Dan Counsell

The 3 most important things about making great espresso

Friday, 12th June 2020

Making espresso is hard, it’s a deep, complex topic, with seemingly endless room for improvement and fine tuning. Making great espresso at home that matches up to your favourite coffee shop is a real challenge.

In this article I'm going to list out what I think are the three most important factors in getting started with making great espresso at home. This article is not about fine tuning your espresso, it’s about the very basics. The raw ingredients.

Shot of espresso mid stream

I'll cover more of the nitty gritty details in a future post, but for now let's go over three things that will help you on your way to making great espresso at home.

1. Use freshly roasted beans

Whole coffee beans are the raw ingredient in espresso. For great tasting coffee, you need fresh beans. Get this wrong and it'll be an uphill struggle to get a good cup.

I’d suggest buying beans from a local roaster, or at least online from a roaster in your own country. Do not buy your beans from a supermarket chain, and don’t buy pre-ground beans. Coffee from a supermarket is often of lower quality and could have been sitting on the shelf for months.

Always look for the roasting date that's printed on the bag.

As a general rule, I try to use beans when they are between 7 and 14 days after roasting. This is why you need to buy from a local roaster.

If you do get some freshly roasted beans, try not to use them too early. Anything before 7 days since roasting and I find the beans can be very gassy and unpredictable to work with. They can also produce rather grassy tasting espresso. Not what you want.

After 4-5 weeks things start to degrade, you’ll notice this visually and in taste. The espresso can go flat, and will start to loose it’s body. The ground beans will produce less crema when extracted and will generally start to taste a little less exciting. You'll still be able to make good coffee, but from personal experience I think beans are generally best between 2 and 4 weeks after roasting.

This is not a hard and fast rule, but it's worth keeping in mind.

2. Invest in good equipment

You need a good espresso machine, and a good grinder. I know that sounds obvious, but so many people fall at the first hurdle because they unknowingly went with sub-par options.

I'm not going to start recommending espresso machines in this post, that is a huge topic, and the advice varies greatly depending on budget. All I will say is do your research. Visit some of the popular coffee forums on the internet and ask for advice in your price range. It’s one of the most common questions, so there’s plenty of advice out there already.

Whatever you do, don’t cheap out on a grinder. This is really important.

You want to look for a conical or flat burr grinder, not a blade grinder. A burr grinder will produce more consistent results and you’ll get finer control over the grind size, this is essential when you’re trying to get the best from the beans you have.

3. Weigh the Input & Output

Making great espresso is about repeatability. You need to control as many variables as possible. This means you need to know how much coffee you’re grinding each time, and how much coffee ends up in the cup. Unless you weigh both these things you’ll never make the same espresso twice, and you won’t know what to change to make it taste better.

I usually start with a 1:2 ratio. 18 grams of beans, and 36 grams of espresso in the cup, with an extractions time of around 28 seconds give or take. I try to go for this with a new coffee and adjust from there. Some of the better roasters will give you a recipe to work from. Here’s my basic recipe to get you started.

If the coffee is coming out too fast, it means the grind needs to be finer. If the coffee is taking too long to be extracted, dial the grind back and go courser. If the espresso isn't how you like it, only adjust one variable at a time, usually you can get a decent enough espresso by adjusting the grind size. However as you get more competent you can play around with time, ratio, and temperature.

Keep practicing

Making great espresso requires attention to detail, consistency, and practice. Just because you made great coffee yesterday, doesn’t mean you’ll be making great coffee today or tomorrow.

Keep at it. The more you make espresso, the better you’ll get at knowing what to tweak and how to improve it.

Oh, and there is one more thing…

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