Espresso is perhaps the most vibrant way to enjoy coffee. The use of pressure during brewing brings out aromas and flavors that other brew methods can’t produce, and espresso’s strength makes it suitable for many different drinks.
It can be a bit daunting to know how to get started – there’s a lot of equipment involvement, not to mention the mechanics of pulling a shot.
But if you’re interested in learning more about the nitty-gritty of espresso grinds, here’s the Espresso 101 guide that you need – we’ll cover what espresso is, how to make it, and how it’s used.
In This Guide:
- What is Espresso?
- What Equipment Do You Need to Brew Espresso?
- How Do You Pull an Espresso Shot?
- Variations on Espresso Drinks
- The History of Espresso
What is Espresso?
The defining characteristic of espresso is the use of pressure during brewing. Rather than dripping water through grounds (e.g. pour-over, automatic drip) or immersing grounds in water (e.g. French press, cold brew), espresso machines use pressure to force steam through grounds.
Adding pressure as another brew variable makes pulling espresso much more complicated than brewing coffee via other methods. It’s also the reason why espresso can bring out aromas and flavors that no other brewing method will capture.
What Equipment Do You Need to Brew Espresso?
The most obvious equipment needed for brewing espresso is an espresso machine. Pulling espresso isn’t possible without forced steam, and espresso machines are the only coffee makers designed to do this with precision. Modern espresso as it’s generally thought of today is brewed with an espresso machine.
Espresso machines range from surprisingly simple to computer-level complex. Machines are broadly categorized into manual, semi-automatic, automatic and super-automatic. Each offers another level of convenience in exchange for one less hands-on step. Manual machines are entirely hands-on, and super-automatic machines entirely hands-off.
A Note on Other Pressurized Brew Methods
Several other brew methods use pressure during the brewing process, and therefore might be considered to make “espresso” in the most generous sense. These alternatives brew to varying degrees of quality. None will produce a true shot of espresso like would be expected in a cafe, however:
- Pump Espresso Machines generate a low pressure of 1-3 bars, whereas modern espresso is brewed at ~8 bars of pressure. These machines won’t match what modern machines can do, but they create “espresso” that’s much like what the first machines might’ve made.
- Moka Pots drive pressure upward through finely ground coffee, creating a dense and strong coffee. They brew at higher temperatures than espresso, though, and don’t allow for much control over the brewing process.
- The Aeropress is modeled after an espresso machine, intended as a portable and affordable alternative. The resulting brew has some characteristics of espresso, but isn’t able to match what a real espresso machine produces.
- Vacuum Brewers use pressure to siphon water through grounds, and create vibrant cups of coffee. They use pressure in a very different way than espresso machines, though. The brewed coffee can be excellent, but it’s quite different.
True espresso shots have a crema and body that are vibrant in every way. Only a modern espresso machine has the capability to produce the crema and body, and only a true espresso machine is precise enough to let baristas “dial in” their shots for maximum quality.
After an espresso machine, an espresso grinder is the next most important piece of equipment. You don’t necessarily need an espresso grinder to make espresso, but this one piece will have the greatest impact on your shot quality.
Standard coffee grinders don’t have the precision and consistency that’s needed to dial-in espresso. Even high-end grinders that have an “espresso” setting won’t produce the same quality that a true espresso grinder can.
A good espresso coffee grinder will have minute adjustments that afford a high degree of control over grind size. It’ll also be machined within tight tolerances that ensure consistency. The entire range of adjustments that an espresso grinder has will fit within the 1-3 “espresso” grind settings that a standard coffee grinder offers.
If you don’t have a quality espresso grinder, you can use a pressurized portafilter. This aerates the espresso to generate crema. Such a setup can generate quality espresso without an espresso grinder, but doesn’t offer anywhere near the same degree of control (see Variables).
If you’re purchasing a new espresso setup, consider dividing your funds between an espresso machine and a grinder. Spending ⅔ on a machine and ⅓ on a grinder will usually produce better espresso than spending the full budget on a machine will.
Portafilter, Basket & Tamper
Unless you have an automatic/super-automatic that preps grounds for you, you’ll need a portafilter, basket and tamper. These work together:
- The basket holds the grounds, and sits in the portafilter
- The tamper compresses the grounds in the basket
- The portafilter hotels the ground, and slides into the machine’s group head
Most machines come with these accessories. Additional portafilters, baskets and tampers aren’t necessary, but you might purchase extras for faster shot preparation. You may also decide to get a special accessory because it looks good.
