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The Espresso MiniFAQ
Home >> Espresso >> Espresso MiniFAQ

Espresso is a highly individual, subjective, and opinionated thing. And like most other serious espresso aficionados, I have my own opinions. And I'm asked often for them - especially by people who see me rave about how great espresso is, and they want to know more. So I've compiled this mini-FAQ to answer some of my most heard questions via email. Enjoy, debate, but also learn to develop your own opinions - it's something that comes with a lot of trial, error, and experiments.

Frequently Asked Questions
  1. What exactly is Espresso
  2. What is the ideal espresso?
  3. How Long Does the Shot Take?
  4. Are there any concrete "givens" for Espresso?
  5. What's with all this tamping talk.
  6. How hard should I tamp?
  7. What are the best machines?
  8. What is the deal with Robusta?
  9. Is crema really all that important?
  10. How can I improve my shots?
1. What exactly is Espresso
Today's espresso is a 1.25oz - 1.75oz beverage that is brewed under the proper conditions of 190-200F water, at least 130 psi of pressure which would force said water through finely ground fresh coffee, extracts more oils, aromatics, and flavor than any other coffee brewing method. A very opaque, thick and dark liquid, capped by red-golden dense froth, also known as crema is the result.

In addition to this, if I had more typing allowances I would add: a rich, deep, coffee-pungent taste with little or no bitterness; the resulting aftertaste should linger but should be present for some time, and some residual bitter-sweetness should exist.

Espresso come in varieties too. A double espresso (or espresso doppio) is a doubleshot - 2-3 oz. total volume. A ristretto is a short espresso, usually between .5 and 1 fluid ounce. a double ristretto is the same as a ristretto, but double the coffee grinds and double the volume.
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2. What is the ideal espresso?
For me, the ideal espresso is a double ristretto shot. This is literally a "ristricted" shot. You should also grind a bit finer than normal espresso so you still end up with a 30 second shot, but about 2/3rds to half the total brew volume that you get with normal espresso.

Use roughly 16 grams of finely ground coffee, tamp and shape your puck well with about 30lbs of tamping pressure, lock and load the portafilter, and run the switch for about 30 seconds. Your goal is about 1.5 ounces total volume for the double in that time.

These are tricky shots to pull off. You grind so fine that you walk a tightrope between pulling a perfect shot, and stalling (or choking) your machine - a phenomenon where no brewed coffee comes out of the portafilter after you activate the pump. But when you achieve a great ristretto, there's nothing else like it.
Start of the pour pour continues
Starting a double ristretto, 2 cups used to show volume.
With slow ristretto shots, grind finer. crema shows guinness effect.
ideal espresso shows crema all the way through.
less than 1oz/shot over 30 seconds makes the perfect ristretto.
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3. How Long Does the Shot Take?
A question that gets asked quite often is how long does the perfect espresso shot take? And what about a double? Is it double the time?

The answers are between 25 and 30 seconds, and a double takes the same time. How can that be?

It's mainly in the filter baskets used to pull a double vs. a single. Take a look at them - you'll see that the single basket is shaped differently, and the surface area of the "filter" part is roughly half that of a double basket. This smaller filter area ristricts the flow of espresso, so that brewing with a single basket means your flow through rate is reduced. And it's reduced roughly by half.

So pouring a shot with a single basket may result in 1.5 ounces in 27 seconds. Use the same grind but double the volume of grounds in a double basket, and with it's larger filter surface area, more liquids flow through in the same time, giving you 2 to 3 ounces in the same 27 seconds.

Why 27 seconds? This is based mainly on my own five years of examining literally thousands of espresso shots, but also on what most modern day espresso literati belive - the ideal extraction time (when heated water touches a bed of coffee) is between 25 and 30 seconds. Under that time, and you end up with sour, underextracted coffee. Over that time, and you start to introduce unwanted bitters to the cup. The sweet spot is between 25 and 30 seconds, if all your other variables (grind, water temperature, pressure, pack) are spot on.
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4. Are there any concrete "givens" for Espresso?
Tough question. Short answer is no. But a slightly longer answer involves the following facts, or "givens":

  • Italians in Italy invented espresso
  • Italians in Italy improved espresso and brought in 9BAR production
  • Italians in Italy by and large consider espresso part of their daily routine
  • a normal single espresso is 1.5 US fl oz, +/- .5 ounce
  • a normal ristretto is 1 US fl. oz, +/-.25 oz
  • a normal cappuccino is 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steam milk, 1/3 froth
  • a normal espresso is poured in 25 secs, +/- 5 seconds
  • a modern day espresso must be produced in a pump or piston or lever machine capable of producing roughly 9BAR of pressure
  • a normal espresso uses 7grams of ground coffee, +/- 2g.
  • a normal espresso is brewed with 93C water +/- 3C
  • a good espresso must have crema.
    These are more or less accepted facts, but even amongst them you can see there is a variance (all the +/- stuff).
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5. What's with all this tamping talk.
Don't let anyone else tell you any differently - tamping is an integral and crucial part of the espresso making process. Sure, you can get a great shot of espresso by not tamping at all, or lightly levelling grounds (but not applying more than a few lbs of force), but tamping provides something every espresso hound seeks: consistency, or at least a higher level of it.

