If you and other members of your family like espresso or espresso based drinks you’ve probably noticed that they cost you a small fortune every month. And the prices just keep going up and up, while the quality on average is going down. That was the primary reason why I started making espresso at home about 10 years ago and never looked back. With homemade espressos costing me 8-12 times less and the choice of coffee beans being dozens of times bigger, why would anyone?
What is espresso?
First things first, let’s agree on what espresso is – it’s a concentrated coffee beverage with a layer of dense foam called crema on top. Espresso is made exclusively of coffee and water.
How is espresso made?
Espresso is made by forcing hot water through a basket of tightly packed, finely-ground coffee beans for a very short period of time at high pressure. The detailed process with troubleshooting tips can be found further in the article.
Why make espresso at home?
There are many reasons why someone would want to make espresso at home. For me it was about the cost at first. Later I learned about the difference in quality and variety. If you’ve been fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to wonder into a good coffee place and try a cup of excellent espresso, you may not like what most other places have to offer. And let’s be honest here, North America is no Italy, finding a cup of excellent espresso here is a challenge.
The blend or SO (single origin) coffee beans used to make espresso matter a lot. I am a huge fan of Yemeni coffee. I haven’t found a single place around where I live that served espresso made of SO Yemeni beans. But I can make it myself any and every day.
So, given 10 years of experience, here is what I see as the main reasons to make espresso at home:
- Considerably lower cost per cup of espresso
- Ability to try various coffee blends and single origin beans
- With experience and the right equipment you will be making espresso that is better than at most coffee shops
- Convenience. You can make an espresso any time you want without the need to go out
The cost of making espresso at home
The prices of espresso and espresso based drinks such as latte, cappuccino, macchiato and other are quite astronomical considering their cost. Seriously, look at this:
A pound of roasted coffee is 454 grams. A shot of espresso is typically a double, made with the standard 14 grams of coffee. That’s enough for 32 espresso drinks. Let’s knock 2 espressos off on account of waste, spillage and what not. That leaves us with 30 espressos. A pound of excellent roasted specialty espresso blend will cost you about $20 – $25. That averages to about 75 cents per espresso. Less if you opt for an average espresso blend, about $7-$10 per pound. The average price of an espresso is $2.50, or 3.3 times higher.
It gets even better. A pound of good green SO coffee or a blend is about $4-$6. Expensive varieties, like Yemen Matari for example, will cost about $8-$10 a pound. Let’s say the average is $7 per pound. Let’s assume bean weight loss after roasting is about 20%. That’s about 23 espressos from a pound of green beans, account for possible waste, or 30 cents per espresso on average, with espressos costing you about 20 cents each at the lower end or 8 – 12.5 times cheaper. Isn’t this awesome? Math is awesome!
Espresso making equipment and supplies
Of course, to make espresso at home you will need to invest in some equipment. The cost calculations I showed above do not consider equipment. The reason for that is simple – it’s hard to include the cost of equipment as it varies from relatively low to uber high, it all depends on what you need and want. However, depending on how much espresso or espresso based drinks you consume per day, most of the lower to mid priced equipment will break even within a couple of years. Expensive equipment will take longer to break even, but it will also last a lot longer.
The thing is, the whole espresso making process can get very confusing really quickly. The reason for that is multitude of espresso making tools. Then there is equipment that is used to make what some call espresso but it’s not really espresso. You start seeing the difference through experience, but that takes time and can get costly. I am hoping to provide information that can guide a novice espresso aficionado in the right direction and help pick the right equipment.
In general, here is what you need to make espresso at home:
- An espresso machine
- A grinder
- A tamper
- A scale
- Espresso cups
- Coffee beans
- Good water
Stovetop espresso makers
Before I get to espresso machines, let me say a few words about stovetop espresso makers. If you are just starting out and want to get your feet wet with making your own espresso, you will likely be tempted by theSE really inexpensive espresso makers. I mean, they are seriously inexpensive, like have the price of a good tamper. That cheap. They are also called moka pots.
They work by passing hot water pressurized by steam through a basket of ground coffee beans. The result is a strong, concentrated drink that resembles espresso, but technically is not an espresso. When it comes to brewing in moka pots, getting it right can be tricky and will take some time and practice. Probably the most popular moka pot brand is the Bialetti Brikka that has a very decent following.
Taste wise, moka pots can produce an excellent coffee drink. It won’t be a true espresso, more like somewhere between drip coffee and espresso, but doesn’t have to be. I used a moka pot for several years before I got my first espresso machine. To me the drinks out of moka pot lacked the body and the mouth feel of the espresso. There was barely any crema. Let’s just agree that stovetop espresso makers are in reality moka pots that make excellent moka, that can be very enjoyable, but won’t be true espresso.
