Ana om of American
t y Espresso
b y D r. J o s e p h J o h n
lthough its origin lies overseas, espresso has the intense coffee flavors is as important as the liquid
captured North American consumers’ fancy coffee underneath.
over the last 20 or so years. One cannot walk In more technical terms, espresso is a colloidal dis-
two blocks in any city in the U.S. or Canada without persion produced by emulsifying the insoluble oils in
passing a coffee store or café that claims to make ground coffee. These oils don’t normally mix with
espresso. Espresso and its milk-based cousins—cap- water. But under intense pressure (9-10 bars) gener-
puccino, latté—are everywhere. ated by commercial espresso
But espresso connoisseurs machines, oils are extracted from
familiar with Italian caffè complain ground coffee, formed into micro-
that more than 95 percent of the scopic droplets, and suspended in
espresso in North America is liquid coffee concentrate. If strong
poorly made, and, in fact, coffee was all that was required,
undrinkable. Instead of being the using less water in a drip brewer
essence of coffee it is supposed to in place of costly espresso
be, the average espresso is weak, machines would do the trick.
watery, bitter, burned, without It is this emulsification of oils that
aroma, unpleasant, and generally distinguishes the espresso from strong
unsatisfying. coffee. It markedly alters properties
Over 95 percent of espresso of the beverage in terms of its
beverages consumed in North mouthfeel, density, viscosity, wet-
Espresso oozing out of the spout.
America are milk-based; this ting power, and foam-forming
alone seems to justify bad espresso. The addition of ability. Volatile vapors produced during espresso
milk and syrups, however, may hide bad espresso, but extraction hold coffee’s aroma and are captured in
they don’t make it better. Imagine how much more fla- tiny bubbles of the crema. These aroma molecules,
vorful a latté would be if the underlying espresso tast- later released in the mouth as espresso is consumed,
ed better. find their way to the nose through the pharynx. These
oil droplets also attach themselves to the taste buds
Definition of Espresso and slowly release volatile compounds until after the
Original Italian espresso is about one ounce of a dark, espresso is long gone.
smooth, heavy-bodied, syrup-like, aromatic, bitter- This is why the crema is so critical. If there is no
sweet coffee drink topped with a thick, reddish- crema, the oils in ground coffee have not been emulsi-
brown foam of tiny bubbles. It is not just six times fied, and, hence, it is not an espresso, but merely a
stronger than a cup of coffee, as may be implied by strong coffee. Crema, therefore, is the most critical indica-
the smaller volume; the foam, or crema, that captures tor of a well-made espresso. And rightly so.
What is remarkable about a properly made espresso Unfortunately, this is also where most consumers are
is that the maximum flavor is extracted from ground learning about this new, somewhat foreign, beverage.
coffee while much of the caffeine and excess acids are In most cases, baristas do not grind coffee fine
left behind. The high pressure at which extraction is enough nor tamp it with sufficient force, thus allowing
done and the small volume of water passing through water to gush through the ground coffee in less than 15
ground coffee account for this feat. seconds and often as quickly as seven seconds. Coffee
Commercial espresso machines deliver to the portafil- so produced is watery and no oil is emulsified. Worse
ter a measured amount of near boiling water at a pres- yet, if shots are made that quickly, all blends, regardless
sure of 9-10 bars. If coffee in the portafilter is coarsely of their quality, yield equally undrinkable “espresso.”
ground and/or loosely packed, water will gush out in a North American baristas also err in another impor-
couple of seconds without extracting enough solubles tant way by running too much water through the
from the coffee. By grinding the coffee finer and pack- grounds, making espresso diluted, watery, over-extract-
ing it tighter in the portafilter, flow is impeded and ed, and bitter. Instead of offering the aromatic essence
water is forced into the coffee particles to extract more of coffee in a ristretto, with lots of flavorful crema, the
of the soluble materials. The barista caters to the con-
resulting strong coffee takes sumer who prefers the
about 15 seconds to produce. watery version, believing
When coffee is ground that “bigger is better.”
even finer and packed still Coffee chemistry is coun-
tighter, the process is slowed terintuitive. The sweet,
further. Hot pressurized desirable components in
water penetrates the interior ground coffee are highly sol-
of coffee particles and spends uble in water and are
its energy driving out minus- extracted by the first ounce
cule oil droplets in addition to or so flowing through it.
extracting the solubles. This Running additional water
produces a real espresso. In through the same ground
this process, hot water dissi- coffee does not extract more
pates most of its energy in the coffee flavors; there is not
ground coffee and has to ooze much remaining there to
out of the portafilter under Crema is the most critical indicator of a well-made espresso. extract.
gravity. It takes roughly 30 Less-desirable compo-
seconds for this extraction. nents, such as bitterness, caffeine and acids, are not as
If the process takes much longer, water spends more soluble in water, and only a small portion is extracted by
time in contact with ground coffee and causes undesir- the first ounce. Running more water through the
able acids and caffeine to go into the solution, produc- grounds extracts more of these undesirable compo-
ing an overextracted, bitter espresso. If dosing and nents. Surprising as it may seem, strong, syrupy espresso is
packing is held steady, the “shot time” is a practical way sweet, and the diluted, watery version is bitter.
of monitoring the extraction process. The fineness of
the grind controls the shot time. Making the Perfect Espresso
If a majority of baristas are now doing it incorrectly, is
What Is Wrong With North American Espresso? there a better way to produce quality espresso? Yes
Much of the blame falls on improper or inadequate indeed! The prescription is actually quite simple. Dose
training of the barista, the person working behind the and pack the portafilter exactly the same way every
espresso counter. Other contributors to disappointing time and adjust only the fineness of the grind to main-
espresso quality include poor choice of coffee beans, tain a constant extraction time of about 30 seconds.
