The Beginner’s Guide to espresso

Espresso is in many ways the iconic coffee brewing method and what most readily comes to people’s minds when coffee is mentioned. It is the foundation for the majority of milk-based drinks such as lattes and cappuccinos as well as the sum of what makes up an espresso for those who love their coffee short, sharp, and pure. And on top of all that it is actually really hard to master and far less forgiving than many beginning brewers realise. 

And really that is what led to the birth of the article; a frustration that so many of the articles we were reading as newbies to the world of espresso were either so technical and high end that they were overwhelming or so broad and generic that they were utterly disconnected from what the experts were saying. And so in this article we want  to provide what really is a beginner’s guide to making espresso based drinks. 

There is lots more we could say and likely will in later articles, but here we basically want to introduce you to the world of espresso that we have come to love. We want to help you navigate what espresso is, how to understand the lingo, and how to make delicious coffee on that entry level espresso machine that you have recently purchased.

So What Is Espresso? 

The term espresso most basically refers to an infusion brewing method where hot water is pushed through finely ground coffee at high pressure for a short amount of time extracting a strong and intense ‘shot’ of coffee. Ideally the coffee is extracted at 9 bars or 130psi of pressure which is over 4 times the pressure used for typical car tyres! This high pressure combined with a short extraction time of 25-30 seconds makes it likely the most unforgiving brewing method there is. 

Photo of espresso shot with crema on top

However, while doing it well can be incredibly finicky it is also very rewarding when it does work. Part of what sets apart espresso from other brewing methods is the crema (italian for cream) which is a thin layer of golden foam which forms on top of the coffee shot. The colour and texture of the crema basically indicates how fresh or otherwise the beans are and how weak or strong the espresso is. It is also what enables latte art. Espresso is also a very versatile brewing method that can produce a range of drinks either with milk (Latte, Cappuccino, Flat White, Piccolo, etc) or without (espresso/short black, Americano etc). It produces a small and very strong shot of coffee that can either be enjoyed as is or complemented with milk.

What Are The Different Types Of Espresso Machines?

There are basically three different types of espresso machines (excluding pod and capsule machines) which differ in how automated the coffee making process is. 

Manual Espresso Machines

A Manual Espresso Machine

Manual espresso machines are really the way to go for the experienced espresso lover. As the name implies these machines give the home barista the greatest level of control over every parameter in the brewing process. On a manual espresso machine the home brewer not only controls the volume of water, but also water temperature, pressure, and the pre-infusion which is a small amount of water that precedes the main extraction. With one or two notable exceptions manual machines tend to be relatively expensive as they often seek to be commercial grade. Also needless to say manual machines require the steepest learning curve of the different types of machines. 

Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines

Semi- Automatic espresso machine

These are probably the most common espresso machines on the market and form the majority of entry to mid level machines. Semi-Automatic machines infuse hot water through a pre-ground and pre-tamped portafilter (the long handle which holds the grinds basket and locks into the machine) of beans to extract a shot of coffee. This means that the one operating the machine will have to manually grind the beans, measure them out, tamp them, and then steam the milk. This makes it a great starting point for those just entering the world of espresso. In a semi-automatic you get to learn how to pull a shot and can make a really enjoyable drink without all the complexity of manually controlling pressure and water temperature. This article is really aimed at those who own or are interested in semi-automatics.

Super-Automatic Espresso Machines 

Super-Automatic Espresso Machine

A Super-Automatic machine does everything from bean to brew. The home brewer simply puts the beans into the hopper and then the machine grinds the beans, measures them out, tamps them, and extracts the shot. Some of the pricier Super-Automatics also automatically steam the milk while less expensive models tend to require manual steaming. The Super-Automatic is a great option for those who prioritise convenience over control and effectively want good coffee on tap. Super Automatics also tend to be more expensive than entry level semi-automatics.

The Ideal Conditions For Espresso

Hopefully by now you are starting to get a feel for what this brewing method is all about and which type of espresso machine you own and operate. The next important thing to consider is what makes for a great espresso or what impacts the flavour of the shot pulled.

The quality of espresso is determined by Miscela (the blend of coffee bean), Macinazione (grind), Macchina (the espresso machine used), and Mano (the skill of the one brewing). 

Italian saying

> The Beans 

The quality and taste of your espresso can never rise above the quality of the beans you use. This was a lesson we took a while to understand and can really limit the flavour of the coffee you are making. Basically, just like everything else in life there are good coffee beans, bad coffee beans and a stack somewhere in the middle. It also may come as a surprise to some that any old coffee beans won’t do because different beans are roasted for different lengths of time (termed light roasted, medium roasted, and dark roasted) which impacts their flavour and which brewing method they are best suited for. 

