Espresso is so much more than just really strong coffee. It’s an elixir, an experience, that takes only a few sips but lingers long after. For true espresso connoisseurs brewing the perfect cup is an art form, and one that takes skill, time, and practice to master.
Start with good coffee and pure, fresh water
As with any recipe the end result will only be as good as the sum of its ingredients. Coffee beans should be as fresh as possible and medium-roasted (not dark) to preserve the delicate flavor nuances. The water should be pure, fresh and odor-free, and neither too hard nor too soft.
Use the right grind
The beans should be ground to a fine powder in order to expose as much surface area as possible to the water, but not so fine they pack too tight for the water to get through. Depending on your machine, coffee, and preference the grind consistency should be somewhere between small sugar granules smooth baking flour. Many experts recommend having your beans ground by a professional in order to get the best results. For more on grinding read How to Grind Coffee Beans Perfectly.
Tamping ensures the water to flows smoothly through all the coffee in the basket and doesn’t just gush through one or two areas. To tamp put your coffee grounds into the basket and, on a smooth solid surface, use your tamper to press straight down into the basket with 20 – 30lbs of pressure. Practice by pressing on your bathroom scale to see exactly how much that is. Finish with a single firm twist to secure any loose grains and then lift the tamper straight up. The resulting packed grounds should be level and smooth, with no gaps or dimples. Note: The tamper should fit snugly into the basket — if it’s too small the coffee around the edges won’t get compressed and the water will rush down the sides instead of dispersing evenly.
The optimal water temperature for brewing espresso is 190 – 205º, or just below boiling. If it’s too hot the espresso will taste bitter or and burned, or if it’s too cool it will be bland and flavorless.
Start the water. Good espresso extracts quickly and should take no longer than 20-30 seconds. Mr Andrea Illy says any longer than that and you’re “over-extracting” and only getting “the less good part of the coffee.”
Serve and drink immediately
Don’t wait, don’t let the espresso cool, and don’t dawdle around or waste time chatting. Espresso is best sipped fresh and hot lest it become bland or bitter and lose its frothy textured topcoat.
These are the basic principles of extracting a great espresso and although getting a truly perfect cup at home is difficult with practice and patience it’s not entirely out of reach.