- Very inexpensive (about $30)
- Capable of producing an excellent coffee drink that resembles espresso
- Not a true espresso, it’s somewhere between drip coffee and espresso
- Can be tricky to use and requires a learning curve
- Need to learn to control water temperature to avoid burnt taste
- Barely any crema, lacks body and mouth feel
- Too much manual involvement when you are still half asleep and just want your espresso shot as quickly as possible
Basic consumer grade espresso machines
These machines vary greatly in price and functionality. Some take coffee capsules and are super simple to use like the quite popular Nespresso Pixie Espresso Maker.
Other machines like the Breville ESP8XL Cafe Roma Stainless Espresso Maker or the Breville BES870XL Barista Express Espresso Machine give the user more control – coffee bean selection, grinding, and tamping. Buying capsules will be more expensive in the long run, and the taste will suffer. As such, always look for a machine that allows you to use your own coffee.
These types of machines vary greatly in terms of quality of build, temperature stability, pressure stability and longevity.
- Relatively inexpensive, typically within $100 – $250 range
- Can produce a good cup of espresso, but not consistently
- Build quality and longevity are lacking
- Inconsistent results
- Steaming capabilities are lacking
Single boiler entry level prosumer espresso machines
These espresso makers differ from basic consumer machines in quality and capabilities. Usually these machines have most parts made of copper, stainless steel and brass, and offer better temperature and pressure stability. With basic care these machines can easily last 15-20 years and are easy to repair.
Single boiler machines typically have one boiler used for both brewing and steaming, which prevents the user from brewing and steaming back-to-back without a period of recovery. This is one of biggest drawbacks of these espresso machines.
A very popular example of this type of espresso machine is Rancilio Silvia, which I have been using for the past 10 years with excellent results. It requires a learning curve. But, with some skill, you can pull a really great espresso on this machine.
Another popular choice in this class of espresso makers is Quick Mill Silvano. This machine is very similar in performance to Rancilio Silvian, but is capable of brewing and steaming simultaneously. It has a thermoblock fed by a separate vibratory pump for steaming, thus enabling it to brew and steam simultaneously.
- Much less expensive compared to other prosumer espresso makers
- Easy to use
- With some skill can produce an excellent cup of espresso
- Built to last and easy to repair
- Can be temperamental, require some learning curve
- Pulling back-to-back shots is a challenge without some recovery time due small boiler size
- Brewing and steaming back to back is not possible, a major problem if you tend to make espresso based drinks for large groups of people
Heat exchanger espresso machines
This type of espresso machines is also single boiler, but introduces a solution to allow back-to-back brewing and steaming. The boiler is kept partially filled to allow for a layer of steam. Since the water is under pressure, its boiling point is higher, just like in an old-fashioned pressure cooker. A copper tube passing through the boiler called a “heat exchanger” is responsible for flash heating fresh water from the reservoir to near final brew temperature.
- Allow for back-to-back brewing and steaming
- Excellent build quality
- Capable of producing excellent espresso
- Because of heat exchanger design require flushing before brewing to stabilize temperature
- Require some learning curve to produce consistent results
Dual boiler prosumer espresso machines
Dual boiler machines have a separate boiler for brewing and steaming, allowing a home barista to brew and steam back to back. These machines also have better temperature stability and don’t require temp surfing to hit the right temperature. Some of the more popular ones are La Spaziale Mini Vivaldi II and Quick Mill QM67 Dual Boiler Espresso Machine.
- Consistency in results
- Back to back brewing and steaming
- Excellent build quality
- Excellent temperature stability which makes them easy to use and don’t require temp surfing
- Expensive, around $1,800 – $2,000 and higher
- Steam boilers tend to be smaller than in commercial machines which limits back-to-back steaming speed and requires some recovery time
Portable espresso makers
The second one is designed to make espresso on the go but the idea is the same. Portable espresso makers can a good drink, but don’t expect an excellent cup of espresso out of them due to their inherent limitations.
My first coffee grinder was a bladed Kitchen Aid grinder that cost me about $50. Back then, being just out of college, I thought it was expensive and good. I used for drip coffee and later for making moka. My drip coffee was very good, but my moka coffee was very inconsistent with cups varying from good sometimes, to mostly OK and really awful. I though it was my technique, but someone suggested a burr grinder.
I switched grinders and my results improved dramatically. Why? Blade grinders are not really grinders, they are more like breakers. The blade spins and breaks coffee beans into smaller and smaller pieces. This results in particles of various sizes, from fairly coarse to really small, almost dust like. More coffee will be extracted from smaller particles, while less from larger. This leads to over extraction and under extraction, resulting in sourness or bitterness, or a combination of both.
Burr grinders, on the other hand, crush coffee beans to the more or less same size that equals the distance between the burrs. The better, the more precise the grinder is the better is the quality and the uniformity of the particles. And hence the better the results in the cup.
