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I really like espresso, but the variant I like most is different from what most cafes serve: I like it best if the espresso is

  • really dense (so not like filter coffee at all),
  • has little bitterness, and
  • a lot of acidity.

Do I simply have bad taste, or is the espresso I describe a "real thing"?

Moreover, do you have recommendations how to make the espresso I describe for myself at home? I only had it at a few cafes, and I was never able to reproduce it at home. I own a portafiler machine, so I guess the problem is most likely the beans I use (high quality espresso beans, medium dark roast).

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For acidity, you want espresso made with a light roast. Caffes in the US generally don't serve this because it's not what people expect from coffee.

"Dense", though, is a challenge. I'm not sure what you mean by this because espresso is mostly water. A nice layer of crema can create the perception of a heavy drink, but crema isn't dense. It's all water and gasses. Use freshly roasted beans to get better crema. With light roasts, you want beans that are about 2-4 weeks past roasting if the beans are left whole. Ground coffee will degas much faster than whole bean. Store your coffee in an airtight container with a one-way gas valve (to release pressure that builds up as the coffee releases gasses).

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    With “dense” I am thinking “mouthfeel” and opaqueness, especially as OP contrasts it with “watery”. So I think you are spot on here.
    – Stephie
    Aug 31 at 5:13
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For little bitterness you could try out some of those Ethiopian beans which have a berry-like taste.

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Aside from the recommendations about roast level and bean choice, you can adapt your brewing process a bit. Specifically, you can use a different brew ratio to change how much water passes through the puck. A longer shot, also called a lungo may have a brew ratio of about 1:3 grinds to water by mass. On the other end of the spectrum is the ristretto which may use a 1:1 ratio. A good explanation on pulling those shots by changing the grind size is found in this answer.

In your case, I think a ristretto may be what you're looking for. Because less water passes through the coffee puck, you will proportionally extract more compounds that release into the water easily. These tend to be more acidic.

As Wikipedia describes the ristretto's qualities:

A ristretto's chemical composition and taste differ from those of a full length extraction for three reasons:

  1. More concentrated: The first part of any extraction is the most concentrated, its color typically lying between dark chocolate and umber, whereas the tail end of shots are much lighter, varying from the color of dark pumpkin pie to varying shades of tan (see photo, above right). This is an important factor when drinking straight espresso shots.
  2. Different balance: Different chemical compounds in ground coffee dissolve into hot water at different rates. A ristretto contains a greater relative proportion of faster extracting compounds, proportionally fewer of the compounds characteristic of over-extraction, and thus, a different balance.
  3. Fewer total extracts: Relative proportions aside, fewer total coffee compounds—caffeine being just one—are extracted into ristrettos versus full length shots. This is an important factor when diluting shots into water or milk.

As an easy experiment, you could pull a regular espresso and switch cups halfway through the extraction. While that first shot won't be a balanced ristretto, comparing the two can give you an idea about the different compounds (and thus flavors) extracted at different points during the extraction process.

If you do like it, you might want to follow the advice from this answer and change your grind to get a regular extraction time (25-40 seconds) with a 1:1 brew ratio.

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The full and “slightly bitter” flavors you are after take longer to extract from the grounds. I have a manual La Pavoni espresso machine so it’s easy to capture those flavors by wetting the grounds using boiler pressure (15 psi) then waiting 10 seconds before the pull. If you have an electric pump machine (like most people) you can fake this by temporarily turning the pump off for 10 seconds after the first drips fall from the portafilter.

The size of the grind is critical for how long it takes for the water to extract those flavors. 10 seconds is what I use, but you will need to experiment with your setup.

The key to great coffee is the combination of grind and tamping pressure. I know most coffee nuts poo-poo tamping scales. Maybe they have magic hands. I don’t. I cannot get reproducible results without my scale. It’s not fancy or even calibrated. It’s just a cantilevered piece of wood. You could use a wooden ruler with a pencil eraser under each end. Press the center of the ruler down until the back of the ruler touches the counter. If you want it stiffer, move the erasers towards the center of the ruler. There is no "right" pressure. But if you are not measuring it, your tamping will fluctuate and you will chase the other variables in circles in your search for consistently great coffee.

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