How to make a great Espresso at home everytime Part I Covers:
Click here if you wish to read that first.
The Perfect Pour
The perfect pour should come out like melted honey in colour and consistency. You’ll want to run the water for about 30-45 seconds but you should always be on the look out for when it turns wavy and lighter in colour. The whiter the colour of the pour the more the bitter flavours will present themselves. Conversely, if it is dripping out from the portafilter you should stop it and start again – unless you prefer that burnt flavour.
Making sure you release the boiling water from the group head is important. You can backflush the machine at the same time if you have the time but you should get into the habit of backflushing after every coffee.
Backflush the group head. What is Backflushing? It’s basically an aenema for the Group Head. Cleaning it out each time assures that you won’t get any old coffee flavours coming through. If you are making multiple coffees at once, you wouldn’t need to backflush it each time, just at the end of the session.
In order to perform a backflush you’ll need a Blind Filter. It kinda looks like a very shallow basket with NO HOLES in it. If it any has holes in then it isn’t a blind filter. Replace the portafilter regular basket with the Blind Filter and load it into the group head. If you have a manual button or lever, use this and turn it on for about 45 seconds. This will let the boiling water build up pressure and when you release the pressure it will shoot up the group head and dislodge any rogue coffee grinds. You need to repeat building the pressure up and then releasing it until you can only see clear water in the blind filter basket.
Flush the group head. Some of the machines control the temperature of the group head and so this is taken care of, but if you run your water and you find it’s boiling, then you need to flush it before you put the portafilter in. If you are making back to back coffees you probably won’t need to flush it every shot, because usually it starts to boil when it isn’t used for a minute or so.
Season the Basket. If it’s the first coffee of the day, I usually run a shot through with no intention of using it. This just helps give the basket a bit of extra flavour for the next shot. It might mean you go through a bit more coffee than usual and while I’m all about increasing coffee sales, this is not my intention here. You should, however, notice a difference in the flow, colour and most importantly, taste if you sink a shot before you drink your first coffee of the day. Once you get a clear understanding of how the perfect shot should pour you will notice a difference after you season the basket in this way.
The Length/Volume of the pour. There are several different ways of running a shot and infinite number of schools of thought on the subject. A general rule of thumb is 45ml in about 30-45 seconds. Now of course, this depends on the size of the basket and baskets range in depth from 7mg to 28mg (and probably even more). So the only true way of measuring the length of your shot is to watch it and stop the pour as soon as you see the change in colour. Of course, if it’s pouring out 60ml in 5 seconds you probably won’t see a change in colour in which case you should go back to the grind and adjust this until you get closer to 45ml in 30 secs.
AUTOMATIC VS MANUAL POURS
Myth: Automatic machines are better at making coffees because there is less that can go wrong. WRONG! Automatic machines are only good at creating shortcuts but if you don’t know what you are doing to begin with, they just make bad coffee more efficiently.
This is why I always try to go with a manual pour. A Manual pour is where you have complete control and can let the pour run for as long as you like. I was raised on a completely manual machine so I use the manual pour every time unless I have to make 1000s of coffees in which case I use the automatic pour.
A lot of home machines are automatic but some do have a manual override button which lets the water keep pouring. If you don’t have a manual override option, I would suggest you watch the pour and pull the shot glasses out from underneath when the colour changes.
Some machines allow you to calibrate the volume of water that passes through the basket as well as the time it takes to do so. If your machine lets you calibrate the shot, then find a near perfect shot and then save that but, unless you are in a very stable environment, you will still need to watch and adjust each pour. Don’t worry though, you can never waste coffee shots, you can put the ones that don’t turn out perfect aside for the iced coffee recipe (which I’ll get to in another blog).
Knowing your Coffee pours:
- Huge variance in the colour (when it pours you will see “tiger stripes”) – Patches of dark brown and light brown crema have different flavours and you are going to notice it in the coffee. Ideally it should all be one colour, but a little bit of variance isn’t going to taste too bad when you add milk.
- White colour – This is the caffeine part of the shot. The longer you leave the shot running the more white it will become (until it becomes just water) but caffeine also tastes incredibly bitter so unless you like that taste, you should stop the pour as soon as you start to see the colour whiten.
- Bubbles – too much gas in the beans.
- Dripping – This means you’ve packed your coffee too hard
- Running like water – If it looks like Niagara falls, I can bet you know what it tastes like.
- Convex and concave pours – Ideally you want the coffee to pour straight and usually the grind coarseness causes these issues.
The coffee puck is also another way of confirming that your shot was on par. The puck is the left over coffee grind mass in the basket after you have poured. It looks like a hockey puck and should be a firm disc shape that comes out in one piece. If it’s too sloppy it means the water hasn’t been able to get through and you should think about making your grind more course (remember, if everything else is consistent then you can isolate the problem. If the grind was too coarse and the water went through it too quickly you’ll find the puck to be quite brittle or won’t come out of basket properly.
