guide to home espresso

An Introduction to Espresso

Getting Started: The Complete Guide To The Drink Known As Espresso and How To Make Espresso At Home

Espresso is a base for many coffee recipes or a coffee concentrate. Espresso is made by forcing (under pressure) very hot water through a coffee ground to a very fine consistency. Espresso is measured in shots and is thicker than traditionally brewed coffee. How to you make espresso will depend on a number of factors.

First you must learn the physical extraction techniques of how to make espresso, followed by the different types of roasts, and finally how to choose the best coffee beans to produce the espresso drink that YOU enjoy.

After you have the technique and bean selection down, it will depend on the espresso machine, the tamp, temperature, your coffee grind (coarseness), and still other factors.

In this guide we will touch on each of these factors, and cover them as thoroughly as possible in the current setting, while still sticking to the spirit of this guide. However some espressos subjects are far to detailed to include on one inclusive page. As a result we have other coffee guides and "how to's" covering some particular subjects in a way that will have much more drilled down information relating to that technique or piece of equipment. As you read along here when we get to topic that more details may be helpful a link to and description of that guide will be noted.

A few key points to remember: Use good and fresh quality of coffee beans and maintain the consistency of the  grind because, it will effect the quality of the espresso. The characteristic of espresso is the foam that covers the top of the espresso that called the existence of crema.

espresso guide

An Introduction to Espresso

The complexities of this wonderful beverage are demystified in this guide.

Most people want to get started making espresso at home want the best espresso machine they can find, or at least the "best" that their budget will allow. Others have specific needs, be it the desire to make a latte, cappuccino, or mocha in the comfort of their home instead of relying on the local coffee bar where the cost seems to be ever increasing. Many ask if the what espresso makers are capable of producing these beverages, and the answer is most definitely yes. If you just want to make a latte or cappuccino, but have interest in making espresso yourself, then you definitely need to read this guide.

So, you want to learn how to make espresso?!

"Nope, I just want to make a cappuccino! Who said anything about "expresso?"(….Yes, we intentionally misspelled the term espresso. It's okay; a lot of folks incorrectly pronounce the word "espresso"). So, you want to make a cappuccino, or perhaps a latte or mocha, or some other drink that you found on the menu at the local coffee bar. Well, espresso is the basic ingredient of all of those coffee drinks you enjoy spending $4-$6+ on everyday. Yep, if you order a latte, cappuccino, cafe mocha, Macchiato, or many of the other "coffee" beverages, it is going to have espresso in it. Because of this simple fact, this guide is very important to review, as it will shed a lot of light on the significance of the basic ingredient in, say, your latte.

espresso cup

It amazes me that many people I talk to have no idea that the latte they are sipping from has espresso in it. Many people new to coffee ask what the difference between a latte and espresso is.

In fact, espresso is the basis for most of the coffee and milk based drinks on the menu. Espresso is what makes your latte, mocha, cappuccino, or Americano have that coffee taste. Now, I must point out that I realize that most folks reading this guide do know what espresso is. However, it is important to keep with the spirit of this guide and to mention what espresso is and if you want to make cappuccino or a latte at home, you have to understand how to prepare espresso.

Did you know that the material costs are around 30 cents to make a shot of espresso, and about 70-80 cents to make a cappuccino, latte or mocha? Of course, quality commercial coffee equipment, location and staffing add a lot to the cost, but the low consumable costs vs. high retail prices are one of the main reasons many coffee bars are springing up in towns across America. Why not consider making your own espresso at home at a fraction of the cafe price and reserve those visits to the coffee shot for when you want to meet with friends or family? Well if that sounds like what you are wanting, and you are ready to learn the secrets behind a perfect espresso, cappuccino, latte or mocha, we invite you to sit back and enjoy this practical primer. This espresso drink guide will get you up to speed about the beverage, its history and coffee styled terminology as well as touching on the different types of espresso machines and technologies involved. Most importantly, learn how easy it can be to produce cafe quality espresso drinks in the comfort of your home or office anytime.

We applaud the fact that you are taking the time to read this guide. I hope it will serve you well on your journey towards truly enjoying the art of espresso and other coffee drinks in the comfort of your home.

