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How to Make the Perfect Espresso: An In-Depth Guide

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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I spend a lot of time reviewing espresso machines here at Coffeeness, but I've never written an article about making espresso. Perhaps that's because learning how to make the perfect espresso involves so much time, patience and dedication. In other words, I didn't want you guys to feel overwhelmed.

I spend a lot of time reviewing espresso machines here at Coffeeness, but I’ve never written an article about making espresso. Perhaps that’s because learning how to make the perfect espresso involves so much time, patience and dedication. In other words, I didn’t want you guys to feel overwhelmed.

Still, having thought it over, I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out how to present all the information you need in an easy-to-follow guide. So, whether you’re an old hand in need of a refresher or a complete beginner, this post is for you.

Don’t worry – I won’t get overly geeky and technical. However, you’ll find all the information you need to start making great espresso at home. Ready? Let’s do this!

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Overview: What Is Espresso?

You don’t need me to tell you that espresso is a coffee brewing method. That said, “true” espresso is very much its own thing. In fact, what you get from a super automatic espresso machine or a moka pot is just an approximation of the real deal.

So what sets true espresso apart from other brewing methods? Well, it’s all about pressure. In order to make proper espresso, you need a machine that can force hot water through a bed of ground coffee at between 6 and 9 bars of pressure. And when water meets compacted coffee grounds under sufficient pressure, you’ll get a higher level of extraction.

The end result is a small, highly concentrated shot of coffee wherein sufficient oils and gasses have been extracted during the brewing process. And you’ll see a thick layer of foamy crema on top. Without getting too technical, the presence of crema indicates that your extraction was successful.

How to Pull a Perfect Espresso Shot Even If You Think It's Too Complicated
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✔ Easy-to-follow guide demystifying the espresso-making process

✔ Clear explanations of each step to avoid confusion and frustration

✔ Proven methods to consistently achieve a smooth, flavorful shot

Making Espresso at Home: Equipment You’ll Need

Depending on who you ask, the list of essential espresso accessories you’ll need could be as long as your arm. Take it from me though, if you’re just getting started, there’s a minimum amount of equipment to worry about. And once you get more comfortable making espresso, you can feel free to dive into the barista tools rabbit hole.

It almost goes without saying you’ll need a decent home espresso machine. That said, there’s nothing to stop you buying a commercial model if you want! Still, most beginners will stick with an affordable espresso machine under $500. Again, you may find yourself wanting to upgrade down the road, but there are plenty of mid-range machines capable of producing exceptional espresso.

Gaggia Classic Pro Pulling Espresso Shot

Perhaps more important than the espresso machine is the grinder you’ll be pairing it with. Unless you buy a machine like the Solis Grind and Infuse Perfetta, which has a built-in grinder, you’ll need a separate burr coffee grinder that’s espresso-capable. Trust me, you’ll never learn how to make the perfect espresso with pre-ground coffee. Or a blade grinder for that matter. Incidentally, if you don’t mind a little workout before each espresso shot, manual coffee grinders offer by far the best value for money. My current fave for espresso is the wonderful 1Zpresso J-Max.

Finally, you’ll need a decent espresso tamper. In my experience, even a very good machine like the Gaggia Classic Pro comes with an embarrassingly bad plastic tamper/scoop combo. That said, Breville espresso machines include a halfway decent tamper that’ll do the job for a while.

Either way, you’ll likely end up buying your own and you won’t have to spend too much to get something truly effective.

Selecting the Best Coffee Beans for Espresso

It’s a common misconception that there’s such a thing as an espresso coffee bean. In reality, you can make an espresso shot with whichever beans you’d like.

Traditionally, folks used super dark roasts when making espresso, seeing as that’s what the Italians prefer. However, these days it’s common to find third wave cafes serving up shots of espresso made with light roast, single-origin coffee beans.

Personally, I prefer a coffee blend that’s been crafted with espresso preparation in mind. In this case, the roaster has selected a blend of different coffees to provide balance, sweetness and complexity in your espresso shot. That said, I can still appreciate “interesting” espresso prepared using an exotic single-origin Ethiopian coffee.

Degass Coffee Beans Without Airscape Plunger

Ultimately, experimenting with different beans is part of the fun, and there’s no right or wrong bean to use.

What’s most important is focusing on quality and freshness when selecting the best coffee beans for espresso. Still, make sure your beans aren’t too fresh. Rather, let fresh beans rest for a few days to allow for off-gassing before brewing espresso. Finally, don’t forget to store your beans in a coffee canister to keep them fresh for as long as possible.

