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May 30, 2019 6 min read

Hey Espresso certainly makes the world go round. I can’t imagine all the days I’ve spent working, studying, writing and traveling without espresso or an espresso based drink by my side. And with the proper items and tools at home, you can make espresso just the way you like it! With drip coffee, there’s less ability to modify the texture and richness of flavor- even if doing pour over. With espresso, you can control the extraction to dial-in exactly the flavor you want.

So to start, what is espresso?

The first espresso machine was patented in 1884 by Angelo Moriondo of Turin, Italy. 

Espresso is finely ground coffee that is served in shots by forcing hot, pressurized water through the fine coffee powder. This results in a frothy, flavorful and aromatic “crema”- the reddish-brown head that a well made espresso possesses. Espresso can be drank by itself as shots, or used as the base of other drinks such as cappuccino and Americano.

In contrast, the majority of people who drink coffee usually drip filter coffee. Drip coffee has a much more mellow flavor profile in comparisons to the intensity induced through espresso brewing. In addition, the body of drip coffee is not as dark or thick as espresso.

The mildness of drip filter coffee often wins people over with its predictable and easily forgiving brewing method. The intensity of flavor from espresso can shock the taste buds. Espresso is sort of like having your favorite flavor coffee condensed from an eight-ounce down to a one-ounce beverage. All aspects of the coffee beans flavor gain in boldness and intensity; mistakes with espresso are a lot less forgivable than with filter coffee.

Espresso is a very versatile beverage when it comes to the different style drinks that it can be made from it. Besides straight espresso, you can find espresso as a key ingredient in a number of popular coffee drinks like these listed below.

Espresso Macchiato – This drink uses a single or double espresso shot topped with a dollop of heated, texturized milk.

Cappuccino – This drink is made from steamed or frothed milk and a single shot of espresso.

Latte – This espresso drink is comprised of a two-to-one ratio of milk to espresso.

Cafe Americano –  Six ounces of water and one ounce of espresso.

Red Eye –  Add one shot of espresso to a cup of filter coffee.

Espresso is a very intense and complex coffee brewing method that is loved by millions worldwide. Choosing whether to brew your coffee with a filter or using an espresso coffee machine largely depends on your coffee flavor preference. Packed with full body and flavor, espresso has become much more appreciated and incorporated into our everyday lives as coffee drinkers.

How to make Espresso (Pulling a Normale shot)

Several important factors that come into play when making good espresso: water quality, how finely you ground the beans, and the quality/type of beans you are using. As for the coffee beans themselves, it is important to use fresh coffee. The fresher the better. Also, stay away from beans that have been artificially flavored (vanilla, hazelnut, chocolate, etc.), because they can leave residue inside the portafilter, and it can be tedious to clean this residue from the group head. Generally, you can use any type you prefer, but dark roasted beans are superb. Assuming those major factors are accounted for, now for the brewing!

The first step is to turn on the espresso machine and let it preheat. Depending on the model, this can take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes.

Next, we will want to grind the coffee. For this step, the use of a scale is highly recommended, as it allows for more precise measuring, but the amount of coffee used can be more or less eyeballed. Some espresso machines come with a built in grinder, but the procedure remains the same regardless. Note that when first starting out, figuring out the correct grind may be the most difficult part, especially because each individual bag of beans will require minor adjustments.

Make sure your portafilter is dry and clean as this can affect the taste and quality of your shot. First, weigh your portafilter on the scale, and set your grinder to an espresso/very fine setting. Some grinders do allow for more minute adjustments than others, and if the grinder being used wasn’t made specifically for espresso, you’ll likely need to start out around the finest setting. Then, put beans in the grinder’s hopper, and grind away. Carefully pour the grounds into the portafilter on the scale; you’ll need to add between 15 and 17 grams of coffee for a double shot of espresso.  Make sure your grounds are spread evenly, so the water does not wash through just one part of the ground layer.

Once all the coffee has been added and carefully smoothed out, you’re ready to tamp. Tamping can also be difficult to master, but the technique remains consistent; once you’ve got it, it’s like riding a bike. To tamp the grounds into the portafilter, place it on a hard surface and hold the handle, and with the tamper in the other hand and that elbow at 90 degrees, firmly and slowly. This helps eliminate any air pockets and forms the grounds into a nice puck shape. 30 lbs (14 kg) of pressure or so is ideal.  Give it a little twist before you stop applying pressure and remove the tamper. Ideally, the surface of the grounds should be smooth and level. If not, simply dump the grounds out, grind more, and try again. If this process is giving you trouble, it is possible to set the portafilter down on a bathroom scale to help ensure that the proper weight is being applied.  Some manufactures sell tampers that have a built in mechanism that let you know when you’ve hit it.

Clean off the portafilter and the machine’s insertion head of any old or excess grounds, because our next step is…


When the portafilter is in good shape, dust off any residual grounds around the locking mechanism, and affix it to the machine by pushing it up and twisting it in. . The next step is usually pretty straightforward, and generally only requires a button press, but it does depend on the espresso machine. Some will have options to pre-infuse the coffee, or even let you alter the amount of water that is pushed through the portafilter, but for this, we just need two total ounces in the end; most machines’ double button is factory programmed to do just this. If you aren’t sure, just use a measuring device to check first. 

If the machine is not preset with a time, count 25 seconds before stopping the machine.  By this point the lovely brownish frothy liquid should be waiting in the mug below the portafilter to be enjoyed!

You are probably ready now to get out your frothing cup or pot to make a cappuccino or latte... but before we move on to the milk, let’s go over some Quality Assurance (QA) points. If the espresso shots pulled far too quickly, or are sour, a finer grind will be necessary. If the inverse is true, then a coarser grind will do the trick. When it comes to the final product, the variables that will need to be toyed with most are the amount of coffee (15-17 grams), and how fine or coarse the beans are ground. It can potentially take a while to calibrate everything, but once it is done, the results are amazing. 

Now that we have two beautiful shots of espresso, there are an almost infinite number of things that can be done with them. One route is to use the espresso machine’s built in steam wand to steam milk for a latte. To do this, simply pour your favorite milk into a steaming pitcher, slightly submerge the steam wand into it, and turn it on. The sound you’re looking for is one of a piece of paper gently tearing, so adjust the elevation and angle of the pitcher in relation to the steam wand until this is achieved. This will aerate the milk and produce microfoam, and after aerating for 3-5 seconds, submerge the wand completely to finish heating the milk until the pitcher is almost too hot to touch. Then, simply pour it into your mug.

This guide went over pulling a normale shot.  See our post on espresso shots for tips and differences for ristretto and lungo shots here.

While one can just drink two shots of espresso how they are, or with steamed milk, it is also possible to use a milk frothing device to achieve a very similar texture with warm or cold milk. Cold foam can easily be made with a French press, a whisk, and some devices are specifically made to create it. To use a French press, simply put in the desired amount of milk, and pull the plunger up and down until the milk turns into a thick foam.

The true art of espresso is an tradition going back generations, from that first ever pull of espresso back in 1884 to the next shot you brew today or tomorrow. The pleasure of espresso is in every last drop, from the magnificent crema to the deep body packed with flavor. And the joy is in every brew! Whenever you are brewing up a quick shot before work or trying to craft the perfect macchiato, espresso is there when you need it most!

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