Welcome to another instalment of my Making Coffee at Home series, where I’ve left the best (hardest?) until last. After simple guides for the cafetiere, Clever Dripper, AeroPress and (not so simple) pour-over, I’ve finally turned my attention to espresso. Just to be clear, whereas for all my other guides (including pour-over to some extent), you can get decent results with minimal outlay, this is not true for espresso. If you want good espresso, you’re going to need to spend a lot of money on both a good espresso machine and a high-quality grinder (I’d say a minimum of £500).
Now that’s not to say that you can’t made short, strong black coffee at home. You can. The AeroPress, Vietnamese cup-top filter, ibrik/cezve, moka pot and capsule machines can all make good short, strong black coffee. It’s just not going to be espresso. That said, if you’re hankering after something approaching your favourite flat white/cappuccino/latte, then you can do a reasonable job with a variety of common coffee-making equipment (see, for example, this excellent video from James Hoffman). However, what this post is all about is espresso of the sort you’d get in a good speciality coffee shop.
You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.
I’ve been enamoured with espresso ever since I went to Rome in 1999 and discovered Italian espresso, with my home espresso journey starting soon after that. Although my tastes in coffee have moved on since then, my love of espresso has never wavered.
Not long after that, I decided to get a decent home espresso machine, starting out with a Gaggia Classic (an earlier model which has since been updated). I used that for around 10 years, but I can’t honestly remember much about it. At the time I was quite pleased with it, but I suspect that the me of today wouldn’t be very impressed with the espresso I was serving up back then!
Eventually, my faithful Gaggia furred up and I looked around for a replacement. By then I had started the Coffee Spot and knew a little more about espresso and espresso machines. At the start of 2013, and after a lot of research, I bought a Rancilio Silvia, which, at the time, was the clear market leader. I also bought a Rancilio Rocky grinder to go with it, spending nearly as much on the grinder as I did on the espresso machine.
I was very fond of my Silva, although it did have its faults, the main one being temperature control. I found that the temperature of the water coming out of the boiler varied by up to 20°C, while you could also suffer temperature drops as the water made its way from boiler to group head. To counter, this, I had a ritual which started with turning my Silvia on about 30 minutes before I wanted to make an espresso, to ensure that it was thoroughly warmed up. Next, I would go through an elaborate ritual known as temperature surfing, designed to ensure that the water in the boiler was at the correct temperature.
I’d start by running the pump until the boiler light came on, indicating that the boiler was heating the water. At this point, the water would be too cold, so I’d wait until the light went off, indicating that the boiler had finished heating the water. At this point, it was too hot, so I’d run the pump again, sending a cloud of steam out through the group head. As soon as this dissipated (usually five-ten seconds), the temperature in the boiler would about right, so I’d shut the pump off, attach the portafilter and then pull the shot.
For a couple of years, I made more-or-less good espresso at home, but it was still rather hit and miss. Then, my grinder packed in and although I bought a second-hand replacement, I really struggled, finding that I was pulling really inconsistent shots. With the Rocky Grinder, I’d say that maybe 50% of my shots were good and it was rare that I’d pull an undrinkable shot.
With the replacement grinder, I was pull undrinkable shots the majority of the time, with maybe one out of every three or four shots being what I’d describe as acceptable (rather than good). If I pulled a poor shot, I’d have to go through the whole temperature surfing rigmarole again before I could have another go at producing something decent.
By mid-2015, I’d pretty much stopped making espresso at home, a situation that was only changed when I acquired a Sage Barista Express (full disclosure: this was an unsolicited gift from Sage). This arrived right at the end of 2015 and was an immediate game-changer. I’ve used it ever since and, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s in daily use at home.
You can read more about how I make espresso at home after the gallery.
The first question is what espresso machine to get? While I don’t want this to turn into an advert for the Barista Express, I believe it is still the market leader in terms of price/performance (although I do need to caveat that by saying that I’m not a coffee machine reviewer, nor do I have the budget to buy/test any of the similar machines in the price bracket).
What I can say for certain is that this is one area where you get what you pay for, which includes both espresso machine and grinder. One the reasons the Barista Express stands out is that it includes a high-quality, built-in grinder at a similar price to many standalone machines/grinders. As an example of what happens if you decide to save some money and go for a cheaper option, take a look at what James Hoffman made of this £299 Aldi Espresso Machine.
The next question is what coffee to use? Most roasters will have a standard espresso option, usually a blend. That said, my current coffee is a single-origin Colombian, the San Lorenzo from Curve Coffee Roasters, which is going down an absolute treat at the moment. I’d advise against buying something that is roasted specifically for filter coffee.
Whatever coffee you use, you’ll face the challenge of dialling it in. This is the process of pulling a shot, then fine-tuning the grinder until you get it right. Sometimes you’re lucky and the first shot comes out fine, but I usually find that with a new coffee, I have to pull three or four shots before I’m happy.
Even then, you’re not done. Espresso isn’t one of those things where you can just leave the machine and grinder set up and expect to pull a perfect shot. Factors such as temperature and humidity will affect the grind, so you can find the quality of your shots varying day-by-day or even at different times of the day. I’ve pulled a perfect shot one day and then, without changing anything on the machine, pulled a poor shot the day after.
I’ve also found it helps to be making espresso regularly. These days, I make an espresso every day (as my twitter followers will attest, the Daily Espresso tweet has become a regular feature). In contrast, when I was travelling regularly, and sometimes only at home for two or three days at a time, I rarely used the espresso machine.
So, what practical advice can I give you about making espresso at home? Well, first of all, don’t be too hung up on numbers. It’s important to have some basic settings, but don’t stick slavishly to them. When I first started with the Barista Express, I used a 19 gram dose, but these days, I’ve gone down to 17 grams, with the aim of getting 34 grams out with an extraction time of 25-30 seconds (I start my timer as soon as I press the start button on the espresso machine).
I do recommend weighing and timing every shot: I’ve found it really helps me maintain quality and understand what’s going on. For example, with my current coffee, the San Lorenzo, I was finding that it was running a little quickly, so rather than cutting it off at 34 grams, I let it run to 38 – 40 grams, which was giving me an extraction in the range of 20 – 25 seconds.
So, in theory, I was extracting for too short a time, and getting too much coffee out. Except that it tastes really, really good, with a sweetness and lemon acidity I’m not used to getting in an espresso and which I’m really enjoying. And at the end of the day, that’s what matters: how does it taste?
I’ll end with a little bit of troubleshooting. If you’re consistently failing to get good shots, clean your kit. The last time I had problems, a day later, the Barista Express’s cleaning light came on. I ran it through the cleaning cycle, and I haven’t looked back. The two times before that, it was my grinder. I took it apart and both times found all sorts of bean fragments stuck between the burrs which were obviously causing inconsistencies in the grind!
If you’re interested in learning more making espresso at home, here’s a write-up of a home barista course I took at the Department of Coffee in 2015. You should also consider subscribing to James Hoffmann’s YouTube channel: he is both entertaining and extremely knowledgeable!
Of course, the biggest barrier to entry into home espresso is the upfront cost of a machine and grinder, so why not take a look at The Barista Club, which is offering to rent you a Sage Barista Express (plus 1 kg of coffee) for just £39 a month (UK only).
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