February 12, 2021 6 min read

Having the right Espresso Machine, Grinder and Knowledge for the job is the first step. Once you have good quality tools, you’ll need to be able to use them.

At a first glance, making coffee doesn’t seem all that hard; and it certainly isn’t. But if your aim is to make good coffee, the kind of coffee that brings customers back, then you really need to know what you’re doing.

And so, this guide is here to help you do just that. We will go over a few key aspects of working the most important tools in a coffee shop, as well as guide you through the traditional coffee drinks that you’ll need to be familiar with before you start taking orders.

At the very end of the article, we’ve compiled a section going over the most frequent troubles you will encounter while mastering the art of the espresso, and their respective solutions.
Let’s start by the most basic drink of all, the espresso. 

Preparations for making an espresso

He who goes to war unprepared must face dire consequences. So, preparation here means literally being prepared. There are three key aspects that you must etch into your brain before attempting your first espresso, which are grinding, dosing, tamping, and brewing. 

Grinding

Automatic grinders are a must for making espresso. Mainly because it’s these that grind to a very, very fine particles. This is one of the reasons why espresso is more aromatic and has a more complex taste than other coffees— you’re able to extract more of the compounds responsible for taste and aroma. On the other hand, coarse grind coffee is significantly less aromatic and has a simpler flavor.

Check the instructions on your grinder to see what setting is best for espresso. When in doubt, just go as fine as possible. Later on, you might want to experiment with this step, but for now it is imperative that you use the finer grind size that you can get.

Note: If you’re using a high-end grinder, it is absolutely possible to grind your coffee beans too fine. In this case, you’ll notice that when pulling a shot the coffee drips down very slowly. Again, check instructions to see what setting is best for espresso.

Dosing

Meaning the amount of ground coffee you’re using to make an espresso. It can also be used to refer to the very act of pouring ground coffee into the portafilter.

The most traditional of all doses, established decades ago, dictate that a espresso shot should be brewed with exactly 6 grams of ground coffee. No more and no less. In the same vein, a double shot of espresso should be brewed with 14 grams.

However, these days the verdict is once again out on how much coffee is ideal. It will ultimately depend on your machine. A single dose can go up to eight or nine grams. Start with the classic 6 grams, and once you get the hang of it, you can start experimenting. 

Tamping

This step is crucial for us to achieve a consistent good quality in our espresso. By compressing the grounds we help the water run through the coffee bed evenly, extracting all coffee at the same time and leaving no ground untouched.

If we skip tamping, the water will naturally find a path that allows it to flow better (much like rivers), leaving grounds dry and over extracting those that do get wet.

To correctly tamp your coffee grounds, you must: 

  • Even the surface with your index finger. In one single motion, dispose of all the coffee that’s over the capacity of your portafilter.
  • Using a tamper to press down on the grounds. You should do it in one single tamp, decisively, but not using too much force.
Brewing

Thankfully, brewing espresso is much easier than brewing most other types of coffee. The brewing time is quite short and the machine already calculates temperature for you.

There are two valid approaches when it comes to brewing espresso. One is to concentrate on the time: set a timer, immediately start pulling the shot. Depending on what recipe you’re following you’ll take more or less. The average is about 20 seconds.

A much more precise way to go about this is to go by weight. An espresso shot should ideally weigh 27 grams, although 30 is also a good target weight. A double shot is 60ml, and so on. Setting a scale below your cup is a much more reliable way of achieving consistent results.

Congratulations! You’ve just brewed your first espresso. Now, let’s get you making more complex drinks. 

Espresso-based drinks

Espresso might be popular by itself, but more than 70% of the time an espresso shot is pulled, it’s for the base of another drink. Let’s go over some of the more popular espresso-based drinks so you have a few cards under your sleeve. 

Americano

An Americano is an espresso made to appeal drip coffee drinkers. To prepare an Americano, you’ll only need coffee and water. 

  • Pull a double shot of espresso
  • Pour 80 to 100ml of hot water

And it’s ready! Make sure the water poured is around 92°C. Easily the easiest espresso-based drink to make. Some people like their Americano with more or less water; it’s always a good idea to ask just how strong they want their coffee.

Corretto

Literally meaning a “fixed” or “corrected” coffee, it was traditionally meant for espresso that came out either too acidic or too bitter. A few drops (or more, if you’re in the mood) of strong liquor were added to transform the flavor and make it palatable. Nowadays, it makes for a strong and fun drink. 

  • Pull a double shot of espresso
  • For a strong Corretto, use 60ml of Grappa (or brandy). For a regular Corretto, use 30ml.

No milk or water needed. Sugar may be served in case the customer feels like it.

Latte

The latte is the coffee drink by excellence. All over the world, the latte has conquered the hearts of people even in the most difficult places to break into. Making a latte is fairly simple: 

  • Pull a double shot of espresso
  • Steam 300ml of milk, making only a small layer of microfoam on top.
  • Pour slowly, mixing steamed milk with the coffee, leaving the foam for last.

Latte art can wait. Once you have mastered the art of steaming the milk for a latte and pouring it just the right way, you can try your hand at making basic shapes. Focus first on the taste! 

Cappuccino

The cappuccino is a much smaller drink than the latte, albeit it was once almost as popular as the latte. 

  • Pull a double shot of espresso
  • Steam 120ml of milk. Make sure to foam about half of the milk; better to go over this than under.
  • Pour about 60ml of milk, mixing it with the coffee.
  • Pour the foamed milk carefully. It should sit on top of the drink.

And just like that, you’ve made a cappuccino! If only pronouncing its name were as easy as making it. 

Cortado

While we’re talking about foam, let’s introduce the Cortado. This drink originated in Spain and it means a “cut”. What is being cut here is the strong acidity of the coffee. By introducing just a little bit of foamed milk, we are able to enjoy the coffee with almost no acidity— yet it isn’t a milky drink like a cappuccino or a latte. It’s small, strong, and convenient. 

  • Pull a double shot of espresso
  • Pour about 30 ml of thick milk foam right down the center of the cup.

Ideally, most of the foam stays on the surface, although it can be hard to achieve this at first.  

Frequent Problems  

My espresso is coming out too acidic (or bitter)

This is a simple matter of extraction. Under extracted coffee will turn out unbearable acidic, while over extracted coffee will be very bitter.

Under extracted espresso comes down to two factors: Over-dosing and poor tamping.

If the dose is too high and the grounds are too cramped in the portafilter, the water will have a hard time flowing through, resulting in most of the grounds not being properly extracted. Conversely, if the dosing is done properly but the tamping is either too lazy or too forceful, the water will not be able to flow freely. Same result.

Over extracted espresso, however, is almost always a question of time. If you pull the shot for too long, you’ll end up with a terribly bitter cup of coffee. It’s always a good idea to weight your coffee and time it, so you have an idea of how long it takes for you coffee to brew. There are way too many variables here; your dosing, the espresso machine you’re using, the type of coffee— it’s best to measure it yourself rather than go by whatever the internet might say about brewing times. 

I can’t steam the milk properly!

This is a very usual problem with beginners, and something you really shouldn’t be worried about.
The key to getting the hang of it is to observe other baristas and how they do it. Look up videos on youtube: we are visual learners (most of us, at least) and while we could explain to you a few techniques, it’s always faster to learn by observing.
One handy tip, though, is to use dish soap. Mix 300ml of water with dish soap and treat it as if it were milk. It foams up a lot like milk and it’ll help you gain a sense of confidence while steaming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas Gerber
Thomas Gerber


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