Dialing in Your Recipe

There are so many variables involved in pulling a good espresso shot that it can all feel a little overwhelming. I’m talking about brewing temperature, grind size, roast level and loads more. However, by maintaining consistency in your espresso recipe, you’ll quickly learn how to make the perfect espresso shot.

The first part of your espresso recipe is your dose, and how much coffee you’ll use depends on your basket size. For the most part, a double filter basket dose should be between 16 and 18 grams.

Next, you should find a brew ratio that works best for you. Most baristas aim for a 1:2 ratio, meaning your espresso yield will weigh twice as much as your dose of ground coffee. So, using a coffee scale during extraction is vital here.

Finally, you’ll need to monitor the time it takes to achieve your chosen espresso yield. Again, a good coffee scale like the Fellow Tally Pro will have a timer function to make this easier. As a general rule, your shot should fully extract within 25-30 seconds.

As long as you maintain consistency in your recipe and your machine’s temperature is stable, it’ll all come down to the grinder if your espresso shot is too fast or too slow. Adjust finer for gushing, under extracted shots and coarser if your espresso takes too long to extract.

How to Make the Perfect Espresso: Step-By-Step Guide

Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, you’re ready to learn how to make the perfect espresso! Whether you’re using a fancy prosumer espresso machine or a budget-friendly espresso maker, make sure it’s fully warmed up and ready to go.

If your machine uses thermoblock heating, that might mean you’ll need to run water through the brew group and portafilter. Still, rather than waste water, you can use it to preheat your espresso cups.

Remember, you’re aiming for as much thermal stability as possible to help maintain consistency in your espresso shots!

Clean and Dose the Portafilter

Fellow Opus Coffee Grinds in Portafilter

First things first, use a dry towel to wipe out your filter basket. This will get rid of any moisture and leftover coffee grounds, both of which could negatively affect your extraction.

Once that’s done, dose your portafilter with your desired amount of coffee. Depending on which grinder you’re using, you might dose directly into the portafilter or use a dosing cup. Oh, and don’t forget to make sure your dose is correct by weighing it with your scale!

Distribute and Tamp

It’s vital that the coffee grounds are evenly distributed in the filter basket before you tamp them down. Think of it this way: water always finds the path of least resistance, especially when it’s being forced through a barrier under pressure.

So, you want to create an even barrier to prevent channeling. The best way to do this is to use a distribution tool, but gently tapping the side of the portafilter to settle the coffee grounds will also work.

Once that’s done, use your tamper to compress the bed of grounds into a coffee puck. Do so on a level surface with your arm at a 90-degree angle, pushing with steady, even pressure. Ultimately, what’s most important here is creating a level surface without cracks or fissures.

Flush the Group Head

Watch any professional barista at work and you’ll always see them flush the group head before brewing. This helps keep the shower screen clean and also aids in maintaining a consistent brewing temperature. So, hit the “brew” button before inserting your portafilter and let hot water run for a couple of seconds.

Insert the Portafilter and Brew

Now it’s go time! Working quickly, insert your portafilter, making sure it’s tightly in place. However, don’t feel like you have to go crazy and over tighten the thing. Next, place your coffee scale on the drip tray with your favorite espresso cup on top. Make sure to start the timer and the brewing process at the same time.

Monitor Your Espresso Shot

Breville Barista Express Pulling Espresso Shot Close

Keep a close eye on your espresso shot as it’s extracting. Of course, you’ll be looking for a specific yield in a given amount of time, depending on your espresso recipe. And as I mentioned earlier, you can be fairly sure that a grind size adjustment will take care of shots that are either too fast or too slow.

Incidentally, you should also keep an eye on the color of the crema and how the espresso flows from the portafilter spouts.

Pale crema indicates under-extraction, but it could mean your brewing temperature was too low. On the flip side, crema that’s too dark signifies sour, over-extracted coffee.

As for the flow rate, it should be steady and even. If you notice espresso flowing erratically it usually signifies issues with distribution and tamping.

Final Thoughts

In an ideal world, you’ll get a perfect shot of espresso right off the bat. And to be honest, the more comfortable you get, the more likely it is that’s what’ll happen.

Still, as you’re learning, make sure to taste each and every shot of espresso you pull. Trust me, tasting bad shots is a great way to identify problems with your extraction. Plus, you’ll quickly get a greater appreciation for perfectly pulled espresso!

And now you know how to make the perfect espresso! Do you have any additional questions or suggestions? Make sure to leave a comment!

Your coffee expert
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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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