Freshly roasted coffee beans in bag

We recommend that the single best option for sourcing great quality beans is an espresso blend from a local specialty roaster. While this will be more expensive than the beans from the supermarket or grocery (shudder!) it will ensure that your beans are of a high quality and have been roasted specifically for espresso. Also while we don’t love buying coffee beans off Amazon it can be a convenient option that is certainly a step up from the supermarket. It is quite incredible how significantly this can lift the taste of your coffee. Also coffee beans do go stale and so are best consumed less than a month after they were roasted (this will be written on the bag of beans and is a good indicator of quality beans; no roast date = mass produced average beans). The first step to delicious espresso is quality, fresh beans. 

> The Grind

This is perhaps the make or break factor in brewing espresso. The consistency and fineness of the grind will determine the speed at which water flows through the beans and hence how much coffee is extracted. If the grind is too coarse the water will go too quickly through the grinds leading to an under-extracted shot (this means not enough of the coffee bean has been dissolved into the coffee leading to a sour and unpleasant drink) while if it is too fine the water will struggle to get through leading to an over-extracted shot (in which too much of the bean is extracted leading to a bitter and unpleasant shot). 

For the espresso beginner there are basically two options when it comes to grinding coffee; you can either buy pre-ground beans or you can invest in a grinder and do it yourself. Having done both we actually think both are quite legitimate options provided they are done with quality beans. Buying a grinder does lead to a more flavoursome shot as much of the flavour and aroma of bean disappears shortly after being ground. However, to do this you really need a decent espresso burr grinder (which basically means a grinder that can make small enough adjustments to work for espresso) which can easily end up costing more than an entry level espresso machine! Also while this is ultimately the better option dialing in a grinder is not as easy as it looks, which means setting it up for a specific brewing method, is finicky and actually quite tricky. 

Pre-ground can be a good option for the beginner espresso brewer as it means that it is one less parameter to have to worry about and you can focus on getting the brewing process downpact. However if you decide to go with this option make sure your beans are ground specifically for espresso. The other way to do this is to buy a bag of whole beans and bring it to your local cafe who should happily grind to an espresso grind for you. Also while grinding yourself is better, pre-ground beans can still produce a really nice coffee.

> The Machine 

We have already basically covered the different types of espresso machines. It is worth noting that when it comes to entry level machines it is great to buy them from companies who have a history in the coffee industry rather than generic brands. These more reputable companies include ones like De’Longhi, Breville, Rancilio and Gaggia. For more advice on buying a machine check out our article here.   

Diagram listing parts of an espresso machine

> The Skills 

When it comes to semi-automatic espresso machines the three major skills you will have to learn are how to dose and tamp coffee, how to dial in a grinder if you have one, and how to steam milk using a steam wand. These are all skills which are very learnable for the beginning brewer but simply take a bucket load of practice to master. Instead of writing about how to do each of these (which would be an article in itself!) we will simply link to the videos that have been the most helpful to us throughout this article.

Pressurised vs Non-Pressurized Baskets

Many entry level espresso machines will come with four grind baskets which click into the portafilter. These will be a single and double pressurized (or double wall) basket as well as a single and double non-pressurized (or single wall) basket. A pressurized basket has a false bottom with a tiny pinhole at the bottom. The purpose of this is to create a greater level of pressure within the basket when brewing occurs. This improves extraction consistency and allows you to use less precisely ground coffee as the coffee is not creating all the resistance, it’s the basket. This is particularly beneficial in domestic settings where a precise grind is not always available, or where the operator may just be looking for a simple setup without the hassle of learning the intricacies of espresso brewing. These baskets allow the use of pre-ground coffee while still producing crema.

A non-pressurized basket will simply have a bunch of holes that go right through so that the coffee extraction is governed exclusively by the grind and tamp of the home brewer, which is far less forgiving. Often one set of the baskets will be labelled but if not then the ones with more holes in the bottom are non-pressurized while the ones with a smaller amount of holes in the centre are pressurized.  

Photo of a double walled vs single walled filter basket

Double wall or pressurized baskets are a great place to start initially, as they are a lot easier to master and can give you some enjoyable results early on. As you advance it is great to work towards using the single walls as this leads to a far better crema and more enjoyable coffee. However, our own experience has been that it is incredibly hard to use single walled baskets with pre-ground coffee. We found that it was only as we invested in an espresso grinder that we could consistently pull a good shot with these baskets. 


How to Brew Espresso 


Here is the method we use and have found to be great for brewing espresso. You will notice there are two options for step seven. The first is a generic and easy automated double shot which is a great place to start while the second is for those who want to up their game and try and follow a specific espresso recipe (more on this below). 

Step One – Pre-Heat Espresso Machine

Different machines take different lengths of time to pre-heat but we usually aim to turn on our machine around 10 minutes before we intend to brew. This isn’t essential but does help a lot as temperature matters a lot for espresso.

