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I'm considering buying an espresso machine, as an experiment. (I have a number of concerns, including expense, counter space, and my spouse's patience, but I also want to move beyond the pre-determined menu items in the coffee shops.) I know it's a complex process with many variables, requiring good technique; I also know that it invites obsession. And I don't need any more obsessions than I already have. I just want to make good coffee and get on with my day. So here's my question: what is the minimum set of skills/techniques/conditions that you need to master in order to produce good espresso?

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  • I'd say that with a machine doing most of the job, those skills are minimum. Let's see. – Jan Doggen Jul 30 '17 at 10:22
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If the concern is solely production of great espresso, I would argue that the 'skillset' required actually consists of a single point.

  • Palate. Being able to discern flavours and work out what is good and bad about any shot is essential in being able to improve your espresso.

This is a skill that you'll need to train and perfect but is the only necessary ability in making good espresso.

The real bulk of what makes espresso great is simply being able to control the factors and variables in making it which requires an ability to taste what is wrong with any given shot. I wouldn't say the specific factors that contribute to good espresso are skills (as skills are traits of the barista), but are simply parameters that is up to you to modify and control.

The parameters you need to keep in mind when making espresso are:

  • Freshness of coffee
  • Grind size of coffee particle
  • Water quality and composition
  • Brew temperature
  • Brew pressure
  • Coffee distribution in portafilter
  • Amount of coffee used per shot
  • Length of shot/Amount of water pulled/Final output volume

Tamp level and pressure are things that affect the shot but aren't exactly variables you would change. These would just be things you would aim to get 'right' every time. 'Right' here means ensuring a level, horizontal bed of coffee and a consistent tamp pressure. Tamp pressure is easier to normalise than it sounds; tamp until the coffee bed stops compressing.

Many of the above will be down to the grinder and espresso machines chosen.

Having a bottomless portafilter enables a clear view of the exit of the shot which serves as an invaluable tool in recognising uneven extractions.

Tips:

  • Never tap/knock the portafilter after tamping. This completely destroys puck uniformity.
  • Use a distribution tool to help evenly distribute coffee in your portafilter. Use a pin with the Weiss Distribution Technique or a Pullman Chisel/OCD.
  • VST baskets are replacement baskets for your portafilter with filter holes positioned and sized to aid uniform extractions. Would recommend getting one.
  • Grind uniformity is also a thing to keep in mind. Higher quality grinders will result in a lower deviation in particle sizes of the resulting coffee grounds. Lower deviation means more consistency in extraction.
  • Use a scale and a timer to weigh and time your shots. You will need to know what you did in order to know how to improve it.
  • When chasing a good shot, change one variable in your method at a time. If you change multiple, you will never know what contributed to making your shot great.
  • On palate development: how does one get started there? What specifically should you be looking/tasting for? – crmdgn Jul 31 '17 at 21:13
  • Short Answer: Taste more espresso and you'll begin to discern. Long: It's hard to know what to look for when getting started with developing your palate since you'll hear lots of terms and flavours being thrown around. It will be useful to visit multiple specialty coffee shops and taste their espresso and ask what roast the beans are. This will initially give you a good indication for the acidity differences between darker and lighter roasts. From there the contrast will give you a good idea for what a good tasting coffee is like and then how individual bean characteristics affect flavour. – Shiri Aug 1 '17 at 9:17
  • Also, tasting notes aren't these specific flavours that you should expect to jump out at you, they're simply describing the directions which the coffee leans towards and has hints of. It may also describe the flavour profile where it may start with a berry-like acidity and finish with a smooth chocolatey mouthfeel. It doesn't mean the coffee will taste of berries and chocolate, and in fact you should not look for any flavours mentioned. They are simply guidelines to help you know what kind of coffee you're buying. – Shiri Aug 1 '17 at 9:22
  • One thing to keep in mind is that, if your mouth feels clear and there are no real lingering flavours or dryness in the mouth after your shot, that's normally a sign of a balanced shot. – Shiri Aug 1 '17 at 9:25
  • Visiting several specialty coffee shops and trying their espresso will help build mental Venn diagrams in your mind. They'll all be different but as you try more, you will begin to realise that they all overlap in one place and share a common trait; that is the fundamental flavour of coffee. Bean origin, elevation of growth, process method, roast and any other variable that goes into the bean will then shift that fundamental flavour in a particular direction which is what gives it it's identity and tasting notes. – Shiri Aug 1 '17 at 9:29
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I believe you are either looking for What are the 4M's of espresso? and maybe beyond. Otherwise, this question is exactly a duplicate of that very question, asked in another form.

