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How to Make the Perfect Cup of Espresso

How to Make the Perfect Cup of Espresso

When the perfect shot of espresso is poured and served, the drinker always takes notice. Pulling a shot of espresso refers to the entire process of brewing espresso, from grinding to serving. Baristas can make it look like a breeze, but the fact of the matter is, there are a lot of steps involved in making that small bit of caffeinated perfection.

In this article you will learn
  • How to choose the right espresso blend
  • How to dose the espresso grounds
  • How to tamp the grounds
  • How to pour the shot

Step One: Choose the Blend
When pulling a perfect espresso shot, it is important to have a solid foundation. The taste of pure espresso is much more powerful than a regular cup of joe. Whatever flavors are in the bean will be amplified in the espresso. That is why the espresso blend used is so incredibly important to the final flavor.

Look for sweet, strong aromas and flavors. When selecting a blend for a cup of espresso, it should have a sweet yet potent aroma and result in an incredibly smooth flavor that does not attack the palette, but will be strong enough to stand out if mixed with milk. The best type of bean for an espresso shot is Arabica. Oftentimes, a blend will use several types of beans to balance the flavor and aromas perfectly.

Make sure the beans are light- to medium-roasted. Contrary to popular belief, an extremely dark roast is not ideal for espresso beans. Beans roasted for a long time to make the dark color ultimately produce a bitter taste. This is why it is important to make sure not to use a dark roast when making espresso. The roast of the bean should be medium to light to preserve the sweet flavor of the coffee. For the best flavor, the beans should be used within four days after they are roasted.

An espresso grinder filled and covered with grounds.Step Two: Grind the Beans
Believe it or not, the way coffee beans are ground greatly affects the outcome of a cup of espresso. Too fine and packed tightly into the portafilter, the water can’t get through properly. Too coarse and water flows through it too freely.

Use a conical burr grinder. Most baristas use an espresso grinder with a burr grinding wheel to get the perfect consistency for espresso beans. Burr grinders crush the beans in between two wheels to produce a thicker ground than most blade grinders. Blade grinders are common in households and have a spinning blade on the bottom of the canister holding the beans. The result of using a blade grinder for espresso beans will be a very fine powder that will produce a very thick and bitter shot of espresso.

Step Three: Dose the Grounds
Seven grams of grounds is the general consensus for the perfect dose of espresso grounds. The ground will come out quickly from the grinder and form a small mound in the center of the portafilter. Using a curled pinky finger, pull the grounds to one side of the basket with the inside of the finger. Then, using the outside of the pinky, push the grounds to the other side of the portafilter to ensure that the grounds are evenly distributed.

Step Four: Tamp the Grounds
Tamping the espresso grounds is an extremely important part of the preparation process. Tamping is what forms the dense pellet that water will pass through to create a shot. It is critical to make certain that tamping is done using even pressure. If pressure is not even, pockets will form in the espresso pellet and water will pass through these pockets rather than the grounds, resulting in a watered-down shot.

A barista tamps the grounds in a portafilter before pulling a shot.Tamp gently the first time. The first tamp should be fairly gentle and only use about five pounds of pressure. The barista holds the handle of the tamper in the center of the palm and keeps the wrist and forearm straight while pressing down. Essentially, the tamper becomes an extension of a straightened arm. Once the grounds have been gently tamped, lightly tap the handle of the portafilter to release loose espresso grounds on the side of the basket.

Pack the grounds tightly. Using the same method for holding the tamper as described above, begin tamping the grounds again, this time using thirty pounds of pressure to ensure that the pellet is solid. This entire process should take about twenty seconds.

Try using a scale for accuracy. It is a good idea for novice espresso makers to use a small kitchen scale to measure the amount of pressure being exerted until the user is accustomed to the feel of exerting five and thirty pounds on to the portafilter. 

Step Five: Extract the Shot
This is the moment of truth, when the grounds meet the water and begin forming that perfect, frothy shot. Still, there are several factors during the extraction that can ruin the outcome.  

Several shots of espresso being pulled at the same time.Make certain to use filtered water. The water used to extract the espresso from the grounds will affect the taste of the final product, so make sure that all of the water running through the espresso machine is filtered. Also check the filter every week to make sure the water going through the machine still tastes fresh. Chemicals or mineral build-up in the filters and can produce some off flavors that, when combined with the taste of the extract, will result in an awful shot of espresso.

Always pour two shots. Traditionally, two shots are poured from each tamped pellet of espresso grounds. Experts swear that it provides a more even distribution of flavor and the shots are always more flavorful than shots made from a portafilter using a single filter. If only drinking one shot of espresso, discard the second shot unless it will be used immediately. Espresso must not be allowed to sit for more than thirty seconds.

Step Six: Serve the Espresso
The cup placed under the filter should be small and tapered in order to create the distinctive foam, or crema, on the top of the espresso. Make certain that the cup has been warmed from a source other than the water from the espresso machine. A cold cup will cause the espresso to begin cooling immediately upon touching the cup, which will cause the shot to begin losing its flavor immediately.

Step Seven: Clean up
When the shot has been extracted, knock the grounds out of the portafilter into the knock box and rinse the basket out in warm soapy water to prevent the grounds from sticking in the basket. If a packing mat was used, pick it up and pour the unused grounds into a trash can. If the grounds were tamped over a bare counter, clean up the grounds using a damp rag.

From dosing to serving, the process of pouring the perfect cup of espresso should take no longer than thirty seconds. If it takes longer the first several times, that is perfectly normal. It takes a lot of practice and precision to get to the point where a perfect espresso can be pulled simply by habit.

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