From my personal experience which is consistent with what experts say, if you want good espresso you need to first invest in a good grinder. Then buy the espresso machine that you can afford. No matter how good your espresso machine is and how good your skills are, if your grind is poor it will hold you back and ruin the results.
At the very minimum I would recommend the Baratza Virtuoso Conical Burr Coffee Grinder or the Rancilio Rocky Espresso Coffee Grinder, which I used for about three years before upgrading to Mazzer Mini. These grinders will give you a good quality grind that will produce a decent cup of espresso. They are not perfect, the grind uniformity will not be ideal every time, but they are very capable and with some skill you can produce a great cup of espresso.
Mazzer Mini, Baratza Vario-W 986, and Macap M4 grinders are very solid, well built grinders that are very popular among espresso enthusiasts and produce a consistent, uniform grind. I’ve been using my Mazzer Mini grinder for the past 6 years or so and I’ve been very happy with the results. These grinders will set you back about $500 – $700, but are absolutely worth it.
A tamper is required to create a tightly packed coffee puck inside the portafilter basket. A properly created coffee puck will facilitate even extraction and prevent channeling – uneven movement of water through the puck. Espresso machines, such as Rancilio Silvia, typically come with a basic plastic tamper. If you are trying to learn and perfect your tamping, I suggest using a good, 30 lb weight calibrated tamper to get consistent results quickly.
An inexpensive kitchen scale is crucial for obtaining consistent, predictable results in the cup. If you under-doze of over-doze the coffee basket, your results may vary from very bad to, perhaps, excellent, but they won’t be consistent. Also, double baskets work best when filled with 14 grams of ground coffee, triples with 18 or 21 grams and so on. When under or over-filled they by default will not perform optimally.
Espresso cups and glasses
A volumetric shot glass is very handy when you pulling shots to make sure you are not over-extracting or under-extracting, which will improve your chances at pulling an excellent espresso shot.
Double Walled Thermo Espresso Glasses are fantastic to serve espresso in as you can see all the beauty of the golden elixir. The problem with them is that they break quite easily if you are not careful. Happened to me many times. Thick walled demitasse cups can’t be beat for durability, though. These are the cups I am currently using.
Great coffee beans make great espresso. Bad tasting coffee beans will never make a great espresso. Tastes differ, and there is no universal way to tell which coffee is good and which is not good. The best way is to try for yourself. You may want to start with what’s popular out there, read cupping notes, try, take notes and look for other beans that match your preferences.
Intelligentsia Coffee is very well-known for its Black Cat espresso blend. Blue Bottle Coffee is another reputed coffee roaster whose espresso blends are considered very good. CCM Coffee sells very good espresso blends and well as single origin beans, both roasted and green. La Dolce Vita espresso blend from CME Brew Coffee is a nice, well-rounded blend that is very popular in our family.
My favorite SO green beans from CCM Coffee are Mexican Turquesa, Papau New Guinea, and Tanzania Peaberry. I also like Sweet Maria’s Yemeni coffees for SO espresso.
Use good quality drinking water to make your espresso shots. Bad water will result in bad espresso, no exceptions there.
Over time home baristas learn about limitations of their equipment and make modifications or upgrades to get better results. Here are a few relatively inexpensive modifications that helped me improve my espresso shots.
- A bottomless portafilter. When I bought my Rancilio Silvia it came with a spouted portafilter. The problem with it is that you can’t judge the quality of your tamping and if you have channeling problem. I cut the the bottom of the portafilter with a hole saw and sanded the sharp edges. Alternatively, you can buy a bottomless portafilter. They are available for many espresso machines. In some cases portafilters from other machines may be used. This mod is a must for anyone seeking to master their espresso pulling technique.
- A VST precision basket or any other high quality single wall basket, such as Synesso basket that I am using. Triples are my favorite for richer flavors and better taste. Make sure whatever basket you choose they wil fit in your portafilter.
How to make espresso at home – step by step
Now that we have all the tools and supplies in place, lets put it all together and see how to make espresso that rivals the best espressos out there.
Step 1 – Preheat your espresso machine
A typical espresso machine takes about half an hour to 45 minutes to preheat. Don’t be fooled by indicators on some machines that tell you your machine is ready after 1o minutes of preheating. My Rancilio Silvia does that. The problem is that the sensor is located on the boiler. The water in the boiler may very well be high enough for brewing, but touch the group head and the portafilter attached to the group head and you will see that they are still cool or barely warm. As the hot water passes through the cold grouphead it will dramatically drop in temperature before hitting the coffee puck. You will end up with under extracted, bitter swill.
On the other hand, if the machine has been preheating too long the group head may get too hot, which will require a 2 send water flush to stabilize the temperature. Learn those nuances about your particular machine and pay attention to them.