All of these M's are open to development to master a better cup. You may go for better beans, better blends, better cultivated farms, etc. This is related to your sophistication and determination.

Also, you can spend as much as your wallet lets you to the perfect grinder and to an espresso machine. You may go for manual machines if you're enthusiastic about it.

Then, in time you start to taste the differences and build your own palate on coffee. Then, you master the technique and may even have your own style. These are all related to time and determination.

This is all yours.

Note: You may find interesting discussions on all of these issues, here.

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I just want to make good coffee and get on with my day

Espresso is probably the most time intensive method of brewing coffee given you have to get the machine warmed up (10-15 minutes), start pulling shots, probably make tweaks to grind level, pull time to get a solid espresso shot, steam milk if you want a mixed drink and then cleanup which can include everything from cleaning the drip tray, soaking portafilters, backflushing the machine etc.

I have basically every coffee brewing method in my kitchen, but espresso is only made when I am testing new blends, or if I decide I have the spare time and energy to make espresso (and deal with the cleanup). Personally, if my only option for morning coffee before heading to work was espresso, I would be pretty grumpy because I'm not a morning person, and definitely don't want to deal with the complexity of espresso before my first sip of coffee in the morning! I realize this is a redirect from your original question, but it may be worth investigating alternate brewing methods of regular old coffee that don't take the time commitment (and monetary commitment) that espresso does. A better dripper, grinder, go pour over, or french press maybe.

If instead, your perfect morning cup is espresso or nothing, and you are prepared to spend the time it takes to make it well, then the skill set is not to difficult to learn. In my opinion patience is key.

  • Timing - Timing is everything in espresso. Basically, you are configuring your grinder, and the pressure you apply during the tamp such that when you apply water pressure to the portafilter you will get an estimated 2 fl oz of extracted fluid inside 25-30 seconds. Skills here are really deductive reasoning and tamping. A big part of timing is understanding how each step in making espresso affects timing. If you pull a 35 second shot, either your tamp was light, or your grind too coarse. Dialing in a shot is basically getting into this time range, then tasting, and then adjusting to optimize flavor. You might pull a 30 second shot that you fell like tastes sour. If so, adjusting to 28 or 25 seconds might improve flavor.
  • The Tamp -- consistency is everything here, and this is probably the most technically difficult portion of pulling good espresso in my opinion. Everything else is just making sure the numbers line up.
  • Steaming Milk -- There is a definite technique to this that you are not going to simply be able to read and repeat. You can get reasonably steamed milk without any experience but if you want milk with micro-foam that you can do latte art etc. with, then this is going to take some time with a milk pitcher in hand.

There are 100 other details to keep track of with espresso including bean quality, bean age, water quality, group head pressure among many others, but in terms of skills, the list above along with deductive reasoning and the ability to operate a timer is about all it takes in terms of skills. The deductive reasoning bit is probably the linchpin, but really it is simply understanding what is going on under the hood so to speak..

  • Shiri mentions Palette. This is definitely a skill, and one that takes time to develop that I neglected to add to my post. – Nate M. Jul 31 '17 at 14:36
  • Thanks for clarifying the startup time involved in a shot of espresso. I hadn't realized. – crmdgn Jul 31 '17 at 21:08

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