How to Make Espresso

Sometimes an espresso is just what you need to start the day, and it can be as difficult or as expensive as you want it is to get exploring the world of espresso. Or you can also get great tasting espresso on a budget with some clever ingenuity.

What is an Espresso?

The history of the espresso is a fascinating tale of innovation and invention hailing from Turin, Italy in 1884 and is the standard in the country when asking for "un caffè" you'll be served an espresso as the default option. Over in the UK, it's a little less palatable, a little stronger, and let's not beat around the bush here, Starbucks and Costa do terrible espressos. So you can see whilst it's not caught on.


This is a shame, because in the rush of the mornings with school runs, appointments or exercise, when you need that quick hit of caffeine, don't want to feel bloated, or just don't have the time, a nicely brewed espresso can be as equally enjoyable or more so than a full cup of coffee, or milk based espresso drink.


Defining espresso is a lot harder than it looks because there are no fixed guidelines around what the end result of an espresso should look like; however there are some basic qualities that are agreed upon and the idea behind the drink;

It is basically a small, strong coffee brewed under pressure, typically topped with a red-brown foam called crema.

- James Hoffman - Red Brick Coffee

Many different places have their own definition of what an espresso should be, but in Italy there is the Institute of Espresso Italy, or ,"Istitutio Espresso Italiano" that goes into specific detail about what an Espresso is, what it is to look at, how it should be brewed and the technical parameters to make a Certified Italian Espresso. These follow very specific guidelines and leave very little room for variation, which some may argue, is counter productive considering the variety of different beans out there, and even, as we'll explore different ratios.


italian institue of espresso technical guidelines

The very strict guidelines for Italian Espresso.

Espresso is a fascinating aspect of the coffee world that is ripe to explore and experiment with, we are a firm believer that there is an espresso out there for everyone. The espresso provides more punch than the average drip or pour over coffee allowing the flavour profiles of the coffee to be concentrated and hit the acid receptors on the tongue with a little bitterness to follow, the end result is a thicker mouth feel with a strong taste and the caffeine blocking any of your inhibitory transmitters ensures you are ready to meet the day head on.

What is Our Definition Of Espresso

Here at Make Espresso, we have a looser definition of what the recipe is for an espresso, because there are many ways to get a great tasting espresso, like many other modern espresso bars, we use grams for measurement because it is a lot easier to measure the output of a coffee and compare it to the weight of the grounds that went into it if we are using the same units. This allows us to know what our ratio is.


Our Ratio:

The current ratio for our double shot of house espresso (the amazing San Lorenzo by Curve Roasters Margate) uses 17 grams of coffee beans to produce 35 grams of espresso, which is just over the 1:2 standard ratio as we find this suits our espresso machine perfectly. But we will go anywhere up to 1:25 should the conditions require it.


Our Brew Time (Percolation time)

We aim to brew for between 30 and 35 seconds on our La Pavoni Lever Machine, we are working not with pumps but with springs so these take a little longer to extract and require removing the cup, some commercial electric machines will have brew time as a setting and cut the water at the end of it. Our solar and gas powered van doesn't have this luxury.


Our Exit Temperature

Our exit temperature varies between 88 and 92 degrees celsius.


Water Pressure

Having an Italian machine, the pressure released by the springs on a full group head is 9 bar.


These are just recommendations and a ballpark of technical guidelines that you can start with, however can absolutely start exploring slight variations. Depending on your brew technique, some of these you will be able to have control over, and some of them may involve modding your coffee machine and some you may not have any control over at all. Adjusting grind size is a great starting point to achieving the desired outcome.


How to Make an Espresso with an Espresso Machine

There are a couple fundamentals for making great tasting coffee at home whether you are working with an espresso machine or not. To get the best results for any coffee you need to have the following;

  • Fresh, whole beans - see our guide to selecting specialty coffee beans

  • A set of scales - At least accurate to 0.1g

  • A decent coffee grinder - One that will get to a fine espresso grind, we have the definitive list of the best home grinders.

  • An Espresso Machine - There are a lot to choose from, but a pro-sumer, hobbyist suitable machine like the Gaggia Classic or better

Step one - Measure and grind your beans. Your espresso machine will have a guideline for its basket size. But let's assume you are using 15 grams of coffee beans for this guide. Grind your coffee to powdery fine, so the setting will be somewhere near the very finest setting, if not the finest. depending on the quality of your grinder. Use a good quality set of scales to measure the beans or grind directly into the portafilter and measure from there, just remember to tare out the portafilter first.


