This is part 2 of a series on making espresso at home. Find Part 1 here. We explore the economics of making espresso at home as well as many of the other reasons you may be compelled to embark on this journey.
Now that we’ve explored some of the philosophy of why to make espresso at home, it’s time to figure out all the stuff you’ll need. Before we go any further, too, it’s important to note exactly what espresso is and why it requires special equipment.
Espresso is a small amount of almost-boiling water that is forced under high pressure through a bed of finely ground coffee. The end result is about 2.5 ounces of espresso. Espresso machines need to be able to create about 9 bars of pressure and the goal for the extraction is to take about 25-30 seconds.
As such, coffee that isn’t brewed under these conditions isn’t espresso, so Moka pots and Aeropress and other methods are not really classifiable as “espresso,” although they make good and interesting coffee in their own right.
There are several components that go into making espresso. You need fresh coffee beans suitable for desirable espresso flavors, a tamper, a grinder that can handle consistent fine grinding and, of course, an espresso machine.
First, let’s focus on the beans. Like with other kinds of coffees, there are two basic categories of espresso coffee beans: single origin and blends. Single origin espresso will be comprised of coffee from a single farm, co-op or possibly even region. Espresso blends, assuming they aren’t just a bunch of leftover beans tossed together and sold as something special, will use a variety of beans from different regions to manipulate the qualities desired in espresso. Proper blending can potentially enhance the mouthfeel and body of the espresso while also highlighting certain flavor profiles. Blending can also be used to balance out some flavor qualities of beans. If an espresso blend seems a little flat, a master blender may add a proportion of, say, a very bright Kenyan variety that, by itself, may be too intense or acidic for use as a single-origin.
Probably the best thing about making espresso at home, since it is, eventually, so economical, is you can try lots of blends and single origin coffees and even taste them in flights or back-to-back to appreciate the nuances you wouldn’t otherwise notice if, say, you drank the same espresso from the same shop prepared the same way every day until, a few months later, they changed their blend a little.
I never appreciated scotch until a buddy of mine who was a scotch enthusiast took me out one time and ordered a flight of scotches to be sampled at the same sitting. All of a sudden I was able to appreciate lots of variations I would have never otherwise noticed, especially since I drink scotch about once a year, if that!
The freshness of your beans is important. They don’t need to be still warm from roasting, but anything past two weeks old is getting way past its prime, in my opinion, for espresso. If all you can get is beans of unknown age, or worse, those cool-looking cans of pre-ground Italian espresso like Lavazza or Illy, you’re better off skipping the whole espresso thing until you can source proper beans. Focus on other methods where freshness may not be as critical. If you crave intense, boldly flavored coffee but can’t get good beans, use a Moka or Aeropress. I’m probably a heretic for saying this, but those pre-ground Italian cans are great in a Moka pot!
Finally, I need to mention something about roast level. Traditionally, espresso roasts are taken pretty dark (the so-called Italian Roast), which is well past second crack and the beans will look dark and oily and quite beautiful. While this is completely about personal tastes, beans that are roasted that dark can sometimes taste flat and without much character, and they can also produce charcoal-like carbon flavors and bitterness that is unpleasant. When done properly, higher roast levels can produce toasty, roasty, caramel-y, chocolate-y/cocoa-y flavors. The coffee from *$ is notorious, especially for my palate, for being incinerated, so try a straight espresso there and then haul ass over to Oddly Correct to see the other end of the spectrum!
If you live in Kansas City, Broadway Cafe and Crow’s Coffee both offer what I consider to be pretty traditional espresso flavors.
On the other side of the roasting spectrum are lighter roasts, which end somewhere between first crack (the first popping sound roasting coffee beans make) and second crack (the second and last sound they make, more like Rice Krispies with milk poured on them). As a rule of thumb, darker roasts mute individual bean characteristics while lighter roasts highlight them. On the bad end, light roasts can be grassy tasting if they are too light, or have an astringent, acidic and even tart character. Espresso that uses a lighter roast profile will be more about the bean and less about the roast, so you’ll tend to get brighter, fruitier flavors with a lot more punch. Some are downright tart or make you pucker almost like sucking on a lemon, if the roaster is really trying to highlight that characteristic.
Check out Oddly Correct or Second Best Coffee in Kansas City for a taste of the lighter roast profile.
In my opinion, blends that are roasted toward the darker end of the spectrum tend to do better with milk than single origin or bright, light roasts, but that’s not a hard and fast rule.
Now that we’ve talked philosophy and beans, we’ll get onto the machines and gadgets and stuff, I promise! Part 3 coming soon!