What is Espresso?

espresso nespresso creama

This section discusses what espresso really is, and what it is not.

Espresso starts as very finely ground coffee beans. The water is then forced through the coffee to produce a mouth watering cup of highly condensed coffee flavor with intensely enhanced notes. Espresso is one of my favorite ways to enjoy coffee and is the starting point for many other coffee drinks. One of my favorite coffee drinks made with espresso is an Americano.

Espresso is brewed coffee. It is not by definition a different bean but a different brew method. It is smaller than a cup of coffee but it can be just as strong in terms of caffeine. It is a small amount of finely ground coffee brewed with nearly boiling water. It is usually. .8 to 1 1/2 ounces of liquid in total. In order to brew it you need an espresso machine. The machine brews coffee under pressure which is what gives the coffee the creamier, thicker consistency and the layer of crema on top.

If you have never tried espresso I would highly recommend giving it a try. Many coffee’s taste better brewed as espresso than as brewed coffee. Coffee shop’s usually have an espresso blend that is used in all of their specialty coffee drinks but many single origin coffees that are good brewed as a pour over have explosive flavor when brewed as espresso. It can bring out and accentuate the coffees most desirable qualities making for the best cup of coffee you have ever had in your life. Watch out though, once you start down the road of espresso infatuation you may never return. My obsession with finding the perfect espresso has brought me to the point of owning my own Rancilio Rocky grinder and Silvia espresso machine and brewing every coffee I come into contact with through it. It has become a regular part of my whole bean evaluation process. I love this brew style and find it to be the fullest envelopment of my tongues flavor sensors. The many other brew methods all have their place and many coffees don’t perform well as espresso. I find the differences in what a coffee tastes like brewed as drip, pour over, stove top, chemex, trifecta and espresso fascinating.

Are espresso beans different, or can espresso be made with regular coffee?

No espresso bean are NOT different, and YES it can and is made with regular coffee. Espresso is a brewed coffee like any other. It is not by definition a different bean but a different brew method. There are no special “espresso coffee beans” the beans used in espresso do not differ from other beans. In order to brew it you need an espresso machine. The machine brews coffee under pressure which is what gives the coffee the creamier, thicker consistency, but its is made with regular coffee, just as you use in whatever brewer you use now, it is simply just a much finer grind but still the same beans.

Espresso is NOT a Bean, It's a Brew Method

Myth - Espresso is loaded with caffeine! - Wrong: The mother of all espresso misconceptions is that espresso is full of caffeine and that you will be bouncing off the walls after just one dose, or shot as we like to call it. Not true, in fact it takes three or four espresso shots to equal the caffeine content of one 12 ounce cup of regular  drip coffee. So if you think that you are getting a "jolt of energy" by asking the Barista to add four shots of espresso to your latte in the morning because you need the kick, perhaps you should save your money and go buy a cup of coffee at the local mini-mart. You will get just as much if not more caffeine and it will be much less expensive, and they usually don't charge for the cream. We will discuss this subject in more detail later in the guide.

How To "Take" Your Espresso.

Italians often take sugar in their espresso, and there is really no stigma against adding sugar to your own shots. However, truly great espresso should consumed sugar-free. if it was brewed with care and carefully chosen coffee beans there is no need to add sweetness to the flavor. It should have a smooth and sweet taste on its own, and not bitter. It should roll across your taste buds and leave a lasting impression of flavor. A bad shot of espresso is liking biting into an orange and having it taste like a lemon!

The Road to Espresso

We talk about where coffee beans come from and why this is important for your espresso.

espresso bean cherries

Like other coffee brewing methods, espresso is derived from the coffee bean. The coffee bean is actually the pit, or seed, of the coffee berry. The berries grow on trees that are best suited to the growing climates located between the two Tropics and also at specific elevations, usually between 2500 and 6000 feet above sea level.