Step Two – Prepare Cups and Scale

Once the machine is warmed up pour boiling water into the cup(s) you intend to use. Some machines will have a hot water spout you can use but if not simply boil the kettle and use that. This helps keep the coffee warm and helps you enjoy drinking it 🙂

Following this, place your portafilter on to scales and tare the weight. If you are not using scales then obviously you don’t need to do this but we do recommend buying some as it will help with consistency and precision.

Step Three – Dose

Now fill the portafilter basket with 16g of finely ground coffee. If you don’t have scales this is around 1 heaped tablespoon. This is for a 54mm portafilter so if you have a commercial size (58mm) then you should be doing 18g. 

Step Four – Distribute and Tamp

Now gently tap the bottom of your portafilter onto your benchtop. This helps settle the grinds and can help get rid of any air pockets. Once this is done gently even out the top of the grinds so there is not a mound shape. Try to do this without pushing the grinds down.

Now hold your portafilter on the benchtop making sure that it is parallel to the bench. Hold your tamp in the other hand like you would hold a flashlight with the thumb facing down. Place your tamp-holding arm at a 90 degree angle to the bench and press down slowly and evenly until you can feel the grinds stop compressing and push back. You don’t need to ‘polish’ the tamp by turning the tamp and don’t tap the edge of the portafilter. You should be able to flip your portafilter upside down without any of the grinds falling out. 

Step Five – Purge Grouphead and lock in Portafilter 

Now purge the grouphead by pressing either the single or double shot buttons and allowing hot water to run out for a few seconds. This gets rid of any older water and stabilizes the temperature of the grouphead. 

You can now lock the portafilter into the grouphead. Your machine will generally indicate how far you need to lock it in but if not then push until you feel some resistance, you shouldn’t have to force it. 

Step Six – Steam Milk 

If you are going for a milk based drink like latte now fill a milk jug around half full with cold milk. Turn the steam wand on and place wand over drip tray. It will likely eject some water as the steam starts to come out. Now place the steam wand in milk (watch the video below for more detailed instructions) and steam and heat the milk. The ideal temperature you should be aiming for is 155-165 F.

 In terms of heat if you don’t have a thermometer you can place one hand at the bottom of the milk jug. You should feel the jug heating up. When it is too hot to keep your hand there take off your hand and wait for a further three seconds before turning off the milk wand. The texture of the milk should be velvety with micro-foam and no large bubbles. Ideally there should be no clear distinction between what is milk and what is foam. 

Most entry level machines are single boilers which mean they cannot steam milk and pull a shot at the same time. If yours can, then steam the milk while the shot is being pulled. 

Step Seven – Pull Shot 

General: Pour out the hot water in your cup(s) and place directly below the portafilter where the coffee comes out. Now push the double shot button on your machine. There should be a gap of around 5-8 seconds before coffee comes out. This is normal. Wait until the coffee stops coming out.

For those using espresso recipe: Also pour out hot water and tare cup(s) on scales before positioning on a drip tray. Now get a timer ready. You can either use your phone or most coffee scales have inbuilt timers. Press the timer and the double shot button simultaneously. Now watch the timer and stop the extraction by repushing the double shot button after 24s. Reweigh cup(s) with coffee on scales to see how close to the desired 32g yield you are. Don’t be too discouraged if you are out a wee bit out, it takes time to get this right and often still actually tastes really nice. 

Step Eight – Pour Milk

Now pour the milk into your coffee cup with the shot of coffee in it. Obviously the more milk the more diluted the shot so you can experiment with how much milk you add depending on how you like your coffee. Try to start pouring from about 5cm above the cup and then gradually bring the milk pitcher closer to the cup. As you develop in this you can go on to get into the fun and frustrating skill of latte art. 

Steamed milk being poured into coffee mug

Step Nine – Clean Espresso Machine

Step Nine and Ten are really interchangeable. We clean our machine first as otherwise the milk dries on the steam wand and is more work but either way around is fine. 

To clean your machine, get a wet cloth and rub up and down on steam wand until all signs of milk are gone. Now ‘purge’ milk wand by turning it on again and letting some steam out. You will often see some milk come out first. This is really important for the longevity of your machine.

Now take out the portafilter and tip the grounds out either into the bin or into your compost. On some machines the grinds should come out easily in a ‘puck’ form. Now clean your grinds basket and portafilter in hot soapy water. While the portafilter is out push the double shot button so that hot water comes out of the grouphead. This will get rid of any grinds stuck on the grouphead which could otherwise negatively impact the taste of your next coffee. 

Finally place portafilter back into lock position in the group head and dry the exterior of the machine with a dry cloth. Empty drip tray if required. 

Step Ten – Enjoy

Now go somewhere relaxing and enjoy your brew!

