By reader request[Note that this post contains affiliate links.]
Recently, a reader requested a post on how to become a coffee snob. I’m not sure whether he was serious or just messing with me, but I figured it would be a fun topic to write about. The caveat, however, is that I don’t do coffee – I’m an espresso girl through and through. So, this post is about espresso.
*Disclaimer: I am not a die-hard espresso snob. After all, I normally only spend around $12 per lb on beans, never weigh the ground coffee prior to tamping, and rarely time my espresso shots. That being said, I’ve been there, done that, and have invested heavily on creating a my own perfect espresso experience. As such, I do know a thing or two about great espresso, and this post attempts to capture that knowledge and translate it for you.
**Note: I personally only drink espresso these days, but coffee drinkers will benefit from the discussion on beans and – to a lesser extent – grinders.
***Note: This post contains affiliate links.
A love affair with espresso
Before traveling to Italy in 2010, I called myself a coffee (more aptly espresso) snob. I bought what I thought were high-quality beans from small roasters, ground them myself, and wouldn’t drink anything that wasn’t brewed on my stovetop in a stainless steel Bialetti-style apparatus or pulled from my then-husband’s Nespresso machine. In fact, whenever I traveled anywhere, I’d lug my old camp stove and said stovetop espresso apparatus with me.
My first espresso downed at a Pisa bistro changed everything. Espresso was cheap – provided that one avoided the touristy bars, plentiful, and of a quality rarely seen in the States. And, unlike the States, even the gas stations got it right! To say that I was hooked was an understatement.
I left Italy with the realization that while the Italians were unwilling to tolerate crappy espresso, neither were they obsessed with coffee the way that Americans were.
It really boiled down to the fact that the Italians seemed to understand that the only espresso worth drinking was great espresso; that no one would ever even consider serving espresso that wasn’t great; and that there were only two acceptable ways to make the stuff: by stovetop (at home) or fancy machine (at the bar). Period. In their minds, there truly was nothing more to mention on the subject.
Upon my return home to Montana, I became obsessed with recreating the Italian espresso experience. While Nespresso was (and still is) the espresso drinker’s convenient rendition of the Keurig, the quality just wasn’t the same. Crema was present but un-flavorful, and its intensity was lacking. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great system for someone who’s slightly less obsessed than myself, can’t deal with the hassle of pulling the perfect shot, or doesn’t have a wad of cash laying around for one of the systems I’ll be suggesting in the following paragraphs. It just simply ceased to meet my changing needs.
The makings of a great espresso
Pulling the perfect shot of espresso is relatively uncomplicated. That being said, doing so isn’t always easy. To describe the process in depth and provide solutions to anticipated trouble shooting efforts is beyond the scope of this post. But, what I’m about to tell you is more than adequate to yield a beverage far superior to 99% of everything else that’s available. Plus, you’ll become a more informed consumer and in-the-know baristas will love talking to you…provided that your newfound and well-deserved coffee appreciation doesn’t go to your head.
Great espresso requires the following:
- Great beans
- A decent grinder
- An appropriate brewing apparatus
Before delving into the details, though, let’s get one thing straight – a great espresso is going to be lost on a drinker who values economics or convenience more than the nuances of an exquisite crema. If I’ve just described you, please don’t feel offended, as there is zero judgement attached to that statement! Rather, it’s my way of saying that there is little benefit to be gained by following my suggestions unless you romanticize a perfectly pulled espresso shot like yours truly and/or have a generous budget allocated to upgrading your current coffee brewing system.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s examine each of the above three requirements.
1. Great beans
Walk down any coffee aisle in any supermarket and you are apt to be bombarded with a ridiculous array of options for coffee beans. My advice to you? Bypass this aisle all together and swing by your local roaster (if possible), or just order them online. Why? Because your beans need to be very fresh. As in, roasted within the past week or two, max.
Here’s an assignment: try to find the “roasted on” date on a bag of beans. I dare you. What? You can’t find it?!
That’s because hardly anyone prints anything other than a “sell by” date. And, don’t bother trying to use that to ascertain when the beans were roasted because truly these dates are arbitrary. I’ve seen plenty of bags of beans with dates well over a year out. So, does that mean that a date of one month out represents beans that are 1.5 years old, 1 month old, or…? See the problem?
If you think that the bulk bins at your local natural foods store are any better, you might be right. Might.
I worked in the industry for five years – 3.5 of them in the grocery department as a buyer – and I can promise you that they are rarely (if ever) as fresh as what you’ll need to pull a great espresso shot (except for places that roast the beans in house, like Whole Foods). If you aren’t drinking a carefully pulled espresso, you may be fine with these beans. And, if you are already thrilled with the beans you buy, then just ignore this section. But, if you are seeking advice on how to pull a great espresso (or make a fabulous mug of joe), do not settle for older beans!