Berries are either hand picked or mechanically picked (for reasons of quality assurance, hand picked berries are obviously the best, and one reason for the premium cost of some beans). The berries are then air-dried or wet processed, sorted and further processed until all the best beans are bagged, and "brought to market". At this stage, coffee is still unroasted, or "green", and it is shipped around the world in this state. Green coffee can keep for a long time - up to two years or longer if the storage conditions are right.

Eventually all coffee gets roasted. The trick with really good coffee is that it must be roasted as close to the "brewing time" as possible. Most roasted coffees have a shelf life of 2 weeks, and after that, the taste, aromas and overall quality start going downhill rapidly. However, in recent years many coffee roasters have started packaging their coffee beans in vacuum packed bags or bags that have special one-way valves that allow the escape of gases, but prevent air from entering the bag. These new bags can extend the shelf life to several months.

The Coffee Beans Used to Make The Best Espresso

We take a closer look at the coffee beans commonly used for espresso and what happens when they are roasted.

In our previous section, we discuss coffee beans a bit, but in this section, we'll discuss more how different types of coffee and different types of roasts can produce different styles of espresso. We will also look at the caffeine content in espresso and shatter the myth that espresso if full of caffeine.

espresso beans

Along with a quality coffee grinder, nothing provides as big a leap in espresso quality that fresh roasted, quality Arabica coffee beans can provide. Roast types and bean types are important, but not nearly as important as fresh beans.

The coffee bean is a wondrous thing and one of nature's most complex creations. When coffee is roasted, it undergoes major chemical changes - the chemistry of the bean alters radically during the roasting process. Two products of the roast are large amounts of carbon dioxide gas and lipids. The lipids are, in a literal sense, little flavor transporters that carry all the best possible tastes from the bean into the brewing water that go into your cup and into your mouth where your tongue tells your brain "wow, this is something special". Carbon dioxide (CO2) also helps to transport these flavors, and gives them a tingle and tang that makes great coffee. CO2 also serves another major purpose - it is the prime builder and longevity producer for the crema that tops a shot of espresso.

So remember this: carbon dioxide and lipids are your friends when it comes to good espresso.

The problem with both of these elements is this – they always want to escape. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a virtual escape artist in fact. When coffee is roasted, it produces a lot of CO2, but a lot of the CO2 is lost after the roast through a normal process the beans undergo, called "degassing". This is a good thing – too much CO2 in the beans actually can ruin the shot. About 24 to 48 hours after roasting, the CO2 release settles down, but still continues at a slow, but steady pace. This is the "sweet spot" for coffee... the next 4 to 7 days, the CO2 levels are excellent and the lipids are happy in their shelled cocoons. But after 7 days, the coffee has expunged most of its allotment of CO2 gas and that nasty corrosive oxygen leeches in and replaces it. This is when beans start to go stale.

CO2 has another enemy of sorts, which is the very thing that is a must in producing great espresso, which is the grinder.

The act of grinding releases approximately 75 to 80 percent of the stored CO2 in a coffee bean within two minutes of grinding. This is why it is so crucial to grind just before brewing – you capture that CO2 in your shot, and the result is lots of dark golden crema, and a silky yet tactile beverage that seems to linger on your taste buds for quite some time. That is the result of CO2 and the flavor lipid transporters doing their job. And they do their job best when you use fresh roasted, fresh ground coffee.

Now that the idea of fresh ground, fresh roasted coffee is seeded in your head, let's cover the types of beans and roasts a bit more.

Caffeine and Espresso

cafe espress tall

You may have read or heard about different families of coffee trees – most notably Arabica and robusta coffees. Arabica beans are the original coffee beans found in Yemen and Ethiopia, and these are without a doubt the best quality beans on the planet. The Arabica coffee tree is a fragile plant and it needs specific growing conditions to produce a good crop. These conditions are usually between 2,000 and 6,000 feet in elevation above the sea, and usually between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer. While Arabica coffee trees may be fragile, the beans they are produce are amazing, and have low caffeine levels while literally exploding with a wide range of flavors and tastes.

