How To Brew The Best Espresso Shot

BY BORIS POVOLOTSKY - 06 Feb 2023

As a coffee enthusiast, brewing the perfect espresso shot is one of the most satisfying things you can do. Whether you’re making it for yourself or your friends, there are a few key things you need to know to get it just right. In this article, I’m going to share my tips on how to brew the perfect espresso shot, covering topics such as grinding coffee, tamping, brewing temperature, and brewing time.

Coffee

The most obvious element, yet often overlooked by many beginners, is the coffee itself. Using old coffee that has lost its magic and all its richness of flavors is going to affect your espresso, it’ll be dull in the best-case scenario and utterly bad in most cases. Expired and generally old coffee is good for dialing-in your grinder. An exception is several months-old Italian coffees from reputable brands like Lavazza, Hausbrandt, Saka, etc. Many home baristas appreciate those traditional-ish coffee blends, some even fancy those equally as they do local Single Origins.

Initially, I thought the local roasteries’ single origins to be the only way to go, but have since opened up to tasting various blends as well as mixing in Robustas. Admittedly, I prefer those blends with Robusta more each day.

If you happen to be roasting your own coffee or purchasing very fresh coffee from your local roasters, you are most likely better off waiting at least 4-6 days after the roast’s date. Arguably, some roasters recommend waiting even longer, up to 10 days after the roast.

Another important question is…

How Should Coffee Beans Be Stored?

Coffee beans are best stored in containers with an airtight seal to avoid air and moisture slipping in and destroying your coffee’s freshness and richness. Most experts recommend buying smaller batches of coffee more frequently, making sure you always have fresh coffee available. By the way, the reason most of your coffee bags have a one-way seal valve is to allow gasses to sneak out of your coffee bag, but prevent air from slipping in. Those gasses must escape and are the reason some think their espresso shot made with too-fresh beans is mixed with soda (lol).

However, if you’re used to buying batches that provide enough coffee for more than 4 weeks, you’re probably better off freezing a portion of your coffee and only leaving enough coffee for 2 weeks ahead. Some advice against freezing coffee because of the risk of absorbing bad tastes and odors from the freezer, and also risking freezing beans if the seal isn’t strong enough.

Either buy/roast small batches and don’t worry too much about using the best airtight containers, or… invest in a good airtight container. This isn’t a coffee container review post, but just in case you’re into investing in a solid product from a well-respected brand, get an Airscape.

How To Grind Coffee For Espresso

The second step to brewing the perfect espresso shot is to grind your beans perfectly. This is crucial, as the grind size will affect the flavor and extraction of the coffee. The ideal grind size for espresso is very fine, almost powdery. You’ll need a good quality grinder to achieve this, and there are a few options available on the market. For example, the well-known Niche Zero, the recent Timemore Sculptor 078, the less-recent Df84 and more affordable grinder Df63.

The Niche Zero has revolutionized the home grinders industry. It’s been in the market for a while now, but it’s still, arguably, the best one out there. It’s a single dose grinder that most coffee enthusiasts prefer over using a hopper grinder. While it isn’t cheap, it’s also isn’t as expensive as some of the professional, high-end grinders, thus providing a realistic alternative without (almost) no compromise. That being said, I would advise looking into some other modern home grinders like those I have just mentioned.

Investing in a good grinder is crucial for your espresso. It may feel as counterintuitive, but your grinder will impact your shot more than your espresso machine. A good grinder will provide consistency and a decent workflow that’ll guarantee your coffee is ground perfectly every single time.

Depending on your grinder, when dialing-in for espresso, you’ll want to adjust your grind setting in minor steps. Adjusting too aggressively will complexify the process, as brewing times will vary greatly. In my Eureka Specialita, adjusting a whole half a point (from ~0 to ~0.5) can get my shot from way too slow to way too fast flow rate. YMMV.

Tamping

The next step is tamping, which is the process of compacting the coffee grinds in the portafilter basket. Tamping ensures that the coffee is evenly distributed, which is essential for consistent extraction. You’ll need a tamper to do this, and there are many different types available, from simple, flat-bottomed models to more elaborate, curved models, and recently there were more affordable tampers with pseudo impact-like tamping force.

To tamp the coffee, fill the portafilter basket with the grinds and tap it gently on a hard surface to settle the grinds. Then, use your tamper to apply firm, even pressure to the grinds, making sure they are compact and level. A good rule of thumb is to apply around 30 pounds of pressure when tamping. Subjectively, you should NOT feel you’re trying too hard. Over-tamping is a thing, so avoid applying too much force.

Brewing Temperature

The next step is to choose the correct brewing temperature. This is important, as different roasts of coffee will extract differently at different temperatures. For example, darker roasts will extract better at lower temperatures, while lighter roasts will extract better at higher temperatures. Those are the approximate recommended temperatures:

Light Roasts: 94-95c | 202-203 Fahrenheit Medium Roasts: 92-93c | 198-199 Fahrenheit Dark Roasts: 89-92c | 192-198 Fahrenheit

Those are not rules, but recommendations. You can play around and see what’s best for you.

It’s also important to bring the espresso machine to temperature stability, as this will ensure consistent extraction. The time it takes for your machine to reach temperature stability will vary depending on the type of machine you have. For example, some machines may take a few minutes to reach temperature stability, while others may take longer (45min).

Choosing the temperature isn’t always possible and accessible. Manual machines rely on external water for brewing espresso (Flair 58, Cafelat Robot, etc) and it’s best to get a kettle with a modifiable temperature. Some espresso machines lack a PID to set temperature directly and have to rely on other methods to manage their temperature. In any case, you should be cognizant of your machine’s way of doing things.

In my case, my machine has a PID but it doesn’t control the brew temperature. Instead, it controls the water temperature exclusively inside the boiler. In other words, despite having a PID, I cannot know the precise temperature without a Scace device, and I’m essentially referencing other users’ experiences and going from there. I’ll probably add a temperature strip on the group-head and track the temp deviations from brew to brew and I might have to adjust the PID accordingly.

Using a Scale and Timing the Brew

Finally, you need to use a scale to measure the input and output, meaning the ground coffee and how much beverage yield you get in your cup, and time the brew correctly. Aim for a brewing time of around 25 to 30 seconds, as this is the average time for a good espresso shot. The scale will help you measure the coffee and water precisely, which is important for consistent extraction.

Many scales have timers built-in, and some of them auto-start the timer as soon as the first drop of coffee hits the cup. Again, personally, I have a relatively cheap solution using two separate devices for each duty. A cheap kitchen scale with 1g resolution and a small magnetic timer that seem to last forever. Some modern espresso machines have timers that auto-start as soon as you start brewing, mine, unfortunately, does not have this function.

If you don’t look for the best and most luxurious experience that products such as Acaia offer, you’d be perfectly fine with those simple products for years to come. Here are some links:

Small Kitchen Timer, currently at 6.40$ for 2 pack Kitchen Scale, costs about 20$. I owned several cheap kitchen scales. This seems to be the most reliable.

Conclusion

Brewing the perfect espresso shot requires attention to detail and lots of practice. By following the guidelines provided above, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying the perfect shot of espresso every time. Whether you’re a coffee enthusiast or just looking to impress your friends, these tips will help you get the most out of your espresso machine. Happy brewing!

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