Steaming milk is one of the hardest things to get perfect but once you get it you’ll absolutely blitz it and you’ll be impressing the whole nation with it. Each machine behaves differently and you have to have decent pressure to get a great result. Don’t be to harsh on yourself if you are working with steam that takes minutes to build up, chances are you’ll never be able to make it on that machine – it just doesn’t have enough pressure behind it. If your milk is screaming at you like a stuck pig and when you try lowering the nozzle you just makes heaps of bubbles, you probably don’t have enough pressure.
Beginners Tip: How I learned to steam milk was by actually steaming water. The reason for this is, if you mess it up and accidentally boil it, you don’t have to throw anything away. If you are starting out for the first time, I suggest you try water for a few times first. Practices getting the water spinning and getting the tsk tsk sound before you move onto milk.
Start with cold milk. Trying to reheat warm milk will never work and will always create foamy milk. Fill the milk jug up to the notch with cold water. Flush out a bit of the steam pressure by turning the steam wand on and then off again. This gets rid of any moisture in the steam wand and that means beautiful soft oxygen is going to be steaming your milk – not water. Turn the milk jug to a 45°C angle to the steam wand (see image above). The neck of the steam wand should rest in the spout of the milk jug and the nozzle should sit just below the surface of the milk. When you turn the steam on it should start to spin the milk and once it has gained full speed you can lower the milk jug just just a little to allow the milk to stretch.
This is a hard thing to explain in a blog, but the sound of stretching milk should be more like short sharp shots of pressurised air from a tyre pump rather than someone flushing a toilet. As in, “Tsk Tsk”, not ‘Slurp Slurp’.
Don’t stretch the milk too harshly as it will create a million bubbles and “thicken” it into a foam. You will start to gauge how much you need to stretch in order to make a cappucino, latte or flat white with more experience, but make sure you do the stretching early while the milk is still cold. If you start to stretch it too late you’ll get the foam again.
Sometimes little bubbles float around on the top of the milk. Try to suck these bubbles up by moving the steam wand spout near them, if the milk is spinning you should be able to suck the bubbles up into the steam wand. Don’t worry if you can’t get them all because afterwards you can give the milk just a bit of a whack on the table and that will pop all the remaining bubbles.
Swirl the milk jug around to keep the milk nice and silky. If it sits at all it starts to settle and you end up with foam milk separating from the normal hot milk. By constantly swirling it until you pour you keep the beautiful consistency.
Getting the Temperature right
The easy way is to use a milk thermometer and just stop the milk around 70°C (standard drinking temp). If you don’t have one you’ll have to use two other ways to measure: Touch and Sound.
Touch is not overly reliable because it depends on the sensitivity of your skin. If you are like me, you don’t have much feeling left in your hand after having done it several million times. Essentially, you are wanting to reach the point where you can put your hand on the milk just but you can’t leave it there for more than two seconds.
Sounds will take some getting used to but what you need to know is that the frequency (the pitch) of milk starts from a very high squeak when cold to a very low rumble when boiled. You never want boiled milk in your coffee so make sure you don’t let the frequency go too low.
Again, you’ll get used to the right sound to listen out for and combined with touching it you’ll get to know when the milk is close to 70°C.
A note on Latte Art
It’s going to be really hard to create #latteart if you don’t have beautiful, silky milk or a decent crema on your shot. If you have these two things nearly mastered, you just need practice. Tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of practice.
Home baristas often forget that full-time baristas will make around a thousand coffees a day. Even if they only worked for one year they probably made close to quarter of a million coffees. So you get good at making pretty pictures because, in what is essentially a production line, it’s the main creative outlet.
Even now, I couldn’t compete at latte art with any employed barista, because I just don’t get to practice like I used to.
So don’t be hard on yourself when you pour a heart with an ear or something that resembles a weed more than a fern leaf, at least your coffee will taste great!
Caring for your Coffee Machine
Keeping your Machine in tip top condition is not only going to help you get the best flavour but will also stop breakdowns occurring as often.
- Backflush. Already explained above but I’ll reiterate it here: backflush after every session. It’s not like a chef’s saucepan which allegedly retains flavours of old Italian pastas if you never clean it. Old coffee goes rancid very quickly and tastes horrible. Don’t get lazy – Keep it clean.
- Backflush with Chemical. If you don’t have coffee chemical then buy some. I do this about once a week at home and it just boosts your normal backflushing effect by dissolving and coffee oil build up. Careful not to get it on your wet hands because that slippery sensation you have when you rub your fingers together is actually your skin dissolving. Make sure you season the basket before you try your next coffee or else it might taste a little…tangy.
- Soak the portafilter in chemical. Take the basket out of the portafilter and give them both a scrub down once a week at least. Then soak them overnight in a chemical + boiling water mix.
- Soak the Group Head Shower Screen in Chemical. Most machines let you remove the group head screen (located up underneath the group head) with a flat head screwdriver. This screen can get blocked with fine grind and so soaking it overnight with the portafilter cleans it nicely.
- Clean the steam wand after every use. This keeps the milk from building up and A) looking gross and B) potentially giving you some nasty virus. As part of the clean you should flush the steam wand after each milk use because this blows out any tiny milk particles that may have been sucked up the nozzle when steaming.
There you have it. You should be able to make a great espresso in no time. Now go practice.
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