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*Except for espresso

Coffee brewing is easy—except for espresso. Let's talk about what espresso is, what it isn’t, and what you should know before inviting it into your kitchen.
By Tonx|
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Just Add Water?

The big premise behind most of the brew guidance I dispense is that it is helpful to think of coffee making as a just-add-water scenario. All the contraptions and fussiness that comprise the many machines and methods of preparation are really just different ways of combining ground coffee with hot water and separating out the resulting brew. Brewing coffee isn’t hard and shouldn’t feel intimidating.

And for the most part, this is true. Coffee-to-water ratios, the relationship between grind size and dwell time, and the considerations of filtering are not hard to wrap your head around once you start looking past the surface differences of the various methods and see what’s really happening to the coffee grounds.

But espresso is a different beast.

In espresso you are getting to the finish line extremely fast, using unusual coffee-to-water ratios, and adding into the mix the power and problems of high pressure and precision engineered gear.

The little details matter in espresso. Very small changes in inputs result in dramatic changes in outcomes. A half gram of coffee more or less, a miniscule drop in water temperature, an imperceptible drift in the size and uniformity of the grind — many things can thwart getting a great cup. Even using the most state-of-the-art commercial gear, it can still feel like tightrope walking on dental floss. Maybe this explains why so many professional baristas take themselves so seriously.

And it is because of espresso’s notorious stubbornness, complexity, and its requirement for serious gear that my usual message that coffee brewing is simple is often met with skepticism from some self-confessed coffee snobs. Espresso lovers know how rare a truly great cup of this elixir is and will often travel far to be served by serious practitioners. The cult of the barista has a waning but still fanatical following. Our propaganda that you can easily have great coffee in your kitchen comes with unstated “except for espresso” fine print.

What espresso is

My personal relationship with espresso is tempestuous. When I was a barista, a great espresso was the holy grail—the mythical “god shot”—and I was blessed to glimpse it from time to time. When I started roasting it became an alchemical quest of endless tinkering, theorizing, and ever increasing nuance. But as a coffee drinker, ordering an espresso is still often a crap shoot.

Ordering espresso from even the top coffeebars affords the same odds as most scratch-and-win lotto tickets. Sometimes you hit it big and your faith is renewed but on most days disenchantment abounds. In spite of that, the relationship remains strong and I still drink a lot of espresso. And during these pandemic times, I long to stand in a 15 minute line to find a friendly face to pull me a mediocre shot. Sounds like heaven. I miss it.

There are a lot of competing definitions of espresso and I’m wary of wading too deep into the debates. The Italians devised, refined, commercialized, and popularized it as a method starting just over a hundred years ago. Modern refinements have altered some of the mechanisms, and added some horsepower to the machines, and the beverage we enjoy today is arguably consistently better as a result.

Scott Rao offers this definition from his geeky but essential  Professional Barista’s Handbook :

Espresso is a small, made to order, concentrated coffee consisting of liquid topped by foam, or crema. The liquid and crema are each multiphasic systems consisting of an emulsion, a suspension, and a solution.

Crema is composed primarily of CO2 and water vapor bubbles wrapped in liquid films made up of an aqueous solution of surfactants. Crema also contains suspended coffee bean cell wall fragments, or fines (responsible for “tiger striping,” or mottling), and emulsified oils containing aromatics.

The liquid phase of an espresso consists of dissolved solids, emulsified oils, suspended fines, and an effervescence of gas bubbles.

Such a scientific sounding definition is hard to argue with (or maybe even comprehend for the non-scientist), but the culinary definitions leave a lot more wiggle room. Different qualities and volumes are discussed as being more or less authentic, but almost all parties to the debate would agree that the resulting beverage should be tasty, highly aromatic, and intensely concentrated in contrast to other forms of brewed coffee.

What espresso is not

Contrary to much old school coffee marketing, espresso is not a style of roast. Any coffee from any origin roasted with any range of profiles can be prepared as an espresso. Some coffees may fare better, and some styles or origins might prove to be more of an acquired taste, but fundamentally coffee is coffee and sweet, high-quality coffee will usually perform well. While coffees are often still marketed as “espresso roasts”, there’s little consensus about what that might actually mean. In general, roasters who create espresso blends are typically working to build good balance and attempting to craft an easy to hit target for the commercial machines that their blend will meet. At Yes Plz we pull espresso shots from each weekly batch we release with great results—home espresso geeks, hit us up!

Moka pot coffee, while having some similarities with espresso, is its own beverage. The steam pressure method doesn’t produce enough oomph to create the same quality of crema or the same speed of brewing. A vast number of cheaper home “espresso” machines exist that are simply moka pots made into mediocre appliances. But while this coffee is brewed strong, it is not quite the same thing as espresso.

Nespresso capsules and their K-Cup cousins are not espresso. The exorbitant price tag notwithstanding, these silly machines and the stale proprietary capsules of old grounds they consume produce a much thinner beverage closer in taste to cheap instant coffee than any real brew. They offer a convenience that comes at a high cost but minimal quality. A waste of money better suited to a motel nightstand than your kitchen counter.

The rise of the barista

In the last couple decades we’ve seen the emergence of what has been called the Third Wave of coffee—a loosely defined movement toward higher quality drinks, more differentiation, transparency around supply chains, recognizing coffee as a seasonal product, and a general reverence for many aspects of the craft. Espresso and, by extension, the barista have played a central role in this. A new class of artisan coffeebars with well trained staff, distinctive coffees, and state-of-the-art gear popped up across the land.

