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It’s the concentrated essence of coffee. A pure expression of the flavors locked in the bean. Coffee with its amplifiers turned up to eleven.
We call it espresso.
After one sip of a well-made espresso, one might wonder how such intensity of flavor is even possible. Baristas know that extracting the best flavors from good coffees takes finely ground coffee, the right amount of hot water, and very high brewing pressure.
The modern espresso machine which creates those conditions is the result of over 100 years’ worth of innovation and refinement. Knowing how these machines work helps professional baristas make better espresso. This same understanding can help the Barista at Home choose and use the right espresso machine in their own kitchens.
Brewing under pressure
One hallmark of a well-made espresso is the silky-smooth caramel-colored emulsion of coffee oils, sugars, and carbon dioxide gas called crema. To get it, and the full flavor of an espresso, it takes high brewing water pressure – about 9 bars worth.
Innovators had long used steam and other mechanical means to increase speed and brewing pressure. It wasn’t until after World War II, however, that a spring-and-lever-driven design was able to achieve pressures high enough to produce crema.
Levers and pistons have now mostly been replaced with electric-motor-driven pumps. Lever machines remain a unique option for mobile espresso bars and the adventurous barista at home.
Controlling the brew water
One key feature of a brewed espresso is its diminutive size. A double espresso typically has a volume of 2 ounces or less. Producing that volume consistently requires controlling the water flow through the ground coffee. In most espresso machines, this water flow is started and stopped by pairing the aforementioned electric pump with a solenoid-driven brew valve.
This combination of pump and valve can be operated in a few ways.
The simplest arrangement finds both wired to an on-off switch. This semi-automatic style puts control of the brew water directly at the barista’s fingertips. It’s simplicity usually means lower price. The barista does need to monitor the espresso carefully though: watching the stream of coffee while it brews into a shotglass or familiar ceramic cup, possibly guided by a small scale.
Other machines automate the process a bit more by stopping the shot for the barista. This volumetric system uses a small flowmeter to measure the amount of water dispensed, then stops the flow at the programmed volume. This type of system works reliably but is typically a bit more expensive than semi-automatic versions.
The boiling point
Brewing water isn’t the only thing under pressure in an espresso machine. Most are built around a steam boiler which contains both superheated water and pressurized steam. The steam is useful for steaming milk for various espresso beverages, which we’ll discuss in a future episode of Barista at Home.
To make great espresso, brewing water must be heated to about 200⁰F. One good way to do this heats brewing water by passing it through separate chambers inside the steam boiler called heat exchangers. This popular approach relies on careful design and barista skill to produce appropriately-hot water. It’s mechanically simple, inexpensive, and works well.
Another great approach heats brewing water directly using one or more dedicated coffee boilers. This multiple-boiler style of machine often uses a digital heater control to ensure that brewing water reaches the coffee at exactly the right temperature. This degree of control is appreciated by many baristas. Like many premium features, this control comes with a premium price tag.
A hot shower
Once brewing water is heated, it flows to one or more brew groups. This highly-specialized component serves several important functions.
Since the group is water’s last stop before reaching the ground coffee, the group can fine-tune brewing temperature. Clever Italian engineers have long counted on this, which is why many groups are heavy and made of brass.
Even extraction is essential for espresso quality. For that reason, espresso machine groups use internal channels and stainless steel screens to create a uniform shower of water.
Brew groups also feature pliable gaskets to keep pressurized brewing water contained, as well as grooves which securely hold while still allowing the barista to remove a closely-related component…
As the name suggests, the portafilter is a portable filter. It’s purpose is to hold the ground coffee during the extraction process.
The “filter” portion is a small stainless-steel basket, its bottom perforated by dozens of tiny holes. This basket is held in a sturdy chrome-plated brass housing. Many feature spouts on the bottom to direct streams of brewed espresso into waiting cups. All have a handle to enable the barista to easily remove it to dispose of spent grounds and reload with fresh.
Portafilter baskets come in a variety of sizes. 1 ounce single espressos might utilize a basket designed for as little as 7 grams of ground coffee, while “triple baskets” meant to produce larger volumes may accommodate well over 20 grams. Baskets do have an optimal fill level, so skilled baristas will select a basket which is appropriate for the amount of espresso they plan to make. Most professional baristas choose a “double basket” which is ideal for 16-20 grams of ground coffee and between 1 and 2 ounces of brewed espresso.
Better coffee through science
A well-made espresso: good coffee, finely ground, plus the right amount of hot water, brewed under pressure. 100 years of science has never tasted so good.
Want to learn even more about using science to make better coffee? Stay tuned for next month’s edition of Barista at Home. Can’t wait that long? Call Dilworth Coffee at (866)849-1682 and ask to talk with Brady about Brewology.
To brew good coffee, many things need to go right.
Most of those are little things: minor nuances in technique, minute details that make good gear work well. All are details that should be kept in focus without losing sight of the full picture:
In order to brew good coffee, one must start with good coffee.
Brewing coffee is like photography. The camera doesn’t create, the sunset, mountains, or that unsightly cell tower. Instead, the skilled photographer use it to carefully compose their shot, finding and emphasizing the beauty of their subject.
In previous installments of “Barista at Home”, we discussed the brewing process and how to choose and use tools to manage the extraction. Today, we’ll focus on the idea that we’re not making a good coffee. Like skilled photographers, we’re finding and celebrating the distinctive beauty already in the coffee bean.