Step 2 – Grind your coffee beans, fill the basket and tamp
Three steps combined into one because they are so interrelated. When you order an espresso in most coffee places you will get a double. It means that the espresso is made with a double size basket filled with 14 grams of coffee. In some places a triple size basket is used, holding 18 or 21 grams of coffee. This increases the espresso’s body and intensity. I like to use a triple basket when making espresso at home.
To get a perfect extraction, regardless of the basket size, you need to have the rate of water flow such that you get twice the amount of espresso by weight in 26-30 seconds, as suggested by Scot Rao in his The Professional Barista’s Handbook. For example, when using 21 grams of coffee, you should be looking to getting 42 grams of espresso extracted in 26-30 seconds. Perfect extraction means a balanced cup of espresso without bitterness or sourness which are caused by under extraction or over extraction.
A simpler technique is look for a volume that is double of the weight of the espresso beans. For example, for 21 grams of beans you will be looking to get 42 ml of liquid including crema. This, of course, is an approximation that may not give you perfect results, and you will need experience to judge the shot by volume. For a novice barista I would suggest measuring the beans and the output espresso by weight.
Variables that impact the rate of flow:
- The grind. The finer you grind your beans, the slower the flow will be
- The doze. The more you have in the basket the slower your flow will be
- The tamp. The tighter you pack, the slower the flow will be
To get consistent results and to make sure you don’t go crazy adjusting all these variables, try to get full control over your dozing and tamping. That’s really not difficult. Weigh your beans to get a consistent doze. If you are using a double basket, use 14-15 grams. For triple baskets use 18-21 grams, depending on the basket. Once you get proficient with pulling perfect shots this won’t be necessary, but initially this is a must.
When tamping you need to apply the standard 30 pounds of pressure. Over time you will develop the sense over how much pressure translates to 30 pounds. However, initially, I suggest you use a 30 lb calibrated tamper. There you have it, now you only have one variable to worry about, which makes things so much easier.
If you don’t have a calibrated tamper, use a bathroom scale to practice your 30 lb press.
The first time you use your grinder or use new beans you will need to dial in your grinder. Start where you think will be the closest grind to get you the proper amount of espresso in 26-30 seconds. If you get too much output, your grind is to coarse. Adjust it down a little. If you get too little output, the grind is too fine. Make it a little coarser. Repeat until you get it right.
Step 3 – Brew your espresso
With the espresso machine ready, your coffee beans ground, dozed and tamped, insert the portafilter into your espresso machine and hit the brew button. About 26-30 seconds later you should have a perfect cup of espresso for you to enjoy.
Here is a quick video of me pulling a shot of espresso on Miss Silvia. I used a 21 gram triple basket, filled with 22 grams of beans. Target volume of 44 milliliters was pulled in 28 seconds. Excellent crema. Very balanced taste with lots of caramel notes.
How to make espresso at home – troubleshooting
As a novice home barista you are bound to run into challenges while you are learning. This is completely normal. Here are the most common challenges you may encounter making espresso and how to deal with them, based on my observations as well as various resources I’ve encountered in the past. You may find them intuitive but they can be very helpful especially when you are dealing with multiple issues.
|Problem Description||Possible Causes|
|Espresso flows too slowly. You don’t get double volume in 26-30 seconds|
1. Basket too full
2. Tamping too tight, at more than 30 lbs
3. Grind too fine
|Espresso flows too quickly. You get more than double volume in 26-30 seconds|
1. Basket underfilled
2. Tamping too light, at less than 30 lbs
3. Grind too coarse
4. Channeling problem due to improper or un-level tamping (use a bottomless portafilter to assess your tamping technique)
|Espresso shot tastes bitter (a sign of over extraction)|
1. Too much liquid exctrated. Try measuring extraction by weight instead by volume. It will give more precise results
2. Brewing temperature is too high. If your machine has a PID, decrease brew temperature. If not, flush hot water for 2 seconds before attaching the portafilter and brewing
|Espresso shot tastes sour (a sign of under extraction)|
1. Not enough liquid exctrated. Try measuring extraction by weight instead by volume. It will give more precise results
2. Brewing temperature is too low. If your machine has a PID, increase brew temperature. If not, it may be a sign of malfunctioning temperature sensor on the boiler
3. Channeling due to improper tamping
|There is very little or no crema|
1. Stale coffee beans
2. Grind may be too coarse
3. Not enough coffee in the basket (under dozed)
|Espresso shot tastes weird|
1. Poor water quality
2. Stale beans
3. Beans too fresh and need 1-3 days of degassing
4. Just the beans themselves. We all have different tastes. A certain bean might just taste funky to you
5. Coffee roast. Too dark of a roast may taste ashy and unpleasant to some. To light roasts may emphasize earthy and grassy flavors that some may not like
6. Coffee roasted for drip, not for espresso may taste weird as an espresso