improper roasting and blending for espresso, stale cof- Details follow.
fee beans, incorrect grinding, dosing, and packing of the Once each day, make sure the espresso machine is
portafilter, and a limited understanding of the percola- functioning properly, dispensing a little more than 2 oz.
tion process. Of these the most serious errors are made of water (for a double shot) at a temperature of 195-200
in the final processes—the grinding, dosing, packing, degrees Fahrenheit and a pressure of 9-10 bars.
and extraction—that occur in the retail environment. Portafilter baskets designed for single espresso shots
seldom function properly, so I recommend takes longer, the grind is too fine and will ference. A cheap blend will suffice; no rea-
using the “double basket.” Ensure your have to be made coarser. son to waste money.
grinder burrs have sharp edges to finely It is not uncommon to have to adjust the However, if you make the effort to pro-
shave the roasted beans instead of crush- grind setting four or five times a day, duce a proper espresso, you should select a
ing them. Grinder performance is very depending on location and weather condi- blend that is consistent with the quality of
critical. tions. Make these adjustments slowly, one espresso the customers deserve. Check the
Periodically rinse and season the step or notch at a time. Each time remem- blend’s performance drawing actual
portafilter by running hot water through it ber to discard the ground coffee in the espresso (making brewed coffee to test
when empty to reach operating tempera- chute, grinder and doser hopper. espresso beans is a meaningless exercise).
ture, then wiping it dry. Dose and tamp The doser may be adjusted to dispense The physical properties, such as color,
the basket as described below and draw an the correct amount of ground coffee, 7-9 body and crema, and the flavor character-
espresso. Discard this “seasoning” shot. grams for a single shot and twice that for a istics, such as aroma and taste, must be
Thereafter, it’s not necessary to rinse the double. Unfortunately, for the doser to appropriate and in proper balance. Most
portafilter after each shot; wipe it clean work properly, the ground coffee hopper blends focus entirely on flavor and per-
and dry it with cloth or paper. has to be half-full. This is acceptable dur- form poorly on color, body and crema. The
Now you need to adjust the grind. Start ing busy times when ground coffee is used flavor should be clean and well defined
by choosing a grinder setting and grinding from a single coffee or two, built on a
enough beans to flush out the previously muted base.
ground coffee in the chute. Discard. Do
Additional Resources The crema should be reddish brown,
See Appendix on Page 44
not use the doser for these initial settings. velvety, plentiful, rich, and persistent, last-
To conserve test beans, grind just enough See “Coffee Appreciation Books” ing many minutes before it breaks in the
coffee to fill the portafilter basket. You See “Videos” middle. Linger over the cup as the crema
Achieving Success in Specialty Coffee
may have to pull the doser handle many releases the aroma of freshly ground cof-
Bean Business Basics
times to get all the ground coffee out of the Espresso Basics fee. Taste it straight, without sugar or
doser hopper. Espresso Coffee Professional milk. Note if it is mellow, smooth and
Dose coffee into the portafilter up to the Techniques sweet, with lots of body and low acidity
rim using a wooden or plastic spatula to Start & Run a Profitable Coffee Bar (high acidity is not a desirable feature of a
shave off the excess. If the basket is prop- quality espresso). It should contain no
erly designed, ground coffee in the double unpleasant bitterness and not even a hint
basket will be about 14-18 grams. of sourness. Check its finish. Observe how
Following an initial light tamp, tap the up in minutes. During slower periods, long the aftertaste lingers in the mouth; it
portafilter once to dislodge all loose grind only enough beans for each order. should be pleasant if the experience is to
ground particles. Pack the grind to the be memorable.
same force every time—between 30 and 50 Choosing an Espresso Blend Most retailers in North America can
lbs.—and, if necessary, use a bathroom Most retailers do not roast or blend their provide a much better quality espresso and
scale to measure. Pack it with a final twist- coffees and are dependent on a wholesale espresso beverage to the consumer without
ing motion of the tamper to polish the roaster to supply espresso blends for their major investments. It takes a better under-
ground coffee surface. use. It’s important to purchase fresh-roast- standing of the espresso process and
For machines with a preinfusion cycle, ed beans every week and buy only a week’s improved training of employees. That the
the first droplet should appear 4-8 seconds supply at a time so they are always fresh. consumer is not demanding a better
after the switch for a “short double” is The roasting date must be stamped on the espresso is not a good excuse. As was
turned on. Watch the pour; it should ooze bag so the freshness is obvious. learned in the wine industry, delicious
out like warm honey, not gush out like If the roaster believes that beans have to espresso will promote coffee drinking, and
water. Turn off the switch as the brew be dark-roasted and oily to be in an espres- bad espresso will hurt the industry.
turns lighter, indicating overextraction. so blend, look for a different roaster. This
Time the length of the pour from the shows a limited understanding of coffee Dr. Joseph John is president of Josuma Coffee Co.
in Menlo Park, Calif., and designer of Malabar
moment you turned on the switch. bean characteristics and even less about Gold, the company’s Premium European Espresso.
Adjust the grind until it takes about 30 espresso. He can be r eached at 650/366-5453 or by e-mail at
seconds to deliver the espresso shot. If the If the average espresso extraction time email@example.com.
shots take less than 30 seconds (from the for a retail store is less than 20 seconds, all
time the switch is turned on), the grind is shots will be watery and bitter, and a high-
too coarse and needs to be made finer. If it er-quality blend isn’t going to make a dif-