What You Need to Make Espresso at Home?
Are you looking to make espresso at home? Coffee & Espresso Expert Jeff Sutton explains everything you will need to start making fresh cups of espresso at home.
It’s easy to walk into a café, order yourself a shot of espresso, and be rewarded with that amazing crema you love. All you need is a few dollars and the motivation to face the world. Sometimes the ability to face the world comes best after your first dose of caffeine, so many people find it's of the utmost importance to be able to pull a good shot at home to get the day started off right.
Pulling a shot of espresso at home can be as simple as pouring the beans into a hopper and pushing a button. It also can be as complicated and technical as one wants to make it. The key idea with making espresso at home is finding out what you enjoy best and trying to replicate that time and again. There are a few necessities that are involved with the espresso creation that must be included—no matter how you choose to make your favorite drink.
It might seem strange to talk about grinders first when discussing espresso, but a bad grinder will let you down before a bad machine will. Grinders for espresso are different from grinders intended for coffee brewing; they are precise instruments that can make very small adjustments to grind size that create big changes in the taste and flavor of your shot.
Grinders that are specifically designed for espresso are normally either flat or conical burr grinders that come stepped or stepless. A stepped grinder has a given number of available adjustments whereas a stepless grinder has infinite options. Stepless grinders are more ideal for espresso and can handle light or dark roast coffee, but take a bit more time to get comfortable with and are on the upper end of the price spectrum.
These options also come as motorized grinders or in hand-crank options. The hand crank options save money and get a nice grind, but it's a lot of time and energy when grinding multiple shots of coffee. Most motorized grinders for espresso come with a doser that helps get the correct amount of ground coffee beans into your portafilter basket for the given shot size you are looking to extract.
You aren’t going to be getting too far with only a grinder, so let's delve into the world of machines next. Espresso machines can be broken down into two main categories: super automatic and semi automatic.
A super automatic machine is often referred to as a bean to cup machine because all you need to do is pour beans into the hopper, select your drink, and the machine takes care of the rest. This is ideal for someone who wants the quality of an espresso drink, like a cappuccino, with the ease of drip coffee.
These machines are on the upper end of the price spectrum for coffee makers, but require no additional accessories or experience to operate. The variations in these machines normally deal with how many drinks are pre-programmed, different wi-fi capabilities, and the quality of the user interface.
Semi automatic espresso machines are what you mostly see baristas pulling shots on at your local cafe. These take a little more skill and practice to operate depending on the level of the machine.
One of the main things to keep in mind when looking into semi-automatic machines is how they are heated. The most common type in-home units is a single boiler machine. These machines are great for a drink or so at a time, but they aren’t made for any kind of volume. This is because on a single boiler machine, you can’t operate the steam wand while you are extracting espresso.
This problem is solved in dual boiler machines and in heat-exchange machines. Either of these boiler types are able to steam milk and extract espresso simultaneously. The heat exchange works by having an upper chamber and lower chamber kept at different temperatures for the steam and espresso, with the dual boiler being the most stable temperature-wise.
Another idea that is prevalent these days is thermoblock heating. Thermoblock works by having a metal block in the machine that is embedded with a water pipe and heating elements. This allows for only a small amount of water to be heated at a time, instead of having to heat an entire boiler. Thermoblock technology has greatly improved over the last 15 years and provides a faster and more energy-efficient option compared to the traditional boiler.
Regardless of how the coffee is extracted, these machines generally require the user to steam their own milk. Some machines, such as Breville’s Bambino Plus, are equipped with automatic milk frothers that heat the milk to a predetermined temperature and then shut off. Many machines will come with a stainless steel frothing pitcher for milk that isn’t quite up to par.
For the barista looking to dial in their latte art, the pitcher and its spout are an important factor in the finished product. Certain shapes in spouts—generally referred to as “sharp spouts”—are better for doing small details with latte art, and the pitchers with “classic spouts” are easier to use for the novice.
Portafilter and Baskets
Many starter units, such as Breville’s Bambino or Delonghi’s Dedica, are intended to be used with pressurized baskets in the portafilter. A pressurized basket allows for shots to turn out consistent without getting an exact grind dialed in.
On the other hand, for someone looking to get into the art of extracting espresso, the use of non-pressurized baskets is mandatory. This means that a grinder with the ability to make small adjustments is essential.
For someone looking to make a really good shot, an unpressurized basket is key to your espresso-making experience. The baskets are sized in millimeters and correlate to the portafilter for the given machine.
Another of the most important accessories to have around is a digital scale. This will be used to weigh out your grams of coffee grounds before extraction, along with the yield of the espresso you end up with. Weight being used instead of fluid ounces makes it uniform when weighing for ratios.
Using a scale to measure these is essential to being able to repeat your process. Once you have the correct amount of coffee weighed out, the next step is to get your ground coffee distributed and tamped into the basket of the portafilter. This ensures that you get an even extraction when pulling your shots. Traditionally, baristas would simply knock the portafilter with their hand to make the coffee grounds look even before tamping the puck.
Distribution Tools and Tamps
In the last twenty years or so, people at home and in cafes have taken to using distribution tools. The most common distribution tools are wedges that, when spun, create a smooth and even surface to tamp the coffee puck.
Once the surface is ready, it is time to use a tamp to create a dense surface for high-pressure water to be pushed through. Almost all machines come with a tamp, but many of the aftermarket options will improve the quality of your extraction immediately. Aftermarket tampers are sized by the portafilter’s dimensions, with 58mm being the industry standard, but it's common to see a 53mm portafilter on many home machines.
When you are tamping your espresso puck day after day, the surface you are pressing down on can get damaged over time. It is smart to make a small investment and get a pad that will both protect your counter but also give you a smooth, even surface to distribute and tamp your espresso shot.
It’s a shame to spend all the time and effort perfecting your espresso extraction only to serve it up in a regular, old coffee cup. Espresso is a small volume drink, and many of its subtleties are lost if served in too large of a cup. Even a double shot of espresso isn’t enough for a regular mug. Many of these options are made of double-walled glass to keep in the heat of the drink, prevent the glass from becoming hot, and present the drink in the most aesthetically pleasing way possible.
Instead of spending more money at your local coffee shop, why not enter the world of making espresso at home? It’s time to put away your filters along with your french press, moka pot, and aeropress and start something new. Do some poking around and see what espresso tastes best to you, then start to figure out the best espresso machine is for you. It is a hobby that is not only appreciated by the ones around you but by your taste buds will thank you as well. Although jumping down the rabbit hole of espresso seems daunting, there are always Coffee & Espresso Experts like myself here on Curated who are more than happy to help guide you along the way and help you avoid costly mistakes.