Robusta beans are more hardy beans that can grow in more diverse growing conditions. They are found in the jungles of Zaire and the forests of Vietnam. Robusta trees can even grow in the southern United States with little or no effort. The price you pay with robusta is in a loss of taste or a different taste that doesn't appeal to most people. Many robustas have a "rubber" taste and seem much more astringent than Arabica beans. There are some quality robustas, but they are usually grown in areas suited for Arabica trees and are better maintained and harvested. Robusta has a much higher yield of caffeine than Arabica does and in most instant coffee (like Folgers Crystals) and other types of prepackaged supermarket coffees, robusta makes up 75% or more of the total coffee bean volume used. Italians often blend in some robusta with their Arabica blends to strengthen their blends (as well as to reduce costs - robusta beans are much cheaper on the world market than Arabica beans are).

Since Arabica beans are the most common type used for espresso blends, the espresso they make will be have less caffeine than espresso made with Robusta beans. However, aside from the type of coffee beans used the volume of the beverage plays a role in the caffeine content. Consider the volume of liquid and lets assume we are using the same coffee beans to brew espresso in one "pot" and drip coffee in another, and we know that a shot of espresso is about 1.5 ounces as compared to 6 ounces for the average cup from a drip coffee maker. One can now easily see why espresso does not have more caffeine than regular coffee simply based on the volume of the liquid. You would have to drink four espresso shots to equal the caffeine content of the drip coffee. Each shot of espresso will contain about 30 mg of caffeine as compared to 120 mg in the 6 ounce cup of coffee. Despite this surprising news don't stop drinking espresso just because it is low in caffeine. It should not be consumed as an energy drink, it's to good for that.

Choosing the Right Coffee Beans – Is there a perfect coffee bean for espresso?

We do not "suggest" any coffee blend for any purpose. This is because coffee lovers come from all over the world. Many have sipped coffee roasted and blended based on countless secret recipes and traditions. What one person may consider a great tasting coffee might cause another to turn up their nose and grimace at the cup they just sipped from.

Simply put, there is no perfect blend or brand of coffee. If you like it, then there is no need to change. All of the espresso machines we talk about or review, whether they are super automatic or semiautomatic, are perfectly happy using whatever blend of coffee you chose. But, in order to obtain the flavor and results you are looking for, you will have to experiment to find the right match. The espresso blends we like by Illy, Lavazza, Mellelo Coffee Roasters, Bristot and others have all been blended with "espresso" in mind. They are very good in our opinion, in our opinion that is. Yes, I can personally recommend them, but you will have to be the final judge.

However, if you are just getting into making espresso at home, then the best place to start is to purchase freshly roasted beans that have been blended for espresso making. Large coffee store chains will have blends they can suggest for espresso. Supermarkets will also have many coffee bean choices, but be careful, as their level of freshness may be a concern. Check for dates on the coffee bins or coffee bean bags to insure you are getting the freshest beans possible.

Ideally, you should purchase your coffee beans from a local roaster who specializes in small batch roasting. Small batches can be as little as 5-15 pounds of coffee, which the Roastmaster intends on selling within a 2-3 days.

Roasting and Blending The Best Beans for Espresso

We take a look at what goes into choosing the best coffee beans for espresso to obtain certain flavors and characteristics after the beans have been roasted and blended.

roasting and blending for espresso

Remember in our previous section we dismissed the myth that there is a specific espresso bean, roast, or blend. That is true. Still, there is both an art and a science to choosing beans for espresso, roasting for espresso, and blending for espresso. We will not attempt to give you specific guidelines as to what constitutes the perfect espresso blend, but we will give you some background into why different roasters may choose different beans and different roast levels.

When choosing beans for an espresso blend, most roasters look for specific flavors. Chocolate, floral, grassy, cinnamon, spicy, fruity, these are all flavors found in different types of coffee. Even more challenging is that specific coffees from year to year can change their primary flavor notes. For example, one year an Ethiopian Ghimbi bean may have tea-like notes as its primary flavor. The next year, it may be more on the grassy, lemony side of the flavor wheel. The next year after that, it could have chocolate notes.

This is why professional roasters cup samples of beans every year before making a major purchase. And this is why they may change the beans in their customized blends every year. If one bean isn't producing the same primary flavor note one year, they will find another bean from another region that produces the flavor they are seeking.

