My name is Casey, the newest addition to Black River Roasters as your barista. I spent some time at the shop the other day dialing-in the La Marzocco Linea PB espresso machine and the shots are looking (and tasting) wonderful! The process of fine-tuning everything that goes into producing consistently good espresso shots involves a lot of trial-and-error. The miniature cup on the saucer may seem like it holds nothing more than a few drops of small coffee but the making of a traditional espresso is more complex than it’s appearance.
Producing a well-balanced and palatable espresso shot means tweaking and working with numerous variables that include temperature, volume, measurement, and technique. Bringing these to work in tandem with each other will produce a rich and intense treat that is savored on its own or used in a bevy of drink recipes like lattes, cappuccinos, flat whites, etc. One has to take into account these factors when pulling a shot:
- The amount of ground espresso
- The grind quality of the espresso
- Pressure at which espresso is compacted, or ‘tamped’
- The temperature and pressure of the water ejected from the espresso machine
It is when the sweet spot of these factors is found that a symbiotic union is created and a good espresso shot is born. The extraction should take anywhere from 26-35 seconds. Baristas strive to keep espresso shots around the 30 second mark but time should not be the only determinant for a balanced espresso shot. External conditions like the weather and air quality within the cafe can affect coffee beans so these factors are constantly monitored and adjusted.
Espresso is ground directly into a steel basket inside what is called the portafilter. The portafilter hosts steel baskets, which vary in size, to dictate the dosage for a single, double, or even triple shot of espresso. Single and double dose baskets are the most common since the barista can still produce a triple shot by combining them. Once the correct dose of ground espresso is in the basket, the barista will tamp the grinds with a tamper, a metal tool that fits into the basket to compress the espresso. Tamping espresso with the perfect grind feels cushiony. Think of the air that sits between every grain being pushed out, leaving a solid brick of espresso. That is exactly what tamping does; tamping with the right amount of pressure is crucial as tamping lightly will make for a fast extraction while tamping too hard will prove the opposite. Once the grounds are tamped, the barista will flush the grouphead (where the water is ejected), lock-in the portafilter, and press the appropriate water dosing button. What follows is the flow of espresso into the demitasse and voila! The fruits of your labor are present and it smells like heaven.
When enjoying espresso, one should take into consideration the joy of the crema. Crema is a layer containing the oils of the coffee. The inviting and aromatic crema is an attribute of a well-prepared espresso and its absence indicates an unbalanced shot (most likely one where too much grind was used, thus trapping the water and not allowing the grind to extract evenly).
Espresso pulls sweet and savory for the first half of extraction and is rounded off by the waters and oils left in the portafilter basket. Some drinkers prefer their shots to be pulled shorter so as to eliminate the bitters of the residual oils and have a sweeter product. The same amount of espresso is used but the barista will stop the water short, producing a smaller but equally as delicious espresso. This is called a ‘ristretto’.
Visually, espresso looks best dressed in clear glass demitasses. My favorite part of pulling shots in clear glass is the fantastic visual created when the oil and water start to separate and cascade into each other. I will sometimes top my espresso with foamed milk (known as the espresso macchiato) or throw it into iced water for an iced americano. There is no wrong way to enjoy your espresso. The only thing one can do wrong is to not enjoy it at all!
See you at the bar this May-