So, you were on your best behaviour all year and it paid off — Santa left a shiny new espresso machine in your Christmas stocking. Perhaps your other half finally got fed up with hearing your critique of local coffee haunts and decided to help you get your own espresso machine set up at home, or maybe you spoiled yourself and bought that Isomac you’ve been dreaming of for months. From setting up your machine to making your very first espresso, here are some handy tips to get you started.
Note: Obviously, the following is general advice and you should always follow the instructions provided with your machine.
While your machine may look gleaming and shiny, it’s a good idea to wash all the removable parts in warm, soapy water. Wash the baskets, the portafilter (the handle containing the coffee basket) and the water reservoir to remove any dust and get rid of any plastic or metallic taste.
Espresso is made up of 90% water, so it’s important that you use good quality water. Here in Australia, our tap water contains a lot of ground water, which can have chlorides, calcium and other minerals which won’t do your machine any good. Scale from tap water can clog valves and temperature probes on your machine and cause all kinds of problems. These minerals also have a negative effect on the flavour of your coffee. The best solution is to use bottled or filtered water. Rain water also produces good results. A good alternative is a filter jug, like those by Brita. Once you’ve filled your water reservoir, fit it back into your machine and turn the machine on.
Wait for your espresso machine to heat completely — the portafilter and surrounding metal of the body should be hot, as should the water in the boiler or thermoblock. This will take around 15 to 25 minutes. Brewing temperature has a big impact on the quality of your espresso, so be patient!
Run a full reservoir of water through the group head, portafilter and steam wand to remove any dust or negative flavours from lines that transport water. Once you’ve finished flushing water through, refill the water reservoir.
Just like cooking, making coffee at home can be a little messy if you’re not organised. A couple of damp Chux cloths and a tea towel are very useful, but the easiest way to keep your kitchen bench clean is to use a knock box. This is a small container with a cross bar which allows you to up-end the portafilter and knock old grinds from the basket. I used to use the corner of my bin and was constantly reaching into the murky depths of the rubbish to pick out and rinse off my basket because it would pop out.
You’re also going to need cups, a tamper, a couple of different sized milk jugs and a grinder. You may have received a tamper with your espresso machine but these are often a cheap afterthought and rarely fit your basket. Achieving an evenly compressed and level biscuit of coffee within your basket is crucial in order to extract the maximum flavour out of your grinds. It’s worth investing in a good quality tamper like a Reg Barber, with a base that fits your basket, as it will help with consistency and make the entire process more enjoyable.
Along with using freshly roasted coffee (ideally within two weeks of roasting), the other key to achieving spectacular, café quality coffee at home is the use of a burr grinder. Rather than the ‘whirly blade’ grinders (sold as ‘spice and coffee grinders’) which actually crush the coffee beans unevenly, a burr grinder will shave the beans into clean and consistent particle sized grounds. This allows the water to pass evenly over all of your coffee. Grinding fresh, just before you need to brew your coffee, will ensure that all the volatile oils and aromatics in the beans are kept trapped within the particles rather than, after being exposed to air for more than ten minutes, evaporating into the ether. (If you’re interested in learning more about grinding, take a look at my previous article, Grinding at home.)
By now, your machine should be hot, you will have flushed several litres of water through (see pic) and you should be armed with your favourite quality, fresh roasted coffee beans from 5 Senses. To create a quality espresso base, the water needs to be passing over the coffee grinds at the right speed. This is controlled by the particle size of the grind. A finer grind will produce a slower pour while a coarser grind will produce a faster pour.
To start with, set your grinder to produce a particle size which feels somewhere between dust and sand when you rub it between your fingers. As a general guide, on a scale of one to ten (one being the finest), this will be around three.
Remove your portafilter from the pre-heated espresso machine and wipe the basket dry with your tea towel. Place your basket under the dosing mechanism of your grinder, turn the grinder on and fill the basket until slightly heaped over (see pic). Turn your grinder off and give the portafilter a couple of light taps on the bench to collapse the coffee in the basket. Then go back to the grinder and heap up a little more coffee in the basket. Next, compress the coffee grinds down evenly with your tamper, keeping your arm straight (see pic).
When you first set up your espresso machine and grinder, run three or four ‘test’ shots through before you sample a shot. These test shots calibrate the grind correctly, and season the coffee surfaces with oil and flavour.
If the water pours out of your espresso machine too quickly or too slowly, adjust the grind setting finer or coarser to alter the speed of the water flow. Remember, a finer grind produces a slower pour and a coarser grind produces a faster pour. Try to keep the amount of coffee in the basket and the pressure you exert on the tamper the same.
As shown in the series of pics below, you should turn your espresso shots off as they lose their colour — the shot will progress from a rich, reddy brown to a tan, caramel colour and finally to a watery, white pour. This loss of colour indicates that the rich oils have been extracted from the grinds. If you keep pouring the shot, bitter, sharp compounds will be added to the cup.
Note: As an interesting experiment, prepare your basket of coffee as usual, get three espresso cups ready and start your extraction. Catch the first reddy, brown part of the pour in the first cup, and as the stream starts to lighten to caramel, quickly put the second cup underneath and then, as the caramel starts to pale to watery white, place the third cup underneath and extract until completely thin and watery. Noting the colour of the crema, taste each cup from last extraction through to the first segment to see where all your flavour is coming from!
Using a double basket will result in two espresso shots of around 20-30mls. It can be quite useful to use a shot glass with a 30ml measuring line for the first couple of weeks to make sure you get the correct amount of espresso as a base for your drinks.
These tips should help you get your Kitchen Café up and running. Remember, drinking coffee is a subjective experience, so make sure you sample plenty of your efforts along the way to discover the perfect technique for your personal taste. And above all else, make sure you have fun!
For more handy tips and how-to-guides, check out my previous stories:
If you’re serious about coffee and want to hone your espresso making skills with a hands-on workshop, sign up for a class at the Western Australian Barista Academy. Contact the Barista Academy on email@example.com.