You don’t have to be Italian to learn how to pull the perfect espresso shot. However, you do have to follow the rules laid down over 100 years ago… otherwise you might find yourself taking a late night swim with the fishes or even the chance of waking up in a concrete overcoat if you don’t… that’s the serious stuff out of the way so let’s look at the art of real espresso.
Our step by step guide – how to pull the perfect espresso shot
Step 1: Prep
In order to pull a perfect espresso shot… you will need some tools to do the job properly…
- an espresso machine
- a grinder
- a portafilter
- a tamper
- filtered water
- a cup (obvious but people do forget!)
- quality coffee in the form of Farrer’s classic espresso blend
- a timer
General rules for how to pull the perfect espresso shot:
- Pressure in the machine should be kept at nine atmospheres.
- Water should be brought to 90-95 degrees Celsius (194-203 degrees Fahrenheit), not to a boiling point.
- Freshly ground coffee should be used within one day;
- Brewing a standard shot (30ml) of espresso should take 25 seconds
- If it takes more time to pull the espresso shot the coffee will have a burnt flavour and dark foam, and if it takes less time the coffee will be watery and will have a light weak foam.
- Crema showcases espresso quality – it should be an even hazelnut colour and thick enough so that if sugar is added it should float for a few seconds before sinking.
Practice is the key to making your espresso shots better
Every machine varies, people’s taste in coffee varies too so the only way to learn how to pull the perfect the espresso shot is to practice, practice, practice. However, if you follow these general guidelines you are halfway to ensuring your shot is pulled properly…
Step 2: Pre-heat
Preheat your machine, portafilter and cup by pulling a ‘blank’ shot, which means running water through the portafilter and cup without using espresso. Depending on your espresso machine, it may take 15-30 minutes to heat up.
Espresso cups should be warmed to 45oC (113F) and should be made of special thick porcelain to prevent the coffee from getting cold too quickly and losing its specific aroma.
The cup should be shaped like a truncated cone to keep crema the best and should be thicker at the bottom to keep the coffee warm longer.
Now that’s done, let’s get stuck in.
Step 3: Grind
Might sound obvious but always grind fresh whole beans before brewing.
Remembering grind texture is an important part of shot quality; it’s an integral part of how to pull the perfect espresso shot. If the grind is too fine it will deliver a slow, over-extracted shot that often tastes bitter and burnt. Go too coarse and you will end up with an under-extracted shot that’s tastes sour, is watery and weak.
What we are looking for is something similar in size and texture to sugar granules, but to be really sure test and test again until you are happy.
Step 4: Dose
Dose (sounds like a medical thing) is the amount of coffee you will need to fill the portafilter to make your espresso shot.
The dose for a double-shot, often the most common way espresso is taken should be between 14 – 18 grams but this can vary depending on your personal preference. Make sure your portafilter is clean, there should be no old excess grounds or dirty water.
Step 5: Tamp
Tamping (levelling concrete it isn’t) ensures a uniform extraction, essentially by levelling and packing the coffee grounds down to ensure that water flows over the grinds in and equal and consistent way.
- Overfill the portafilter until you have your grounds centred.
- The proper tamp method is to hold your elbow at 90 degrees, rest your portafilter on a level surface and then apply pressure until the coffee has an even, polished look. Don’t forget a coarser coffee grind will need firmer tamping. The best place to do this is on a tamping mat on the edge of your work surface.
- Your grinds should be completely compact. Tap your portafilter a couple of times to check that these have been fully compressed down.
- Lock the portafilter into the group heads. This slips upward and has two flanges which lock in place when the portafilter is rotated.
Step 6: Brew
It’s all in the brew (well sort of) take the portafilter into your espresso machine’s brew head and pop your pre-heated cup underneath. Set your timer and time your shot – this is the really critical part of learning how to pull the perfect espresso shot. Then Initiate the pull and watch carefully!
Time your espresso shot with a stop watch or timer. Brewing a standard 30 ml cup of espresso should take between 25 to 30 seconds. Baristas consider 25 seconds to be the sweet spot for pulling an espresso shot delivering the best results.
Over-extracting coffee (longer than this) and the coffee will taste bitter and burnt.
Under-extracted shots will be watery and weak with a sour taste.
Step 7: Results
As a rule of thumb always drink the coffee within two minutes after it was prepared or it starts losing its delicate bouquet.
If the dose, grind and tamp are have gone according to plan then the first part of your resulting coffee brew should be in colour dark, before turning to a golden-brown foamy mixture, which flows into the cup in a thin constant stream.
The amount of water needed for each shot should be around 1 oz. So, it stands to reason that a double shot would need around 2 oz of water, so stop the shot and check your timer when you hit 2oz. The ideal brewing time for an espresso is between 20 to 30 seconds. If you find you are over 30 seconds or under 20 seconds, check your grind, coffee dose and the evenness of the tamp, then simply adjust which will rectify the espresso shot pull time.
If you find your shots are coming out unevenly from both spouts, then you definitely need to tamp more evenly. You want to end up with a fine golden crema (the golden-brown foamy mixture we mentioned earlier) that sits above a rich dark brew. Don’t forget to mix the crema in right before drinking.
Crema is the best indicator of espresso quality: it should be of an even hazelnut colour and be thick enough so that if sugar is added it should float on the surface for a few seconds before sinking. The crema then should close over the sugar after it drops to the bottom of a cup.
Where does espresso come from?
Something wonderful occurred in Turin, in 1884, when inventor Angelo Moriondo showed off his latest invention at the Turin General Exposition… a bulk coffee brewer which could produce fifty cups of coffee at a time. That’s not all he was the first to separate steam and water into two distinct functions too… making is possible to release the full potential of the humble coffee bean…
In 1906 Milanese inventors Luigi Bezzera and Desiderio Pavoni, came up with a number of improvements to Moriondo’s machine, creating a vertical boiler machine that brewed a single cup of coffee, that could be made to order in a matter of seconds. and the rest is coffee history… that is until 1947, when Achille Gaggia introduced the spring-piston lever espresso machine that applied 8 -10 bars of pressure to the coffee bed instead of the 1.5 – 2 bars created in a vertical steam boiler. The lever driven machine is by far the most hands-on form of creating espresso, and its use gave rise to the popular barista phrase of ‘pulling a shot’.
Then in the 1961 the owner of FAEMA a chap called Carlo Valente introduced the iconic E61 with its motorised pump, which delivered nine bars of pressure to brew espresso and revolutionised coffee making… that is until 1970, when Giuseppe Bambi from La Marzocco developed the iconic GS machine, the first double boiler machine with a dedicated steam boiler and brew boiler… which most modern espresso machines are based on to this day!
What does espresso mean?
In case you hadn’t guessed ‘espresso’ has its origins in the Italian… it literally means pressed out. Espresso is basically made by forcing pressurised, hot water through very finely ground coffee beans to deliver a very concentrated form of coffee, known as a shot, which has several complex layers…
There’s the crema, the golden-brown top layer of the coffee shot, made up of proteins, oils, and melanoidins. Then there’s the liquid itself, the main part of the espresso shot, which brings together the acidity and sweetness of the drink.
Essentially the crema and espresso’s quick extraction process give this form of coffee a fuller flavour, a longer aftertaste and lower caffeine content than other forms of coffee.
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