Regular coffee and espresso are both made with coffee beans and water, so what’s the difference? Espresso is a concentrated shot of coffee that is packed with caffeine and bold flavor. It can be slung back on its own or used as the base for many popular mixed coffee drinks.
Espresso is made using pressurized hot water and finely ground and tightly packed coffee beans that result in a strong liquid topped with “crema,” which is a tasty brown foam. Espresso combines all the intense and rich flavors of a regular cup of coffee, only amplified to a high degree.
You’ll get a powerful combination of bitter, acidic sweetness that can be somewhat of an acquired taste. The trick is being able to balance these flavors so that one doesn’t overpower the other.
Espresso is no joke. It’s a very strong tasting liquid, so getting it just right is an art form worth practicing.
Learning the elements and a bit of science that goes behind making the perfect shot of espresso will not only help you make it yourself at home but give you the ability to discern the quality of the espresso at posh coffee shops.
Bitterness – While a strong bitter taste might give us a bit of a shock, foodies understand that bitterness is a flavor that adds depth and complexity to our food and drinks. Coffee is naturally pretty bitter, and people that are used to drinking coffee will come to expect a somewhat bitter flavor in “good” coffee.
Acidity – Acidity adds a sparkly feeling on our tongue, giving food zest and making it more interesting. However, it’s easy to go overboard and have too much acidity making something almost inedible.
Sweetness – You might not immediately think of sweetness when you think of a strong shot of espresso, but a light sweetness is necessary to balance out the bitterness and acidity. Coffee beans are the seed of a tropical fruit, which means they have a sweetness inside them. The roasting process can help bring that sweetness out.
The perfect shot of espresso has these three flavor elements in perfect harmony. The only want to get that harmony is through trial and error in a taste test.
Espresso brewing is equal parts art and science. When you break it down, you’re really looking at a chemistry experiment. Your variables are brew ratio, time, and temperature. If you want a perfect velvet texture and toffee-like taste, you’ll have to play with these variables until you get it just right.
What are you tasting your espresso for? You’re looking for the “sweet spot,” that perfect blend of acid, bitterness, and sweetness that sends you to coffee nirvana. Harsh bitterness and a lingering aftertaste could mean you over-extracted the pull.
An acid level that puckers your mouth could represent an under-extraction. In order to figure out all the clues and perfect variables, you will want to organize your information.
Make sure you set aside some time for taste-testing. You won’t want to do this first thing in the morning as you rush out the door for work. You’ll need time to prepare, taste, and write down your notes.
Keep a written log of all your variables (which beans you used, how fine you ground them, amount of water, brew times, etc.). After tasting, write down your full flavor experience and ideas for how to improve the next pull.
As you taste your espresso each morning and log your results, here are some tips that could help you improve your technique and flavor.
#1. Invest In A Good Espresso Machine
True beginners that simply want the espresso to appear before them magically should get a super-automatic espresso maker. That means just about every detail is taken care of by the machine itself, and very few skills are required to make it.
However, suppose you want to become an espresso master and toy with variables to create a superior drink. In that case, you’ll want a semi-automatic machine so that you have some control over the process.
You’ll be able to control the grind size, coffee dose, and brewing temperature. As you tweak these variables, you can log them in your taste-testing journal to find the magical sweet-spot for your unique taste buds.
#2. Get The Grind And Dose Right
The way you grind the beans can have a significant impact on the quality of your espresso. A chunky grind blocks out water and leads to weak espresso. However, over-grinding can make the flavors too intense and bitter.
Shoot for a grind that resembles granules of sugar. Use the beans right after grinding, do not grind them in advance because they grow stale and flavorless quickly once ground.
The “dose” refers to the amount of coffee you use to make your expresso. Your machine might take up to 30g, but 20g is sometimes a safer amount. This is a variable you can toy with and see what results you get.
#3. Use The Right Beans
For espresso brewing, choose beans that are lightly sweet and contain words like “caramel” in the description. It is also said that Arabica, instead of Robusta beans makes better espresso.
Arabica can be more expensive, but the difference is worth it. Store your beans in a glass jar or vacuum-sealed storage container. Don’t save the beans for special occasions; use them daily because they go stale the longer they sit on the shelf.
Espresso-making skills come with time and practice. Put on your mad-scientist lab coat and get to work. Once you’ve perfected the pull, you can use your superior espresso shots to make incredible mixed coffee drinks for your friends and family at home.