Assuming you’re a beginner, there’s no reason to purchase high-end accessories before you’re able to expertly dial in espresso (and have the grinder to do so). High-end portafilters, tampers and baskets only have minimal impact on shot quality, and only then in the hands of a skilled barista.
If you purchase a different portafilter, basket or tamper, make sure it’s the same diameter as what you have.
If you want to make cortados, cappuccinos and lattes, you’ll need a steam wand. A wand will both heat and create microfoam. The cheaper alternative of a milk frother isn’t nearly as convenient, and doesn’t create tight enough bubbles for latte art.
Look for an espresso machine that has a steam wand. Most models have a wand, and you’ll undoubtedly use this. You’ll probably make cappuccinos for guests even if you prefer straight espresso.
Espresso machines have fairly low clearances below the group head, and coffee cups often won’t fit. Having at least one demitasse cup makes collecting the brewed espresso much easier than jerry-rigging a setup that elevates the espresso machine.
Stirrer & Scale
A grounds stirrer and scale are entirely optional, although a scale can be useful when first learning to pull shots. You could actually find two different scales useful.
A stirrer or comb can be used to disburse grounds within the portafilter, breaking up clumps and making distribution more even. You can forgo this, unless you see signs of a gind problem (see below) or are overly fastidious about your grounds preparation.
You can use scales to both dose grounds and tamp. A digital kitchen scale will weigh how much coffee you’re using with each shot, and many experienced baristas always. Even a small variance in the grounds used can have an oversized impact on a shot’s profile. A bathroom scale may be useful when learning how much pressure to tamp with. You can put the bathroom scale away once you get a feel for tamping.
Knock Box & Cloth
A knock box makes dumping out used grounds easy, as you just have to knock the portafilter against the box’s bar. You can then dump the box once it’s full.
A knock box isn’t necessary at all, as you can alternatively use a spoon to scoop out used grounds. A cloth is helpful for removing the last few grounds in a basket/portafilter. A simple dishcloth or fabric napkin works well.
Almost all espresso machines have a water tank that heats their water. Portable machines sometimes require an external method for heating water, though.
If you purchase a portable machine that doesn’t heat water, make sure you have a kettle.
How Do You Pull an Espresso Shot?
Once you have the equipment needed to brew espresso, you can pull a shot as follows:
- Turn on the espresso machine, allowing it to warm up.
- Place your demitasse cup and mug upside down, on top of the machine. This warms the cups as you prep the grounds.
- Grind ~17 grams of beans with the espresso grinder, and place the grounds in the portafilter basket. Weigh with a kitchen scale for maximum accuracy. (Dispurse the grinds with a comb if desired.)
- Tamp the grounds in the basket at ~30 pounds of pressure. A best practice is to hold your forearm straight up above the tamper, and to feel around the tamper to ensure it’s level with the basket’s rim. An even tamp is essential to good espresso. You can use a bathroom scale until you’re consistently tamping to ~30 pounds.
- Place the basket in the portafilter, and the portafilter in the espresso machine’s group head. Move your demitasse cup below the portafilter.
- Immediately begin flowing water through the group head to pull the shot. Stop the water before it becomes clear.
- Steam milk if desired, and create your beverage. Enjoy!
Properly preparing and pulling shots requires practice, and adjustments have to be made each day when dialing in. You’ll likely find that specific coffees call for slightly different figures than are suggested above. Practicing and perfecting the skill required is part of the fun. (Unless you want the convenience of a super-automatic machine.)
What Makes a Good Espresso Shot?
The only element in an espresso shot is brewed espresso, but the pulling process creates two distinct layers of brewed espresso – body and crema.
Body comprises the majority of the espresso shot. It looks like brewed coffee, and is the bottom layer that fills the demitasse cup. A significant amount of aroma and flavor is in this portion of the shot, and it’s largely responsible for the shot’s strength.
Because body is the primary source of an espresso shot’s strength, shots with greater body are more suitable for cappuccinos and lattes. Good body will cut through milk and flavorings.
Crema is a thin layer that floats on top of an espresso shot shortly after it’s pulled. The crema has a lighter color, and minuscule bubbles might be visible in it. Crema dissipates if a shot sits before being drunk or used.
Although crema looks different, it’s actually nothing more than aerated espresso. The air bubbles bring out a shot’s aroma and flavor. The most nuanced notes are found in the crema.
Some people stir crema into a shot when drinking espresso straight. Some drinks (e.g. long black) specifically add espresso last so that crema is preserved. Treating the crema layer differently can yield some surprising results.
Traditional Italian espresso uses some coffea robusta beans because these produce more gas, and thus create more crema. Specialty shops outside of Italy rarely use robusta beans, for coffea arabica beans have better aroma and flavor.
