Coffee Making Methods
- Espresso -
These chapters were originally written for my newspaper as part of an somewhat-monthly coffee column. They were designed to expose the coffee novice as to the various methods of making coffee and act as a starting point for understanding these methods. If you have been making coffee by any of these methods for any length of time then you will probably not find anything in these chapters to enlighten or educate you. Please feel free to E-mail me with anything that you think could be improved in these methods. -ED
Espresso is to coffee what fillet mignon is to meat. What is espresso? It is as much a process as a beverage. The beverage is a dark, bittersweet drink with a concentrated taste that goes beyond what most people (particularly Americans) think of when they think of "coffee." There are as many different 'flavors' of espresso as there are folks who make it. After all, coffee contains about 50% more flavor elements than even wine, and we all know how deep some folks get into the connoisseur level of wine tasting. Espresso can have overtones that are fruity, hints of blueberry might be found, earthy tastes are often described, and some beans even exhibit a bitter-sweet taste of chocolate. All of these are natural flavors in the coffee beans, and are achievable without adding any flavoring agents to the coffee.
For most Americans espresso is too bitter and too strong- at least that is a widely shared opinion. Why? The main reason is that there it is difficult to find an establishment that properly prepares espresso. Additionally, Americans aren't culturally brought up to appreciate bitter-sweet tastes, sweet being the preferred flavor of most. Because of that, espresso is an acquired taste to most Americans. Still, the drink can be sweetened with a bit of sugar if necessary, and the espresso itself can be the beginning ingredient to be used to make other drinks.
The Espresso Process
Creating a cup of espresso is a difficult process that takes practice, diligence, and an attention to detail. It is as much an art as a skill, with a small bit of luck thrown in. The process combines a number of elements that, according to the experts, comprise at least forty steps! Most of those steps are out of our hands- things like how the beans were grown and when they were picked as well as how they were processed can contribute to espresso's success, but unless you own a coffee grove, then you have to trust your bean supplier. Some of the steps over which we have control include the following:
* Beans, properly chosen. Robusta beans, those that are higher in caffeine and usually less expensive (as are used in most commercial coffee brands) don't make very good espresso. They lack the subtle flavors that are expected in espresso. The best espresso blends are 100% Arabica beans. These are generally more expensive and more flavorful. To the surprise of most folks, these blends contain much less caffeine than Robusta beans and the common commercial coffees, and thus, a cup of quality espresso generally has a lower caffeine level than a homemade cup of coffee.
* Beans, properly roasted- Many people think that espresso beans have to be very dark roasted and nothing could be further than the truth. If your barrista (the "bar keeper" in Italian- a term used to identify a person trained and skilled in the art of making espresso) is using very dark and oily beans, it's time to find somewhere else to get your espresso. We can get into this in future months as I could write a few chapters on roasting alone, but the beans should be a medium to medium dark brown in color, and should only have a minimal amount of oil showing. Heavily oiled beans is a sign that they have either been over-roasted. have been around for a while (maybe too long), or were stored in a hot location.
* Fresh beans- They should be no more than about three weeks from old since their roasting date, and less than two weeks old is best.
* Properly ground beans. The coffee must be ground to a consistency, which for espresso is a very fine grind that feels something like granulated sugar. Too coarse and the water runs through it without picking up the proper elements. Too fine and the coffee packs too densely and brewing takes too long and the product will be bitter, and we have all experienced too much of that stuff. Experimentation is needed to find the correct grind for your machine. Fine and precise control over the grind is one of the very most important elements to making espresso, and a machine capable of grinding espresso can be a relatively costly investment. Decent espresso grinders start at about $150 and can go for $400 to 500 for the pro-level home grinders. It has to be a burr grinder- the "whirly bird" grinders with a fast-spinning blade are incapable of creating an espresso grind.
* Quality water, low in minerals and pollutants that could taint the flavor of the product.
* Water heated to about 198-205 degrees. Never boiling. Putting boiling water over coffee beans ends the process of creating real coffee immediately. It over-extracts a lot of the bad elements of the bean and places them in the cup. Not hot enough and the critical flavor components are not extracted from the ground coffee and you end up with a coffee-ish drink and not espresso.
