A guide to the perfect espresso

At its very simplest, an espresso is a strong coffee, created through the passing of hot pressurised water through a layer of ground and tamped coffee. At its best, an espresso is a caffeinated gift from the gods, a nectar harvested through artistry, technique, and complex machinery. Here’s how to do it right.

Pick your weapon of choice

Your standard home espresso machines will simply not stand up to the test of any decent coffee aficionado.  There’s a reason why professional machines cost 1000s of pounds and the disparity between the models is staggering.  If you want a great espresso, you have to find a machine that is stable, where all the variables will be kept in place and in check to ensure that you’ll be able to pull the ‘god shot’ (barista slang for perfection), every time.

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Keep it fresh

If you start with sub-standard ingredients, you’re almost certainly going to end up with a sub-standard coffee.  Purchase your beans from a trusted specialist dealer who knows when they were roasted; if it’s been longer than two weeks, they’re simply not good enough.  Keep them in an airtight container in a dry cupboard and you’ll be alright.

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Welcome to the grind

Your beans need to be ground to the perfect consistency, as it directly affects the taste and texture of the coffee to be produced.  Too coarse and you’ll get an undesirable ashy flavour; too fine and you’re left with a watery mess not fit for use.

Just right

Tamping is key

Tamping is the method of forming a flattened sort of cake to put into the machine after having ground the beans.  If you really want a shot at the perfect espresso, a professional tamper is a must buy. Without one your grind will be unevenly distributed in the basket. Get your tamp right though; too hard and you’ll get an uneven extraction, too little and it’ll have an awful sedimentary quality.  The key is, if you turn the basket upside down after tamping, it should defy gravity just fine.

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Show me the coffee!

Pull it slowly but surely, with a rough guide being a 30ml shot generated in 30 seconds.  How can you tell if it’s a good one?  Look for the crema, the lovely little substance that sits on the surface of the shot. The mercurial tiny bubbles should fade after a minute or two, a sign that your coffee is of the highest quality.  You could also taste it, of course.

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Further Reading