The first step in brewing a good cup of coffee? Start with good coffee beans.
As followers of Dilworth Coffee’s Beanology blog know, the flavors of coffee trace back to both the local roaster and origin country. This makes for a diverse landscape of delicious and distinctive flavors which are the definition of specialty coffee for many people.
While distinctive flavor is prized in coffees, that means that not every coffee drinker will enjoy every coffee. With so many unique coffee experiences are available, it’s important to choose your coffee carefully.
One oft-overlooked source for coffee beans is your neighborhood coffeehouse. This is an excellent place to buy fresh coffee, since they offer the chance to taste some of their options. Even if you don’t enjoy today’s brew, you’ll have a starting point for discussion with your friendly barista about coffees you might prefer.
Like photographing a beautiful sunset, timing is critical with roasted coffee.
From the moment those coffee beans leave the roasting machine, the clock is ticking. With each passing day, irreversible chemical reactions are changing the flavors inside.
This is helpful at first. In the hours right after roasting, too much trapped Carbon Dioxide gas can ruin your extraction like the glare from the sun hovering above the horizon. Gas levels drop quickly, though, and most coffees are ready for drip brewing after 1-2 days of rest, twice that for espresso. From this point forward time is no longer on our side as vibrant flavors begin to fade and change.
Fresh coffees will continue to have trapped CO2, even after initial rest. That’s why skilled baristas begin brewing by first wetting the grounds with a small amount of brewing water, then pausing. Letting the coffee “bloom” for 30-45 seconds gives gasses time to dissipate, helping the rest of the extraction be more effective.
How long is a delicious and distinctive coffee still considered fresh?
The answer is: “as long as they still taste delicious and distinctive”. Like every sunset is unique, every coffee ages differently. Some fade quickly into grey, while others’ seem to glow forever. So “how long?” depends on the coffee. That said, most of what makes fresh coffee so good will have faded noticeably after 3-4 weeks. Could you drink it? Sure. But that blah purgatory is best avoided if you’re looking for delicious brews.
It’s worth noting the difference between “faded” and “stale”. The processes responsible for the negative flavors we call stale are much slower moving, and a coffee will cease to be fresh weeks or months before it begins to be truly stale.
We can delay the inevitable.
While the loss of good coffee flavor is unavoidable, careful storage can slow down the chemical reactions responsible.
Oxygen is great for life, but it’s presence means death for fresh coffee. That’s because one of the reactions linked to flavor loss is oxidation. Since “air” is 21% Oxygen, it’s best to buy coffee in sealed bags, leave them sealed until you’re ready to brew, then roll down and re-close the bag between brews.
That’s another great reason to buy coffee in whole-bean form and grind it immediately before brewing. Increased surface area speeds up oxidation and the other freshness-robbing reactions.
Flavors also fade due to loss of volatile aromatic compounds. Those reactions occur faster at higher temperatures and humidity levels. That’s why we recommend storing your (tightly sealed) coffee bags at cooler room temperature.
Why not the refrigerator and freezer?
While those do provide better storage temperatures, there’s an increased risk of humidity-related problems. We don’t generally recommend storing coffee in the freezer or refrigerator.
Picture perfect results
Want a great cup? Choose a good coffee you enjoy, buy it fresh, store it properly, and brew it well. Then bask in the glow of your coffee’s distinctive beauty.
At Dilworth Coffee, everyone knows we focus on serving you an outstanding cup of coffee. Sure, that begins with the highest quality beans, but equally important in making great coffee is the quality water that is used to brew it.
That’s because hot H2O is the solvent that extracts the flavors and oils out of coffee beans. A cup of coffee is about 98.75 percent water, leaving only 1.25 percent for the soluble plant matter; so, it’s easy to see why great coffee takes quality water. All the countless hours of work by farmers, roasters and numerous others involved in getting coffee to market are for naught if, in the end, you end up with a beverage brewed with bad water.
It sounds simple to say water is just two hydrogen molecules for every one of oxygen, but the chemistry of water is actually very complex. Its makeup can change seasonally and because of other factors such as variable water sources, treatments and environmental variables.
Water also has many gases and minerals dissolved in it, in addition to floating bacteria and dirt. A simple charcoal filter will remove things like dirt and odor but is not much help when it comes to mineral content.
Much the same way it pulls flavors from coffee, water extracts minerals as it moves through the ground or in pipes. Some of those minerals, such as iron, can produce bad coffee tastes or colors. Some, on the other hand, can be good; coffee just tastes better when brewed with water that has a fair amount of calcium dissolved in it.
One measurement the Specialty Coffee Association uses to count the number of minerals dissolved in water is by measuring the total dissolved solids (TDS). A TDS reading is partially a measure of whether water is what is considered soft or hard. Things such as iron, chlorine and chlorinates should not be present in a reading. If water does not fall into the desired range, the solution may be a water softening or filtration system. So we are very careful about making sure all Dilworth Coffee stores have high quality water. Filtering systems are put in place to make sure it always meets the highest standards.
With its thousands of different flavors and chemicals (such as caffeine), coffee is an extremely complex beverage. No good extraction of those desirable tastes is possible without quality water. That’s why we always do coffee justice and make sure our water is held to the same high standard as our outstanding beans. Visit your local Dilworth Coffee to enjoy beverages made with both.
For more useful information about properly brewing coffee, please call 866 849 1682 or email email@example.com.