No wonder baristas and coffee enthusiasts consider a good shot of espresso the holy grail of coffee. It can serve as a base for the most popular coffee drinks — like latte and cappuccino — while also being a delightful caffeine booster. However, pulling perfect, thick espresso requires practice.
Many home baristas struggle with making good espresso. If you often end up with a bland or bitter shot, don’t fret. Read on to learn how to perfect your espresso skills at home.
What makes a good espresso shot?
If you are starting to practice with an espresso machine, you might wonder what makes a good espresso.
The Italian Espresso Institute (IEI) has strict guidelines on what an authentic Italian espresso should be like. Of course, you don’t need to follow IEI’s instructions when preparing coffee at home. However, knowing the three core elements of perfect espresso: aroma and flavor, crema, and body will help you achieve better results.
Aroma and flavor
The aroma and flavor will naturally vary if you use coffee beans grown in opposite parts of the world or processed using different methods. Sometimes, the difference can be pretty radical.
The espresso smell should reveal pleasant aromas. You may notice fruity and floral notes and hints of chocolate and caramelized sugar. The roasting process will naturally add some toasty notes. Still, they should be, at most, barely perceptible.
A shot of espresso should have a concentrated yet smooth flavor. A perfect cup has medium bitterness and acidity balanced by sweeter notes.
Finally, the aftertaste should linger in your mouth. In an ideal scenario, you should be able to savor the aftertaste for up to a couple of minutes after swallowing a sip of espresso. A nonexistent aftertaste or unpleasant lingering flavor indicates a roasting defect, low-quality beans, or extraction errors.
Crema is the layer of froth on top of an espresso shot. It consists of tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide trapped within the coffee’s emulsified oils and fats. The crema might remind you of dark beer, sometimes called the Guinness effect.
In color, espresso crema varies between hazelnut and dark brown, possibly with some tawny touches. It should have a fine and uniform texture without small or big bubbles. The crema should make up at least 10% of the final drink.
Espresso crema influences the density of the drink. More than that, good crema indicates how well-made the shot is. Conversely, too much crema can suggest that the coffee has more Robusta than Arabica beans or is too fresh.
When the espresso crema appears thin and is dark, bubbly, and uneven, it may be a sign of over-extraction and that you’ve ground the coffee too finely. On the other hand, a thin and light crema that disappears quickly results from under-extraction, low water pressure, stale beans, or too coarse grind size.
Perfect crema doesn’t necessarily mean the espresso will taste good. Still, it shows you have complete control over the brewing process. Thin crema or no crema at all means there is room for improvement.
Great espresso has a thick, full body. That doesn’t mean it’s as thick as molasses, although your drink should resemble warm honey as it comes through the portafilter.
Instead, the thickness of espresso refers to both the mouthfeel and how thick the layer of crema is. As a result, the drink should coat your tongue and produce a substantial, bold, and rich sensation in your mouth.
A watery and thin shot can signify that the coffee is under-extracted. Still, many factors can affect the consistency and mouthfeel.
Factors that impact espresso quality
According to the Italians, the crucial elements that affect the quality of espresso are the four M’s: Macinazione (grind size), Miscela (coffee type), Macchina (the brewing device), and Mano (the hands of the barista). They are all important, but many factors besides the four can make a huge impact.
Let’s examine all the factors that can make or break your extraction.
Coffee brewing device
While you can make strong coffee at home using alternative brewing devices (such as a Moka Pot or AeroPress), an espresso machine is essential for proper extraction. I’ll cover your options here in brief.
Automatic espresso machine
Automatic espresso machines use high pressure to push hot water through a puck of tightly tamped coffee grounds held in a portafilter. As a result, this machine has a short brewing time, generally about 25-30 seconds.
Using an automatic espresso machine has a learning curve, but it will give you the perfect crema and great coffee. But the automatic espresso machines in coffee shops can be costly and too large for home kitchens.
Lever espresso machine
A manual espresso machine doesn’t need electricity. Instead, you will increase the water pressure by pumping the machine’s lever by hand.
Lever espresso makers give you almost complete control of the brewing process, from the pull to the water temperature. Hence, they are popular among experts with distinguished coffee tastes.
At the same time, though, they are even more challenging to use than automatic devices. Getting a good crema isn’t easy; some machines will make better and more crema than others.
Handheld espresso maker
Handheld espresso brewers are small, portable devices primarily intended for making shots while traveling or camping. Paired with a good camping coffee grinder, it can get you a decent, fresh coffee on the go, but the small form factor introduces its issues.
Pushing these espresso makers right can be challenging to get the water pressure high enough. However, they can produce surprisingly good crema, so they are not a bad choice when traveling.
Even though AeroPress is not an espresso maker, you can purchase an espresso attachment. It can yield a strong coffee to give you a good caffeine kick. However, an AeroPress can’t achieve the pressure needed for a real espresso shot so you won’t get much crema out of it.
Moka Pots are often marketed as affordable stovetop espresso makers. But like the AeroPress, Moka Pot can’t produce the same quality espresso as the one made using an espresso machine. Moka Pot coffee will have thin crema since the brewer doesn’t create much pressure.