Alongside this has emerged a new crowd of contemporary coffee connoisseurs-in-training, seeking to find a foothold in this new and shifting coffee landscape. Early on this crowd tended to be dominated by the subset of geeks drawn toward the most conspicuous parts of the movement. They fetishized the machines, the visible processes on display, what I call the culinary burlesque, and are compelled by the collective quest for technical optimization and perfection.

And this de facto narrative was amplified by the press. The latest computerized machine promising perfect brews or the newest clandestine pop up coffee cart could find themselves profiled in the NY Times or touted in trade magazines even before the first drink was made. This technofetishism and obsession with craft characterized much of the hype around Third Wave coffee culture while obscuring the less visible, harder to articulate, yet more fundamental coffee truths that separate shit from shinola. You couldn’t always trust the signposts.

As a result, coffee companies often spent more energy differentiating based on brand, aesthetics, fancy faucets, or marketing smoke and mirrors, and not enough energy on improving their core coffee experience. Dozens of copycat coffeebars and micro-roasteries opened only to discover that great tasting coffee and espresso takes more than just buying the fanciest machines or chasing the latest green coffee trend. There was a growing glut of mediocrity, but it was still better than most of what came before. Nonetheless, the best shops manage to build a rep and find their fans amid the noise.

Glimpsing the future

More recently the compass needle of budding connoisseurs has begun to point in a more legit direction. With the growing embrace of simple manual brew methods, coffee brewing is becoming demystified and decoupled from the claims and convolutions of expensive gadgets. Coffee lovers are focusing less on finding the best brew method and more on finding the best flavor. Some of the underpinnings of coffee quality understood by growers, roasters, and green coffee buyers is leaking from the cupping laboratory and into the lexicon of real coffee drinkers. It is a trend still in its infancy, but holds the promise of building better roadmaps of the landscape from confused consumer to connoisseur.

For espresso fans, it is an exciting but chaotic time. Many new ideas are being explored, new roasting philosophies, strong flavors, strange acquired tastes. Some could prove to be dead ends, others might be the next big thing. But behind it all is the reality that coffee is improving and becoming more interesting at the farm level. Pro and home baristas alike are exploring these beans and nudging the culinary definition of espresso in new directions. My galaxy brain take is that the very best espresso experiences are yet to come.

Meanwhile in the kitchen

Enough of this high-falutin philosophizing! Many readers just want to know what it’s going to take to have a great espresso or cappuccino in their own kitchen. And possibly one or two of those folks have suffered through my ravings and are ready to get to the point.

So here, finally, is my usual spiel for those peering down the rabbit hole of home espresso…

Espresso is hard. These are seven things you should consider before taking the plunge:

1. More important than the espresso machine is having a good burr grinder that can produce relatively uniform grounds at the very fine end of the spectrum, and allow for very small adjustments. Such devices are not cheap, but cutting corners or pinching pennies here leads to guaranteed heartbreak.

2. There are very few legit home espresso machines worth considering for under $1500. I’m not going to make any recommendations in this article, but I want to prepare you for the sticker shock as you begin your own research.

3. The all-in-one, super-automatic, push-a-button machines are a pricey compromise. If you really love great espresso, these will disappoint. If you really love great coffee, there are cheaper and simpler ways to make a much better beverage. If it’s merely that style of beverage that is floating your boat and you’ve got the dough, you might be satisfied with such a contraption to make your morning cappuccino-type-drink, provided you feed it decent beans. These things may not get you perfection, but they’re simple to use, consistent, and far less fussy than a proper espresso rig.

4. Learning to pull a good shot takes patience and practice. Prepare for a steep learning curve. Think about getting hands-on lessons from an experienced barista. For milk drinks, learning to steam for proper latte-art-ready texture is worth the effort. 

5. Warming up a machine, dialing in a coffee, making a drink, and keeping a clean rig takes time and effort and can put a big dent in a daily routine. The daily diligence required for the home espresso habit is something you should self select for carefully. If you’re the type of person that leaves dirty dishes in the sink for any length of time… home espresso is probably not for you.

6. As with any other brew regime, it’s all about the beans. You’re perhaps already a Yes Plz subscriber and have fresh and amazing beans arriving regularly. Managing your inventory can be challenging while you’re still learning (and thus dumping a lot of shots). Don’t invest all that time, energy, and dough into fancy gear but then skimp on the beans.

7. Unlike pro baristas who get to go through pounds and pounds of beans in a shift, you’ll be exploring the same batch of beans over many days, watching the way it changes, and making small adjustments. There is always room for more tinkering and improving your technique and few plateaus to rest on.

It may not be the easiest undertaking, but if you’ve heeded these warnings and feel brave enough to press on, you could enjoy the sometimes frustrating pleasures of espresso in your own home. No long lines, no surly baristas, no pants. 

I think the right attitude is that espresso is just another brew method, albeit an unusually tricky one. Espresso is often the gateway drug into the world of finer coffee experiences, but I don’t believe it needs to be the ultimate coffee destination. If espresso drinks are your passion and you want to pursue it, by all means, go for it, but I would argue that it is just one scenic detour on a wider, wilder, and more interesting road.

espresso dripping from a portafilter

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