Don’t assume all espresso shots are the same. They’re not.
So much variability can occur from one espresso shot to the next. Your next coffee house visit could be the best espresso experience of your life, the worst of your life, or something somewhere in between.
Why is espresso so finicky?
Well, a lot of things must go right to produce that beautiful crema, that full body, and that richness of flavor, all packed into that small shot glass. Knowing what to look for in your next espresso shot will help make each coffee house visit your best one yet.
Good espresso starts with the beans. Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t need an espresso roast to make good espresso. In fact, roasting your beans too darkly will lead to flat tasting espresso. Roasting beans to such an oily point then loading it into your grinder means over time your espresso machine may become clogged by the oil residue.
There is no such thing as a specific espresso bean. Espresso can be made from any variety of coffee beans. Though it is true some beans are better suited for espresso shots than others. But this too is highly dependent on user preference.
Espresso can be made merely from a single origin bean variety such as a Guatemalan Antigua, or a blend of beans such as a Guatemala Antigua, Sumatra Mandheling, and a bit of Robusta for good, earthy measure.
No matter what beans you choose for your home espresso machine, or what beans your local coffee houses use, the best beans are beans that are high quality and properly roasted to a shade that just begins to show a bit of sheen on the bean surface.
When you walk into your local coffeehouse take a look at the beans in the hopper on top or beside the espresso machine. Often the hoppers are tinted, so it’s hard to tell the actual shade of the beans.
But, what you will be able to see is how shiny the beans are. If it looks like those beans were bathed in a tub of oil before being loaded in the hopper, then just turn around and walk right out the door.
Or just order a drip coffee instead. Oily beans mean all the flavor inside the beans has been pulled out of the bean already. Your espresso shot will taste nothing like what a good pull of espresso should.
Once you have the right beans ready to go for your espresso shot, you’ll need to make sure your espresso machine is ready to go too.
For a coffeehouse, this means ensuring your commercial grade machine and grinder (they could be combined into one fully automatic machine) are properly maintained and calibrated. Machines that are well taken care of means they’ll be able to properly produce an espresso shot that’s free from residue, not under extracted, and not over extracted.
If you are using a semi-automatic machine, whether a home or a commercial one, you’ll be pulling your espresso shots manually. This means the fineness of the grind, the pressure on the tamp, and the quantity of the dose of espresso grounds is completely up to you. It will be up to you to make sure you are not under extracting or over extracting your espresso.
A healthy espresso shot is one that pulls from the machine at an even rate, in a uniform golden color, so that it resembles honey pouring off of a spoon. If you have a pressure gauge on your espresso machine, the bars of pressure should be within an acceptable window. If you’re watching your espresso being made at the local coffee house, look for that honey like liquid flowing evenly from the portafilter into the shot glass.
Don’t let that barista give you an espresso shot that’s been sitting on the bar for more than 10 seconds. Don’t let them serve up an espresso shot that does not have a nice, thick golden crema (very similar to the foamy head of a draught stout beer). Once the shot is pulled, as the espresso settles, you should see a thick swirly movement of varying shades of tan and brown within the glass.
If your espresso comes flying out of the spout as fast as water from a faucet, your espresso will be under-extracted and devoid of any meaningful flavor. If that espresso shot is poured into a milk-based drink, such as a latte, you’re more likely to think you ordered a steamed milk with a hint of espresso instead of an actual latte.
Conversely, if your espresso oozes out so slowly in just a slip of a stream, chances are your espresso is severely over extracted, resulting in a bitter cup. If you’ve ever had a cappuccino or other drink that showcases the simple combination of espresso and milk that you could barely stomach down because of the bitterness, chances are your barista pulled an over extracted espresso.
The best coffee houses will steam their milk first for every drink so that the espresso shot can be pulled directly into the milk, or at the very least into the shot glasses, and then into the milk. They do this so espresso doesn’t cool off before it hits the milk, meaning the freshest possible pull for you to enjoy.
Take a look at the barista area. Sometimes the cleanliness of the area will give you an indication of how much the barista cares about the product.
While messy espresso bar areas may not be a guarantee you’ll get subpar espresso, often a messy barista who does not seem to care about the appearance of their workstation and the cleanliness of their equipment, means they won’t care about the craftsmanship of your espresso either.
A good barista will take the time to make sure the equipment is calibrated correctly and accurately, the beans are appropriately roasted, and the shot is adequately timed and pulled in a timely manner. With a barista who cares, the precious pennies you pay for your espresso will never be ill-spent.