Brewing coffee should be simple: just add water, right? Although you only need two ingredients–ground coffee and water–to make a cup of coffee, there are countless ways to brew. You can go pour-over style with a Chemex, Hario V60 or Kalita Wave, to name just a few of the most popular pour-over brewers. You can press coffee with an Aeropress, a French press, or if you’re feeling particularly patriotic, an American press. You could go old school with a stovetop Moka pot, or give Turkish coffee a try by using a cezve ibrik. You can even brew coffee in a sock!
But today, we are talking specifically about espresso. There can be a lot of factors to keep track of when pulling a shot, so we’ll go over the essentials in this blog: what constitutes an espresso, a few important considerations when brewing, how to choose the right coffee.
What is espresso?
Espresso brewing dates back to early 20th century Italy, where the first steam-powered coffee makers were invented; these machines were the precursors to modern-day espresso machines. The word “espresso” comes from the Italian phrase “caffe espresso” meaning “pressed-out coffee” which refers to the way that espresso machines push water through a bed of coffee.
This is an important distinction to note: an espresso is solely defined by the method of brewing and not by a type of coffee bean or how the beverage appears. For example, if you brewed a really strong, 2oz cup of coffee using a Chemex and a bag of coffee labeled “espresso beans,” it would not be considered an espresso. Pressure is the crucial differentiator when it comes to making an espresso. In other words, an espresso is simply any coffee brewed by using an espresso machine.
Characteristics of espresso
Even though not every coffee shop brews espresso the same way, there are a few common traits that are hallmarks of a good shot of espresso.
- Espressos are tiny. In general, a shot of espresso is around 1-2 oz of liquid. Technically, you could brew an espresso to fill a whole mug if you wanted; however, that would not taste good for a number of reasons, so we don’t recommend doing that.
- Espressos are very strong. In a typical cup of drip coffee, only 1.5% of its total mass is dissolved coffee solids; the rest is water. In contrast, around 10% of an espresso is pure coffee, making for a much more potent beverage.
- Espressos are foamy. If you’ve ever had an espresso, you’ve likely noticed that there’s usually a layer of golden brown foam adorning the liquid coffee underneath–that’s called the crema. As a result of the high pressures involved in espresso brewing, some of the oil molecules in coffee end up wrapping themselves around microscopic air bubbles, forming an emulsion. Think of it as a dollop of whipped cream, but instead of cream, it’s still part of the coffee.
What to consider when making an espresso
Espresso brewing can be complicated. The pursuit of the elusive “god shot” continues to be a hot topic on many coffee Reddit boards, and these days, it seems like everyone is blowing up on Tik Tok with their “ASMR 20-step morning espresso routine” videos.
In truth, making espresso doesn’t need to be so intricate. You can make excellent espressos by keeping a few key things in mind:
- Invest in a high-quality, capable burr grinder. Using a good grinder capable of grinding fine enough for espresso is essential, otherwise your shots will run too quickly and ruin any chance of getting a proper extraction.
- Choose semi-automatic over automatic espresso machines. Semi-automatic machines will give you more control over your brewing, allowing you to better “dial-in” your shots.
- Use a scale. Espresso brewing requires a high degree of precision. Relying on visual cues to know when to cut off a shot is inaccurate and inconsistent. We recommend using scales accurate to a tenth of a gram.
- Start with a 1:2 ratio of coffee to water. That is, for every gram of ground coffee that goes into the espresso machine, you should get double the weight in liquid espresso out. Start there and adjust your ratio based on how your coffee tastes.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, use the right kind of coffee.
How to choose coffees for espresso
You’ve likely seen bags of coffee at the grocery store labeled “espresso blend” or “espresso roast.” This doesn’t mean, however, that you can only use “espresso beans” to brew espresso. Like we said earlier, espresso is defined by its brewing method, so any coffee beans can be brewed as espresso. However, there are some coffees that tend to be more suited for espresso brewing than others, depending on the flavor profiles you prefer.
Know the roast profile
In general, the more developed a roast, the easier it is to extract. Light roasted coffees can be delicious as espresso, but can be tricky to extract. The flavor profile of a light roast leans towards being brighter and more aromatic, but also tends to lack body and mouthfeel.
On the other hand, dark roasted coffees make for an espresso with a rich, luscious texture. Because of their dark roast, however, these espressos can taste exceptionally bitter and be unpleasant to drink without the addition of milk.
We recommend a solid medium roasted coffee as the best option for a great, reliable espresso. You get the best of both worlds: a balanced espresso that is sweet, expressive and complex, with a pleasant, silky mouthfeel, and minimal bitterness.
The Downtown Blend is our most popular option, and our go-to in-house choice for excellent espresso every time.
Pay attention to origin
Some origins such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Ecuador and Panama are known for producing exceptionally delicate, complex and fruit-forward coffees. While delicious as a filter brew, sometimes these flavors don’t translate well or get lost when brewed as espresso.
Check the roast date
Contrary to popular belief, fresher isn’t always better, at least when it comes to espresso. Brewing an espresso just after it’s been roasted often leads to a shot that tastes unbalanced, bitter and astringent. Coffee destined for espresso needs time to rest and mellow out, at least 5 days off roast, but ideally 10.
Of course, coffee that’s too old won’t taste good either. Aim to use up your coffee within a month and you’ll be set.
Our last piece of advice: taste a bunch of different coffees! Ultimately, it all comes down to the flavors that you enjoy in your ideal shot of espresso, therefore, the best coffee beans to use are whatever you like. Perhaps you’ll find a floral, light-roasted Ethiopian espresso is exactly the sort of style that you prefer–but you won’t know without trying!
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