Both parts of the shot have aroma and flavor, but you’ll notice more in the crema. You’ll also always notice more aromas than flavors, because our noses are the most sensitive to different notes
Espresso Variables & Their Effects
Everything from the atmospheric pressure to the barista’s mood seems to have an effect on espresso quality. Below are some of the more significant and controllable variables:
The dose refers to how much coffee you’re using for each shot. The amount of coffee used directly affects extraction. More grounds slows the water’s flow, which increases extraction. Fewer grounds allow for faster flow, which reduces extraction.
A properly extracted shot of high-quality coffee will be aromatic, vibrant, and slightly sweet (if still strong). Increase extraction if your shots are sour and watery, and decrease extraction if your shots are bitter. If there’s no obvious sign of another extraction-related issue, then you can try changing the dose to improve extraction.
The grind refers to both the size and consistency of the ground-up beans used. An imprecise and/or inconsistent grind will lead to uneven extraction, which is why it’s important to use a good espresso grinder.
Espresso shots generally take between 17 and 35 seconds to pull. Try using a finer grind if your shots are pulling too fast, or a coarser grind if your shots are pulling too slow.
Additionally, visible “channels” through used grounds indicate an inconsistent grind. This is best resolved by using a better grinder. Without that option, however, you might be able to tamp harder, use more coffee, or otherwise compensate by changing other variables.
A properly tamped shot should be evenly compressed. Tamp is one variable that should never be changed, yet is difficult to perfectly replicate each time since grounds are usually manually tamped.
If your grounds are visibly uneven, your tamping needs improvement. Keep your elbow directly above the tamper, and use three fingers to feel for evenness around the tamper’s edge as you press down.
If water is rushing through your grounds, you might be tamping too light. It’s less likely that you’re tamping too hard if water is flowing too slow. A grind setting that’s too fine or dose that’s too high is more likely the culprit of this latter issue.
Yield is the ratio of espresso volume to water used. The most common preferred yield is 1:2 (e.g. 30 mL espresso from 60 mL water). Varying the yield dramatically can create interesting results, though.
If your yield is too low, you may need to adjust the dose lower or grind coarser. If your yield is too high, try adjusting the dose higher or grind coarser. An incorrect yield could also suggest an improper tamp.
All of these variables impact extraction, which ultimately determines taste. Over-extracted espresso is bitter, and under-extracted is sour. Play with the different variables until you get an espresso shot that tastes like it’s extracted well.
Variations on Espresso Drinks
Espresso forms the base of many popular coffee beverages. It’s used to make:
- Espresso: Straight espresso might be ordered as a single shot or double shot (doppio). Ristretto espresso is a short shot that’s small and sweet. Lungo espresso is a long shot that’s more bitter and larger.
- Espresso/Water: An Americano is a faux-brewed coffee, made by adding water to espresso. A long black is like an Americano, except it’s a little stronger and pours the espresso over the water.
- Espresso/Milk: Cortados (4 oz.), cappuccinos (6 oz.) and lattes (8+ oz.) are all made by adding steamed milk to espresso.
- Affogato: Affogato is a dessert, in which espresso is poured over ice cream. Vanilla is most often used, but not the only option.
The History of Espresso
Although espresso is today considered one of the most artful ways to brew coffee, its origins lie in entirely commercial reasons.
Coffee became popular throughout much of Europe during the 19th Century, and many cafes had thriving businesses. Brewing was slow to the point that it limited cafes’ sales, however. If cafes had a faster way to brew coffee, they could serve more patrons and generate more sales.
Many European cafe owners worked on inventions that would speed up brewing. A large portion tried to use steam — this was the Steam Age — and thus espresso was born.
The actual invention of espresso is most often attributed to Angelo Moriondo. His 1884 Italian patent application shows the motivations that drove this invention: “New steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection fo coffee beverage.” Although he’s usually credited, many similar steam-powered brewing inventions were created around this time.
The espresso machine has undergone many revisions since Moriondo’s patent was filed. The brew method became an artform post-World War II, when cafes throughout Europe and North America proliferated. Baristas actually pulled a lever to generate steam that brewed espresso — even today espresso shots are “pulled” even though they’re usually brewed by pressing a button.
Espresso is one of the most interesting and delicious ways to enjoy coffee. Get the equipment needed, and pull a few shots yourself. No other coffee-brewing experience can compare.
Scott M. Brodie has over 20 years of professional experience working in coffee shops and writing about coffee (including selling superautomatic machines). When not writing, he can usually be found roasting a new African single origin or composing a fictional work.