie, I mean, you can let that espresso shot drop into anything you want, I suppose, but I think presentation is important. Having some gorgeous demitasses just really takes an espresso shot home. Check these beauties out.
Alright. Well. I think that’s everything you need to know.
Okay, my brew warriors. It’s time!
Alright, let’s do this. We’ll go through this step by step, starting with the machine.
Acquire espresso machine. Whether you purchase it from your nearest home good store or your favorite online retailer with prime delivery options that are so convenient it feels like you’re cheating at life makes no difference to me!
Plug it in — that’s a universal thing you’ll have to do no matter which single-serve espresso machine you buy. After this point, I recommend taking a look at the good ol’ manual because my precognition ends right about there. Swallow your pride and just read it.
I agree. It’s totally adding insult to injury that the print is so small and the instructions so dry, but suck it up like the brew master you are and just get it over with. I can’t write everything you read, okay? This is also what’s going to tell you whether you need to invest in a Brita filter or if you remembered to acquire a model with a built-in deal. Some machines recommend flushing with vinegar or any number of quirky things, so pay close attention.
Once all of that’s completed, you’ll want to fill the tank with water. Don’t exceed the max water limit. You know. Common sense things like that.
Warmth plays such a huge role in making an espresso shot, and that heat needs to begin with the machine. Be patient, young padawan. Let the machine warm up fully; don’t jump the gun.
The first time you use the espresso machine, you don’t have to do this, but next time you fire ‘er up, there’s an extra step that’ll elevate your whole experience. Once everything is up and going, you’ll want to run some straight water through the machine. This gets rid of the stagnant water that might’ve been sitting in the pipes so that the good, fresh stuff has a direct path to the portafilter.
Now that that’s taken care of, it’s time to grind and measure your coffee. Using a conical burr grinder, you’ll want to grind up between 18 and 21 grams for a double shot of espresso. Make the ground as fine as they come. I recommend using a kitchen scale to get the amount just right.
Find the portafilter — it’s likely a very visible handle sticking out in front. Removing it should be very simple, but read the instructions any way to make sure you do it right. I’m not just repeating this to cover my butt in the event that you break your machine while following these directions. Nope.
Portafilters are very much like small brew baskets. There are three major components to a portafilter: the handle, a filter basket, and the tension spring, which holds the basket in place while water is rushing through.
Once the coffee is in the filter basket, make sure you shake the portafilter a little to even out the grinds, use your fingers and make sure that it’s evenly distributed.
Now tamp. I promise, the payoff is great. This way, the 30 pounds of pressure is even, which makes for a better pull.
Pick your demitasse and settle it underneath the spout.
And let ‘er rip.
It’s in your macchina’s hand now to deliver the smooth velvety espressa.
Like all good adventures and experiments, something’s bound to go amuck. Let’s talk about the variety of issues that beginner espresso pullers experience.
Woof! My shot’s tasting a bit on the bitter side.
My, yes, that is a problem. It’s called over-extraction and that taste’ll stick around your mouth for some time. The most likely culprit is that you tamped a tiny too hard. Go grab the bathroom scale and focus on 30 pounds, 30 pounds and nothing else. If it so happens to not be that, you can try decreasing the water temperature, or you can shorten the brew time.
My coffee doesn’t taste like much of anything?
You tried to cut corners. You thought the even distribution and tamping was silly. Here’s the moment where I get to say “I told you so!” Go get the tamper. Take a few seconds and really fill that portafilter correctly.
There’s not much crema on the top. What do I do?
There are two options. First, ask yourself, how old is this coffee? If it’s not able to claim a certain level of freshness, that could be to blame for the lack of crema. On the other hand, you might also need to increase your dose or grind your grounds finer. Learn more about crema here.
My demitasse is pretty much ALL crema. Where’s my espresso?
One, good job! You bought fresh coffee! In fact, the coffee you bought had so recently completed the roasting process that the oils haven’t had time to settle. Take that bag of coffee, seal it nice and tight, and wait a few days before attempt two.
Pulling the perfect espresso shot is an art and, like all of the arts, it takes time to perfect. It won’t be long before you’re pulling them left and right, handing out saucers with demitasses perched on top, being showered with praise from your friends. Imagine it.
Buy an espresso machine and build your coffee arsenal. You’re a brew warrior and, today, you graduated.