Espresso is seen as the King of all coffee. Making the perfect espresso is a science but it’s fun and easy with the right tools. It is the perfect quick caffeine kick if you require a pick-me-up (which probably happens more than you wish), but can also be a base for all your lattes, mochas and even the iced coffees.
Everything starts with espresso. Without espresso, there wouldn’t be all the variety in your local cafè which requires you to spend three hours deciding what you want.
But getting it just right can be a bit of an art. It is no longer a case of popping a teaspoon of instant in a mug and adding the water, so the mug is only a quarter full. Oh no.
Of course, there is nothing to stop you from doing this. But any true espresso lover will likely have a dedicated espresso machine to do most of the hard work for them. And if you don’t, then you quickly need to read our review of the best espresso machines on the market at the moment.
Once you have decided on the best machine for you, this is how you make an espresso:
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You will need:
- Espresso machine
- Ground coffee or beans and a grinder
- Espresso mug/glass
- Before you get going, preheat the machine. It may take a while depending on your exact model. You may also wish to preheat your cup by running heated water through the portafilter and cup before adding the coffee
- A.k.a measuring out your perfect amount of grounds. Grind the beans to the correct consistency beforehand if necessary. The ideal amount is usually between 14 and 18g but can vary depending on your tastes and the machine. A traditional Italian 30ml double espresso is made with a 14g dose, FYI
- Add these grounds to the portafilter, and tamper them. Tampering is the process of levelling and packing the grounds so they are all equal and a consistent amount of water touches each ground on its journey. Because we don’t want the water finding an easy channel to escape through and giving us the worst coffee ever. Some machines may have an inbuilt tamper which works just before you attach the portafilter, or you may have to do it manually
- Brew and Extract.Start the brewing process. Whether your espresso machine is a pump (the water is heated and drawn through the grounds automatically), or a lever (you must create the pumping power manually), the method of the water filtering through the coffee is important for the final taste. Just pop your mug or glass under the spout, and the coffee will go straight into it. Professionals say this should ideally take 30 seconds between start and finish, and they usually know their stuff. They have even called it ‘The Golden Rule’
There you have it. Making espresso is a lot easier than it would seem when you have a machine to help. Every device is operated differently, so always follow instructions, but most modern options now work in a similar way. You may also need to make a few changes to the extraction rate or dose to cater to your tastes.
What makes machine-made espresso so great?
Not only is it a bit less effort for you, but the taste is maximized. Espressos need extremely hot water forced through the grinds at very high pressure to taste their best. This is ideally nine times the atmospheric pressure, or ‘nine bars’, at 96°C (just shy of boiling point). The machines have this for you without the need for kettles, thermometers and an aching arm.
How should the beans be ground?
Whether you are grinding them yourself or buying them already made from the local shop, the level to which your coffee beans are ground can have a huge impact on taste.
For espresso, you need quite a fine ground as this slows down water penetration, which requires more pressure and results in better extraction of flavour.
What else can I use if I don’t have an espresso machine?
A lot of machines will create an espresso-sized shot either as default or at the press of a button, such as a bean to cup or Moka pots. Even large quantity brewers such as French presses can be altered to create a few shots of espresso rather than a large carafe of moderate strength.
Pod machines are also a form of an espresso machine, so even if you don’t fancy yourself as a semi-professional barista anytime soon but fancy giving life with an affordable electrical machine or manual coffee maker a go, it is possible.
Are there any other tips?
- Always use filtered water. This doesn’t only mean a better taste, but also will not contain any chemicals which could scale up the internals of your machine.
- If you do like to grind yourself or are tempted to try it, buy a burr grinder rather than a blade version. It doesn’t have to be a high-end model but will mean more consistent particle size. This is not so crucial with some other machines and coffee types but can be vital with espressos. We have reviewed them all here to help you decide.
- Remember your particular method, as every machine and individual is different. You have needed to experiment for the past few days to get the taste right and hurrah! You created the most perfect espresso ever yesterday. It is easy to remember which coffee you used, you have your tamping method spot on, and the cup was perfectly pre-warmed. Fabulous. But you can’t remember the dose weight of the coffee or the time you spent extracting it. You dread it will never be recreated again. So make a note of what you did and refer to it until it is ingrained in your mind.
Dan is a former competition barista and has been honing his knowledge of coffee for over two decades.
He has worked in coffee farms in Peru, as well as roasters in Australia. He now trains new baristas and hosts cupping experiences in Austin.