March 05, 2002

Making your own espresso is a ritual that belies the casual pulls tossed-off at a million Starbuck's coffee stands this moment. I shouldn't be too snobby about this because coffee is better overall in the US than it's ever been. People just don't know what they're missing when a barista actually knows to give a damn about the beans, the grind, the tamp, and the pull. I think it would be misanthropic to spend too much time railing against bad espresso, since a bad one is probably still way better than Folger's.

So what is this ritual? A couple of times a week, I green coffee beans. I usually have several varieties in the house at any time. ing it yourself gives you an opportunity to play with the darkness of the and creating your own blends. It also means that your coffee is as fresh as you can imagine it. What a difference. Pull a shot with a month old versus one you did the previous night and a glance at the crema will show you the difference. The old gives you a thin, bubbly head that barely covers the edges of your drink while the fresh gives you a thick Guinness crema that's a tight, almost custard-like glory of emulsified coffee essences. It's rare that I see good crema even at a good restaurant. Never seen one at Starbuck's, but sometimes you have to live in the Real World and can't run home just for a shot.

So back to the ritual. I usually leave my machine on overnight so it's hot. A good espresso machine has a minimum of plastic--you want thermal stability, and big chunks of metal give you that. The machine I use has a head unit that's 9 lbs of marine brass. Next to my shrine is my burr-grinder. I have nothing against propellor grinders, they're fine for a French Press, but they don't give you a fine enough grind to do justice to your espresso. I only grind for the shot I'm pulling. Sometimes, depending on the weather, I have to adjust it. An ideal shot expresses a "mouse tail" of espresso over a span of just less than 30 seconds for a shot's worth of volume. This is the ideal amount of time to pull out the "good" essences in the bean while stopping short of the "bitter", more caffeine-laden essences. Believe it or not, there's less caffeine in an espresso than in an equal volume of supermarket drip coffee. There is more flavor though. The point of espresso is to extract only the good stuff, and a properly-timed shot gives you that. So part A of a good shot is the grind. If it's humid out, you'll probably have to back off the fineness, if it's dry, you'll probably have to dial it in. Part B is the tamp. Every coffee bar I've been to, they just touch the puck. An important part of a pull is compressing and polishing the ground coffee in the portafilter. I keep a folded towel on my countertop for this and put my whole body into compressing the puck. I finish it off with a quick, clockwise turn of the tamper. You want to make the hot, pressurized water have to push it's way slowly through the puck and extract, rather than sprint through the ground coffee, only managing to bring along a fraction of the flavors that make good espresso. If you've done it right, to fill one espresso cup should take that magic 27 seconds. The liquid should be heavy with emulsified coffee oils, rich with microscopic micelles of flavor. It should even hang heavily from the portafilter spout.

That's the ritual

Posted by erich at March 05, 2002 08:29 AM
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