The gases that freshly roasted beans release differ from those that have sat in a bag – even a vacuum sealed one – and these gases (along with the release of the beans’ volatile oils) affect the deliverance and quality of an espresso’s crema and the coffee’s overall flavor. [In case you are an espresso newb, crema is the lighter brown foam that tops off a great espresso shot. You can see it in the featured image. I couldn’t help it – I had to take a sip before shooting the pictures! #sorrynotsorry] Crema is not necessarily a sign of a great espresso, as there are ways espresso machine producers have found to mechanically “create” it (note that this “artificial” crema does not have the same qualities as naturally occurring crema), but a great espresso will always have it.
The takeaway here is that flavorful crema – the hallmark of a great espresso shot – is unattainable without using freshly roasted beans.
Freshness aside, the roast of the bean is critical. In the States, we have been erroneously led to believe that espresso requires a dark roast. WRONG! Far more suited for delish espresso is a medium to medium-dark roasted bean. I’m not really sure from where the whole dark roasted bean craze originated, but I have a hunch that it may have been due to coffee chains and mass producers’ attempts to “hide” crappy quality beans by over-roasting them. At least that’s one theory.
Also important is the coffee bean variety used. Arabica is more expensive than robusta and is a far better choice for espresso. Some roasters will blend a bit of robusta into arabic beans because it more readily produces crema, but this addition is unnecessary if very fresh and well-roasted arabic beans are used. At any rate, most smaller roasters I’ve come across use arabica beans, so it’s likely not going to be an issue. But, just so you know…
- Buy beans that were roasted only a few days or – at most – two weeks earlier;
- A medium to medium-dark roast is optimal for espresso. For coffee, it all depends on your personal tastes and preferences; AND
- Arabica beans are known to produce tastier espressos and coffee than cheaper robusta beans.
If you need to order your beans online, Intelligentsia’s Black Cat Classic Espresso is a great (albeit un-cheap) option. Just a note that it may be fresher if purchased directly from the roaster and not through this Amazon affiliate link.
2. A decent grinder
Gases and volatile oils trapped inside of coffee beans will release at a far quicker rate once the beans have been ground, so it’s imperative to hold off on grinding beans until you are ready to use them. That being said, the quality of the grind matters, and best results come with a high price tag.
When it comes to grinding coffee, you have four primary options:
- Use a blade grinder
- Use a burr grinder
- Use a mechanical (hand-cranked) burr grinder
- Grind your coffee in-store
If money is not an issue, by all means go out and buy yourself a high quality burr or conical grinder. I did a lot – and I mean a LOT – of research prior to buying mine, and I came to the conclusion that the cheapest of the absolute best grinders was the Mazzer Mini. Yes, it’s insanely pricey for folks – including yours truly – who are on a budget. To be honest, I still don’t know how I justified the expense! But to this day, I don’t regret making this purchase. There are decent and cheaper alternatives, including the Gaggia, but the Mazzer reviews beat everything hands down. Plus, it’s a sexy grinder – and the grown up version is the one I usually see at my favorite local coffee shops, which ought to say something. It’s worth noting that most grinders below Mazzer’s price point failed miserably in many critical reviews, however, and so be weary of dropping a chunk of change on something sub-par.
So, what if there is no way in hell you are going buy a grinder that is the equivalent of twice this month’s car payment? You could go the mechanical grinder route if you are willing to use a bit of elbow grease. Here is one such example. Alternatively, you could go the route of a blade grinder. or you could just grind your beans at the store.
The lingering question for many is whether it’s better to buy pre-ground (or grind when purchasing) coffee, or to use a cheap blade grinder. Unfortunately, there is little consensus on the matter, but this outside link delves into the issue a bit further in the event that you are curious. For me, in the event I was forced to choose, I’d probably grind in store and keep in my freezer. But then again, I’d definitely go the blade grinder route. So not helpful!
- If you can afford a burr grinder, by all means go this route. But, if you do, do it right, as there are tons of burr grinders that suck.
- A hand crank mechanical grinder may be inconvenient, but it can be an inexpensive and respectable alternative to expensive burr grinders.
- Blade grinders are to be avoided…unless your only alternative is to grind your beans in-store. Then it’s a toss-up.
3. An appropriate brewing apparatus
This post has been in the making for several days, and it’s mostly because I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to discussing espresso machines! Seriously, there is a huge array of options and at every price point, and an entire book could be written about the available espresso pulling methods and the best products for each. That’s simply far beyond the scope of a single blog post, though (and it would tax my sanity to the limit). So, I’m going to make things exceptionally simple.
