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Espresso 101

Why is it that espresso at cafes is often so much better than espresso made at home? Obviously cafes come equipped with commercial machines, which perform at a higher level than home espresso machines, but that makes less of a difference than you might think. So, how can you start making specialty cafe level espresso at home, without spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on a new setup?

The best way you can improve espresso you make at home is by following a recipe; I mean, think about it. We use recipes to cook at home, so why shouldn’t we do the same with coffee? In isolating the different variables in the brewing process you can standardize your espresso, ensuring that each cup of coffee is delicious and well balanced. Every specialty café worth its salt follows recipes to offer the best cup of coffee it can to the customer, and does everything they can to find a balance between bitterness and acidity, the two strongest flavours in coffee.

So, what does an espresso recipe look like, and how do the different variables affect how it tastes? In general, an espresso recipe has three variables:

  1. The weight in, which is the quantity of ground coffee being used in each shot. This affects the potential strength of your coffee. A higher dose will make your coffee stronger but more acidic, whereas a lower dose will make your coffee weaker and may lead to overextraction, resulting in a more bitter taste. 
  2. The extraction time, which is the amount of time that the brewing time takes from start to finish. This is how long the coffee grounds are exposed to water during extraction; as extraction time is lowered the espresso becomes thinner, weaker, and more acidic, whereas as extraction time is lengthened the coffee becomes more saturated, though often more bitter and can lead to overextraction. Extraction time is usually a measure of how finely the coffee is ground; too finely, and the shot will take too long to extract and come out bitter and gross; too coarsely, and the espresso will come out quickly and be weak and sour. Because of this it’s only really possible to adjust your extraction time if you have your own espresso grinder. If you don’t, don’t worry! You can still improve your espresso greatly by adjusting the other variables. 
  3. The weight out, which is the weight of the shot of espresso at the end of it all. If an espresso is shorter (and so weighs less) then it will be stronger, but will also be more sour. If the shot is drawn out longer then it will steadily become weaker, and more bitter. 

All of these variables greatly affect the taste of your coffee, and the trick to making great espresso is finding a balance between them. When adjusting and developing your own recipe I would highly recommend changing one variable at a time; this way you can methodically figure out the best recipe for you! The recipe that we use for our espresso, our Méchants Pinsons single origin Guatemala, is as follows:

18.5/32/42

Weight In: 18.5 grams

Extraction Time: 32 seconds

Weight out: 42 grams

This recipe is for a double shot, which is the standard for specialty cafes. We would recommend using this recipe as a starting point when brewing at home, and then adjusting it to suit your tastes and based on the coffee you are using. 

In order to follow a recipe, it is very important that you have a scale, accurate to half a gram at the very least. There are very fancy coffee scales out there, with built in timers and water resistance, but a simple scale will do everything you need in order to upgrade your espresso game. A scale will allow you to measure the weight in and weight out, and will consequently be an invaluable tool for you to make great coffee with. An espresso grinder will make a big difference to your espresso as well, and will let you adjust the extraction time, but espresso grinders can be prohibitively expensive. Scales are cheap, and worth every penny.

So, with that being said, let’s walk through two hypothetical scenarios if you’re brewing your espresso at home:

I’m finding my espresso is too bitter
If your espresso is too bitter then there are a few ways you can adjust your recipe to counteract this. You can increase the dose of coffee in each shot, or you can draw the shot a bit shorter; both of these actions will make your coffee more concentrated and reduce bitterness greatly. If you own an espresso grinder you could also adjust your grind to be coarser, which will reduce extraction time and combat overextraction.  

I’m finding that my espresso is too sour (acidic)

To combat acidity there are a few things you can do with your recipe; you could lower your weight in, which will limit acidity drastically. You could draw your shot out longer, increasing the weight out and increasing your extraction, which will really help with acidity as well. If you have a grinder you can also try grinding your coffee finer, which will increase your extraction time and help a lot. 

Otherwise, experiment! Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to coffee, and developing your own recipe is the best way to find what suits your tastes. 

If you have any questions, or want to learn more, feel free to email us at info@mechantspinsons.com, or stop by our café at 1546 Laurier Est in Montréal! Our staff would be happy to help you make coffee you truly love. 

-Nico Claxton, Head Barista at Méchants Pinsons

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