Roasting can affect the taste of a bean and there are also regional likes and expectations to factor in. Thanks in large part to Starbucks, the west coast of the US tends to favor a darker roast than the central US does. In Northern Italy, a medium (or "Full City") roast is preferred for espresso. In the eastern US, it's all over the board, with some people preferring a light roast.

Knowing the intended roast style means choosing an espresso bean that will be well matched to a roast style. For instance, a good Kona seems to be best when roasted to a medium roast. It is a delicate bean and dark roasting that seems to burn off most of the delicate flavors, leaving it lifeless and dull. Yet an Old Government Java seems to be mute and dull as a medium roast, but starts to release its nutty and floral flavors as soon as you make it into a medium-dark roast or darker.

Conversely, if you want specific bean types, you have to roast according to that bean type. If you must have Yemen Mocha in your espresso blend, it must be roasted to a level that suits the Yemen bean, not to your preferred final roast.

Then comes the blending. A professional roaster will have specific goals in mind when blending for espresso. They may want specific flavors to shine, and other flavors to complement, and they will choose the best beans and best roasting levels to get those specific flavors.

Roasting is a very complex and artistic field with relatively few true experts and the artistry is unsurpassed in the culinary world. With the wide variety of beans available to the roaster today, it's easy to see how complex producing the perfect espresso blend can be. We will not delve into the world of coffee roasting here, but there are many good books out there about it.  Also in our own "coffee roasting" guide you will find a wealth of information on the subject. Major online booksellers usually yield many good titles as well.

Grinding Coffee Beans for Espresso: An Overview

This often-overlooked ritual can mean the difference between loving your espresso machine, and throwing it in the trash. The proper grind of espresso beans is critical in order to achieve perfect espresso.

coffee grinding

This really is one thing we cannot stress enough. The most crucial part of any high quality home espresso setup is the grinder. You can actually produce a much better espresso with a $200 grinder and a $150 espresso machine than you can with a $1000 machine and no grinder. We offer a complete guide to coffee grinders and our hope is that you will read and benefit from it.

The reason the grinder is so crucial is because of the pressures involved in brewing perfect espresso. The ground coffee has water thrown at it at incredibly high pressures, yet only dribbles out of the portafilter. How does this happen? The grind makes it happen. You grind the coffee so fine, it has a texture only slightly coarser than talcum powder, and the super dense bed of particles you place in the portafilter acts as its own "filter", restricting the flow of high-pressure water, eating up all that energy that the high pressures throw at the bed of coffee. Where does that energy go? It goes into extracting the best solubles (solids that can merge with water) and flavor colloids (non-water extractable solids like oils; they may not "merge" with water, but they do come along for the ride), and lipids (these are fats that contain massive amounts of flavors) from the ground coffee and brings those goodies into your cup all at a slow, thick dribble or stream of espresso.

A good grinder makes this kind of extraction better. And a really good grinder has the ability to produce very uniform and microscopic slivers or shavings of the coffee bean, providing large (all things relative) surface areas for the water to extract the goodies mentioned in the previous paragraph. A lower cost grinder cannot produce these kinds of fines and blade grinders are the worst of all. They don't actually grind coffee, but instead produce the shavings that of the best quality grinders can; instead, they literally pulverize the bean into tiny (and not so tiny) pebbles. Under a microscope, the difference is amazing. A good grinder produces elements that look like small, curled blades of grass. Blade grinders produce something that looks more akin to the surface of the moon with lots of giant boulders interspersed with tiny specks. This is a guide about espresso and not a guide about coffee grinders, so we will stop here. However, we cannot over emphasize the importance of getting a good coffee grinder. To learn more about coffee grinders, please view the Buyer's Guide To Coffee Grinders and the Guide To Choosing A Coffee Grinder, both of which will help you choose the best coffee grinder for your needs.

espresso maker line art

List Of Even More Resources & Guides: Espresso Drinks, Espresso Machines And Accessories

In this guide we have touched on the important points to consider on your quest to perfect espresso. Please read our other guides that identify the tips for brewing great espresso and help you choose the best espresso machine for your needs.

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