Types of “espresso” pulling apparati:
- Stovetop “mocha” pot (e.g. Bialetti)
- Pump espresso machine (e.g. Silvia by Rancilio – this is the machine that I own)
- Pod espresso machine (e.g. Nespresso)
- Lever espresso machine (e.g. ROK)
- Steam espresso machine (e.g. Mr. Coffee)
Now, before the espresso enthusiasts get all bent out of shape about what I’ve included in this list, know that options 2 and 4 are the only acceptable machines in the eyes of an aficionado. Let’s look at each option in detail.
- Stovetop “mocha” pots are what the Italians use in their homes. They produce very strong coffee – the kind that is 100% opaque and threatens to sprout chest hairs on us ladies. They contain a water reservoir base, a chamber nestled near the top of said reservoir for ground coffee, and an espresso collection reservoir at the top. Mocha pots typically come in aluminum (more common) or stainless steel and are very reasonably priced. If I can’t have an authentic espresso, I’d far rather drink mocha pot coffee than pod or steam-produced “espresso”.
- Pump espresso machines could be broken down into several sub-categories. There are a TON of relatively inexpensive options out there that are of very dubious quality, some of which are fully automatic, and some that aren’t fancy but produce seriously ass kickin’ espresso. The cheaper versions or those that have lots of bells and whistles are more likely to include features that help compensate for lack of barista skills and poor quality beans. The operative word being “help”.
If you want to drink excellent espresso, the quality of your pull is only as strong as your weakest link.
Skill and intuition (and lots of trial and error) are critical, and if you buy great beans, grind them well, and develop great skills, the machine you use doesn’t require any compensatory features – assuming, of course, that it’s of decent quality itself. As with my grinder, I spent an obscene amount of time researching espresso machines, and I went with the least expensive, high-quality, bells and whistles-free machine I could find: Rancilio’s Silvia model. For the record I freakin’ LOVE it! I bought Silvia back in 2010, and she’s held up incredibly well. I’ve had to replace a gasket a few times, but that’s simple and expected.
The bottom line is that I’d implore you to thoroughly research machines before making the leap, and don’t be lured by beautiful exteriors and frivolous functionality. Silvia’s not a beauty, but she’s a power horse. And, that’s what matters when my bleary eyes and foggy brain need a delicious dose of caffeine come 6am.
- As mentioned, pod espresso machines – specifically those of the Nespresso line – are espresso’s take on the Keurig (although I believe they’ve been around longer). They are elegantly understated machines that are targeted to the professionals-who-aren’t-financially-strapped demographic. They are very portable machines and are definitely great for the office, but for an aficionado, they fall short. Compare a shot of Nespresso – any of their multitude of varietal options – against even a Starbucks espresso, and you are bound to be disappointed. The crema is artifically present, and the coffee lacks richness. But, it’s a superior alternative to regular coffee in my (not so?) humble opinion. I guess I shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, as there are plenty of times I’d happily down a few shots of the stuff. I can’t say that much about regular coffee.
- Lever espresso machines are bad ass. I have to be honest – I’ve never used one. I’ve fantasized about owning them, though, and some day I undoubtedly will. Many espresso aficionados go this route from what I can tell, which implies that pulling shots this way is going to yield impressive results. Lever machines sound simple enough to use, but judging by this post, they are not for the faint of heart. The learning curve appears to be quite steap, so keep that in mind. These machines can either be more economical or expensive than a decent pump machine. As such, do your homework prior to purchase!
- Steam espresso machines are crap. If you own one, I apologize if I’ve offended you. But truthfully, they are embarrassingly shitty excuses for espresso machines. I’ve owned one or two of them myself many years ago, and there is simply nothing “espresso-y” about them. If you want strong coffee – because that’s what you are getting with such a machine – that’s awesome. Just don’t kid yourself into thinking that you are drinking the real deal. Because, my friend, you are not.
- There are several (read: five) primary ways of pulling espresso shots;
- Only two of these five techniques are legit – at least in terms of authentic espresso; AND
- An alternative that’s acceptable (and only because the Italians made it acceptable) is the stovetop mocha pot.
So, this post was long. If you want to know more about espresso, please contact me using this form and let me know specifically what you’d like to know more about. Otherwise, feel free to comment below. Are you an espresso drinker? Do you prefer quality, convenience, or economics if you can’t have all three? What do you use to pull your shots? How do you grind your beans? I’d love to find out![Note that the above links are affiliate links, meaning that if you decide to outfit your kitchen with some bad ass espresso gear at Amazon after clicking on a link (whether or not you actually buy the item to which I’ve linked), I’ll earn a small percentage of the total sale.]