Recipe for espresso

  • 16g dose
  • 32g yield
  • 24s extraction time 

Directions:

Step One – Pre-heat espresso machine for 5-10 minutes before brewing

Step Two – Pour boiling water into the cup(s) you will use and tare weight of portafilter 

Step Three – Fill portafilter basket with 16g or 1 heaped tablespoon of ground coffee 

Step Four – Gently tap bottom of portafilter on counter and then tamp down grinds 

Step Five – Push double shot button to release some hot water through the grouphead and then lock in portafilter

Step Six – Steam milk if required

Step Seven (General) – Place cup(s) under portafilter then push double shot button to extract coffee 

Step Seven (With espresso recipe) – If following recipe then tare cup(s) and get a timer ready. Push double shot button and timer simultaneously and then re-push double shot button to cut off shot after 24s. Place cup again on scales to see how close you are to the specific recipe. 

Step Eight – Pour milk into cup if making a milk based coffee 

Step Nine – Clean Espresso machine 

Step Ten – Enjoy!

Espresso Recipes (Advanced)

One thing that we totally missed when we first delved into the world of espresso is that just like baking a cake, espresso is best done with a specific and precise ‘recipe.’ Most entry level espresso machines will have buttons for single and double shots with preset volumes. This means that you can simply tamp your grinds, lock the portafilter into the grouphead, push the desired button, and you have your espresso shot (like the general option in step seven). While this does make it very simple to make a nice coffee, it is quite different from how the experts go about it. 

Instead, cafe’s and professional baristas work off what are called espresso recipes. These typically consist of a dose weight (how much coffee you put into your portafilter), a yield weight (how many grams of coffee comes out), and an extraction time. So a typical espresso recipe would be 18g dose for a 36g yield in 26-30 seconds. In a sense, espresso recipes are a way to up your espresso game once you have a hold on the basics. 

Photo of an espresso shot being weighed as extracting

The advantage of recipes is that they have usually been worked out by the experts, make a more enjoyable cup of coffee, and mean that you can more easily replicate that ripper coffee. The recipe you choose will in part depend on the size of your portafilter. It is worth being aware that most commercial recipes are for commercial sized (58mm) portafilters which may or may not be true for your espresso machine. So for our Breville Infuser which has a 54mm portafilter the recipe we aim for is 16g in, 32g out in 24 seconds. 

Because of the precise nature of recipes they really do require an accurate set of scales and are more easily done if you grind your own beans. As mentioned earlier, this is a great way to step up your coffee game.  

Pitfalls For Those Using Espresso Recipes (Advanced)

As mentioned above, while espresso is a fantastic brewing method to get into it can also be very frustrating when it doesn’t go according to plan. These potential pitfalls include burning the milk when steaming, over or under-extracting the espresso shot, or simply that for some unknown reason it tastes disgusting. Sadly this does happen and we have found that it especially happens when you decide to take your espresso from beginner level to slightly more advanced. As soon as you move to single walled baskets and grinding your own beans for a specific espresso recipe you can expect the trials to come. 

If your coffee shot is off then there are basically three things you can alter in an entry level espresso setup:

  • The grind settingThis really ought to be the primary parameter you change if something is off in your shot. If the yield of your shot for the given extraction time is too high then the flow was too fast and you need to grind your coffee finer. If there is not enough liquid then the flow rate was too slow and you need to be grinding the coffee more coarsely. The general rule of thumb is only change your grinder by one setting at a time. Each time you change it you also need to ‘purge’ some of the coffee grinds which will get rid of any old sized grinds in the chamber. To do this change the grind setting and then pour out around 10g of coffee. This is a painful and sometimes costly process but try and see it as an investment into future cups of coffee. Once you have the grind setting right for the given recipe you shouldn’t need to change it again.

  • The coffee to water ratio This should not be done lightly but over time you can and should experiment with dose to see how it affects taste. So if you want it stronger you could try adding an extra gram of coffee in the portafilter or keep the dose size the same but aim for a slightly smaller yield. 

  • TampingFinally you can adjust the strength with which you push down the tamp. This is generally not advised as you should be aiming to have an even and consistent tamp and alter other parameters and primarily the grind setting. However, we have found that sometimes the ideal grind setting seems to be right in the middle of two of the settings on your grinder. If so one way around the dilemma is tamping slightly harder for the coarser one or slightly lighter for the finer one. Not ideal but making great espresso is often not ideal and certainly not easy. 

Takeaway

We hope this has been a helpful introduction for you to the wonderful world of espresso. It is a world that we have fallen in love with and which you can always grow and develop in. And while it can feel overwhelming initially we can say from experience that it does get easier and skill and mastery will come with time. And the wonderful thing about espresso is that even a complete beginner can produce a really enjoyable coffee! 

As always we would love to hear from you so if you have any questions or comments post them below. What has your experience with espresso been? 

Happy Brewing!

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