Tamping is one stage in making great espresso, and an important one. It is also part of the artistry and panache that make espresso so culturally appealing. Using a custom-crafted device to build an equally custom-crafted beverage is one of the true joys of this process.

Consistency is one of the prime benefits from tamping. By always tamping with the same pressure, the same style, you increase your chances of pulling a first rate shot. You control a variable in espresso brewing when you tamp. Just grinding a bit finer and locking in the portafilter sans tamping takes away your control of one of the many variables.
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6. How hard should I tamp?
Another highly subjective question and answer, with experts (and supposed experts) claiming everything from tamp with 50+ pounds of pressure to no tamp at all.

As you can see from the previous question, I believe tamping with a certain amount of force is a crucial part of the crafting of a quality espresso. My own sweet spot is that 25 to 30 pounds of downward force. I've tried every variety of tamping pressures (or lack thereof), and found that a 30 lb tamp, combined with a grind fine enough to produce a 25 second 3 ounce double espresso is as near to perfect as you can get.

A 30 lb tamp gives you a pretty tight puck, and as long as your grind is right, that 30 lb tamp should give you a 25 second normal pour.

When you tamp with 20lbs or less pressure, you're increasing the chances of a phenomenon called "channeling". Water always seeks the path of lease resistance, and when you tamp light, or don't tamp at all, you run the risk of portions of your lose grounds compacting quicker than others, and water will go through the parts of the coffee that are the least compacted.
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7. What are the best machines?
You sure do ask the doozy questions, don't you :)

This one is so complex, I actually wrote a Newbies' Guide to Coffee and espresso, and there's a specific page dedicated to espresso machines. Give it a read.
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8. What is the deal with Robusta?
Robusta beans have a bad rap amongst most coffee professionals, and with good reason - for almost the entire time robusta has existed in the world coffee trade, it's been of poor quality, with rubber tire smelling roasts and extreme bitterness in the cup.

But I didn't buy into that. I wanted to find out for myself. I got in contact with a robusta importer and got a sampling of different beans to try experimenting with. I also got some robusta types from a local distributor. Most of them were all robusta is supposed to be - burning rubber smell while roasting, not too great in the cup. A couple of the beans were passable, especially in a blend, but one really stood out for me - Kaapi Royale, imported by Josuma Coffee.

This bean rocks. Used conservatively in your blends (15% robusta, the rest arabica beans), Kaapi ads a zing to the shot, a nice mellowness (!!) and tons of extra crema. The resulting shots have a good kick but no bitter aftertaste. It rocks. I'm glad I didn't listen to the prevailing opinions. I still wouldn't make a cup (or shot) of 100% robusta, even Kaapi, but in a blend it does nothing but increase the taste and quality of a shot. You can now buy this bean in green from www.coffeewholesalers.com.
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9. Is crema really all that important?
Yes

Anyone who tells you that a good shot can be built without crema is fooling themselves. Crema is one of the primary indicators of a good espresso shot. This isn't to say that every shot with crema on it is good - far from it. But I am saying that every shot that doesn't have crema on it is a bad shot.

Crema also serves other purposes besides being an indicator. Crema contains a lot of aromatics, which influence how your mouth tastes the espresso - the olifactory sensors in your nose will register along with the tastebuds on your tongue. Crema also acts as a partial insulator for the beverage, helping to keep it hot. And it has its own unique taste that adds to the overall shot taste.

With all the above said, understand there are different types of crema, but only one good type. There are many machines on the market today with "crema enhancing devices". These produce what I consider false crema, the type that dissipates rapidly and barely hangs to the side of your cup. I am also more and more convinced that they degrade the espresso beverage taste. I base this on my increasing experimentation and testing of espresso machines with crema enhancers in place. I feel they create excess bitterness in the cup, and produce a light beige type crema that is definitely false.

Real crema, produced with a real machine using no "enhancer" tricks is rich, thick, sticks to the side of the cup, and lingers right down to the last sip and beyond. The color is dark golden - red - brown, usually with some sort of tiger flecking patterns on the top. A sign that your shot is possibly amazing :-)
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10. How can I improve my shots?
There's a lot of ways you can improve the quality of your espresso shots in the home.

  • use fresh beans, or roast you own
  • a quality grinder is an absolute must for espresso. Don't skimp.
  • grind seconds before brewing.
  • experiment with your dosage of grounds
  • experiment with your grind fineness control
  • experiment with your tamp pressure
  • learn when your machine hits its temperature "sweet spot" (this is known as temperature surfing)
  • practice
  • practice
  • practice.
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