Pour-over coffee maker
You might be surprised to see a pour-over coffee maker on this list. They are not espresso makers per se, as they rely on gravity to pull water through coffee grounds, so there is no pressure needed for espresso extraction. As a result, the drink will always be more watery and have no crema.
However, if you are stuck at home and desperate for a shot of strong coffee, you can try making pour-over espresso, which may satisfy your caffeine craving.
Dirty coffee machine
You can’t pull a great shot with a dirty machine. But, on the other hand, if you often get a drink that tastes burnt and foul, there might be nothing wrong with your technique — the espresso machine might just be filthy.
Running the machine with no coffee and some cleaning solution added to the water helps keep it clean. However, minerals and ground coffee remnants can also build in the portafilter and prevent coffee from flowing through. In the worst case, if no water can pass through the filter, the internal pressure in your machine could blow and break it.
Remove the portafilter from the group head after each use, and rinse and clean it well to prevent clogging.
Tamping refers to compressing the coffee in the portafilter into a uniform puck. For the best results, you should tamp the coffee with a tamper made of aluminum or other light metal that fits precisely into the portafilter. However, you shouldn’t tamp the coffee too loosely or too tightly.
When you don’t tamp the coffee sufficiently (or at all), the hot water will soak through the grounds too quickly, resulting in an under-extracted drink that’s weak and sour. But tamp the coffee too tightly, and it won’t let water through fast enough, which makes the coffee over-extracted and bitter.
Finally, uneven tamping results in parts of the puck being over-extracted and others under-extracted. Naturally, this will also ruin the crema and the taste.
Proper tamping lets the water flow past every particle of ground coffee, resulting in good extraction and a bold, flavorful espresso shot.
The choice of coffee beans has a tremendous impact on the taste of brewed coffee, no matter the method. This is naturally also true for espresso coffee. So when choosing your beans, pay attention to these factors.
Premade coffee blends from the supermarket can be affordable and make a decent coffee. But you are looking for the best espresso with the best crema, so you should choose whole-bean specialty coffee.
The actual coffee origin is up to your preferences, although Brazilian beans are popular for espresso.
A common myth is that you need dark-roasted beans to make espresso. But that’s not true — the darker they are roasted, the less crema they produce. Unfortunately, a longer roasting process can make the coffee too bitter and intense.
Instead, you’ll want to opt for a lighter roast — but not too light. The Italians prefer to use coffee roasted to a medium-dark level.
But medium-roasted coffee will work wonderfully, as well. It will also be a better starting point for beginners, giving you more wiggle room with brew time and water temperature.
Fresh coffee beans are essential for a perfect espresso shot. Always check the roast date when buying a bag of coffee. Achieving good crema with stale beans can be tough months from the roast date.
But you shouldn’t use too fresh coffee beans, either. Freshly roasted beans contain too many gasses, producing excessive crema.
Make your ground coffee from beans that have aged for a few days from the roast date for a perfect espresso and good crema. It will have given them enough time to degas, but not too long, so they are still fresh enough to contain the oils and gases needed for great crema.
The right grind is vital for great espresso; different coffee grinds will greatly affect the final drink. Grinding coffee beans to the appropriate consistency with a good grinder lets water pass through them at the correct rate, yielding a high-quality shot of espresso.
Too coarse coffee grind flushes the portafilter too quickly, leading to under-extraction. Vice versa, grinding too finely will only make the water sit on the grinds for too long and result in over-extraction.
For beginners, the ideal grind size is medium-fine. Then, based on your results, you can start experimenting and grind the beans slightly coarser or finer.
Also, you should ensure your coffee is ground consistently. Blade grinders can result in inconsistent grind size, which will not let the coffee extract properly and won’t result in a good shot. For these reasons, a good coffee grinder for espresso is a conical burr grinder.
The brew ratio is one of the most important and complex factors in making espresso. A poor brewing ratio can still produce a lousy shot even if you use a good espresso machine. It describes the weight ratio between the ground coffee in the portafilter basket and the coffee in your cup.
The same amount of coffee grounds can yield varying amounts, depending on the type of beans. Therefore, weighing the grounds and the final product in the cup is more accurate in evaluating their amounts.
The ideal brew ratio for espresso is 1:2. If you want a regular one-ounce (28g) espresso shot, you should use a half ounce of coffee. Similarly, use one ounce of coffee for a double espresso.
However, this is by no means a law written in stone. If your cup doesn’t taste right and you want your espresso thicker or thinner, you can experiment with the brew ratio. First, weigh your coffee to a 1:1.5 or 1:2.5 ratio and then adjust based on the results.
Fun fact: if you go too far in either direction, your brew won’t technically be espresso anymore. Strictly speaking, a 1:1 brew ratio results in a ristretto, while veering to the 1:4 territory gets you a lungo. It doesn’t take much to alter a coffee recipe!
Purchase an accurate digital coffee scale to measure the right amount of coffee and liquid. If you don’t have scales, you can stop the extraction a few seconds before your cup has the desired amount of liquid and let the remaining water run through. However, this method is far from precise.
There you have it — everything you need to learn about how to start making perfect espresso shots! But theory is just theory; only experience can teach you how to get better crema and a fuller flavor in your cup.
So what are you waiting for? Start practicing, and soon you’ll make espresso like a professional barista!