* Forcing that hot water through the beans at around 130 pounds per square inch. This takes a quality pump. There are no steam powered machines are capable of creating this kind of pressure, and according to those who know, it is not possible to create and maintain that kind of pressure with steam without seriously overheating the water. it would also necessitate a large machine to contain the pressure and heat. A home-level, pump powered espresso machine will cost from about $120 and you can spend well over $1000 for a quality home machine (and I know of a number of folks who have done just that).
* A proper portion of coffee to properly resist that flow of water. About 7 grams (1/4 ounce in mass) for a single, one ounce serving of espresso, or about 14 grams (about « ounce in mass) for a double, two ounce serving. Most machines are sensitive to the volume of coffee used and the weight of the proper volume will vary. Technique and experience will dictate how much coffee the barrista will use and you will generally not see an experienced barrista weighing their coffee.
* Properly packed coffee- A tamper should be used to pack the coffee into the portafilter with a pressure of about 30-40 pounds. A tamper is usually made of metal, and has a thick, flat disc on one end and a rounded handle on the other. It fits into the portafilter (the basket that holds the coffee) and is used to com press the ground coffee into a compact mass called a puck. If the puck it too loosely packed the water flows through too easily without picking up the proper flavor elements from the grinds. If it is packed too tightly the brew takes too long and the result will be a bitter tasting beverage without crema (pronounced "cray-muh" or sometimes "cream-uh").
* Time- If all the above is properly done it should take about 25 to 28 seconds from the time the machine is started until it has created about two ounces (or a little less) of the illusive brew we call espresso.
* Time (again)- the brewed espresso should be served very quickly, very shortly after it leaves the portafilter.
* An Espresso Cup - It should be just large enough to hold the shot (about 2.5 to 3 ounces at the most for a double espresso cup) and the cup should be pre-heated to keep it from pulling the heat out of the espresso. If espresso is allowed to cool too quickly it will lose its crema and its flavor as well.
* A Skilled Barrista - The person behind the coffee counter is a key element. This person has to carefully monitor the process, tuning the grinder as the day progresses to control the brewing process. They also have to keep an immaculate coffee machine, cleaning it nightly, maintain a supply of fresh coffee beans, taste the brew regularly to be sure the process is happening correctly, and a lot more.
How do you know when all that approaches correctness and you are getting quality espresso? First, as the coffee comes from the espresso machine and falls into the cup it should look thick and syrupy, and not at all watery. It should start a very dark brown color as the flow begins, and at the end of the twenty-five second brewing process it should still retain a rich, caramel color. If it looks very light tan at any time or flows out of the portafilter spouts like water then it will not taste as good.
When the cup is handed to you take a look at the brew before sipping. Floating on top of the dark, rich brew will be the layer of crema. A dark, rusty-colored, reddish-brown foam that is comprised of, among other things, emulsified oils and carbon dioxide which have been wrestled away from the bean's fibers during the brewing process. The crema dissipates quickly- it is transient, just a visitor to your espresso, dropping in just to say, "Hello," but should last a few minutes. As it leaves your cup it should be inhaled deeply and thoroughly with the nose nearly in the cup. Smell is a very large part of taste, and the smell of the crema will assist in experiencing the best way there is to brew coffee. Quality crema will be thick and rich and should readily stick to the sides of the cup when the cup is tilted off level and then returned. The coffee itself will be strong and a bit bitter, but the crema should have a delightful natural sweetness to it from the sugars pulled from the coffee during the brewing process. The combination of those flavors IS espresso.
To get all those factors working together at the same time can be quite difficult. Not physically difficult or mentally difficult- it's just hard to get all the factors to occur properly all at once. If the pressure drops in your machine, no crema. If the beans were ground too coarsely and the water passes through too quickly- no crema. If the water is not hot enough- no crema. If the water is too hot- a bitter brew and less crema. There are a lot of variables that make a delicious cup of espresso. There are all sorts of things that can come from your portafilter- from perfect espresso to "tincture of coffee."