Step Two - Distribute and tamp down your grounds. There are many tools that you can use in separate stages to distribute the grounds evenly around the portafilter. From  from an Espresso powder stirring whisk to coffee distribution tools, you just need to make sure it matches your portafilter size, otherwise you can just use a toothpick to distribute the coffee grounds and that works just as well. You will need a tamping tool, most coffee machines will come with a plastic tamper, but you can upgrade to something more comfortable and heavier when your budget allows. Again make sure you find one that matches the size of your portafilter.


Apply even pressure to the coffee grounds so you have a nice smooth finish. Our pro-tip is to not spin the tamper as this sometimes separates the coffee from the edge of the portafilter and can cause channelling and under extraction.

Step three - Pull your shot. That's right, we said "pull your shot", that's the terminology brought to us by the Italians, a barista is actually a bar tender and bar tenders also pull pints of lager or ale. But first, run water through the machine briefly to clear the group-head and warm it up. Lock the portafilter in, it should be nice and warm at this point, and position your cup and scales underneath. Start the shot, check the time and check the weight of the extracted espresso. If you put in 15 grams of beans, you should be getting 30 grams of espresso out of it in roughly 30 seconds.


Step four - Taste and adjust. This is the part of the process known as "dialling in". If all goes well, and you have around 30 grams of liquid in 30 seconds, give it a taste. If it extracted too fast, and you got more liquid in 30 seconds, you may need to start the process again, but use a finer grind setting or check your tamping technique. If the shot was under the 30 grams in 30 seconds then the grind may be too fine.


Experienced baristas will pull several shots until they are dialled in, to account for changes in temperature and humidity or changes in the freshness of the beans.  


There you have it, the process will be similar no matter what machine and grinders you have, there are some fully automatic espresso machines where you pour the beans in the top and it takes out the manual work (but we still recommend dialling and varying up internal settings)

How to Make Espresso with a Moka Pot

The Moka Pot is a seriously underrated piece of brewing equipment, it only needs coffee, water and heat to create a beautifully rich espresso. The Moka Pot is a stove-top boiler that was invented in, you guessed it, Italy, in 1933 by an engineer called Alfonso Bialetti. It is simply made up of 3 parts, a lower chamber, a filter and a lidded upper chamber. The lower chamber holds the water, and as it boils, steam rises through the filter with the ground coffee in, creates pressures and rises into the upper chamber ready for pouring.


Now it doesn't quite fit the definition we mentioned at the beginning of this guide, because the espresso won't have any foamy crema on top. But you will have a concentrated coffee shot at the end that forms the perfect base for an americano or a milky espresso drink, as good as it is to drink alone. The ratios are slightly different for the Moka pot and the end result is not as predictable to measure as an espresso machine, there have even been studies that show the variation in temperature, flow rate and extraction that just can't be accounted for at home. But nail your technique and you'll have great tasting coffee at your fingertips.

Bialetti Moka Pot on Gas Hob
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You will need the following equipment;

  • Fresh, whole beans -  Of course, the number one requirement for any great coffee, starts at the beans.

  • Filter water - Or pre boil the water in the kettle.

  • A decent coffee grinder - Still need a finer grind, but it can be a little courser than an espresso machine grind size.

  • A gas or electric hob, or open fire - you'll need this to heat the Moka pot

  • A Moka Pot - Bailetti make the best ones but there others by Bodum and evenbudget options found on eBay.

Step One - Grind your beans into the filter, the ratios are mostly set for the moka pot by a level filter and water filled up to (but not over) the pressure release valve, if you have a fill line on your moka pot, then fill the water up to it there. I personally use boiled water out of the kettle, but people can use cold filtered water and let everything heat up together.

Step Two - Screw everything together (if you used boiling water, you may want to use a tea towel to tighten the bottom), make sure the rim and threads are clear of material so that the seal of the moka pot is nice and tight, otherwise it will not work.

Step Three - Place on your heating element, whether its a gas hob or electric, don't put it on too high of a heat as to not scorch the coffee. If you're using an electric cooking element, then place the moka pot on the outer rings.

How to Make Espresso with an AeroPress

The AeroPress was invented and released in 2005 and has since become a very popular method of getting a single serving of coffee. This is because of the obvious benefits it has over a pourover brewing method, you don't need a special technique or an expensive technique to really get a consistent taste. The inventor, Alan Adler, creator of the Aerobie flying ring frisbee, was frustrated by traditional brewing methods where getting a single cup of coffee was difficult so went to invent his own.


Even though the coffee coming out, again, doesn't quite fit the 'espresso' definition, the fact that it lets you control variables that many other brewing methods can't leads itself to a more 'espresso-like' experience. You can control grind size, brew temperature, immersion and brew time as well as the pressure of extraction, and it's because of this there are so many different recipes for AeroPress found in forums and on websites. 

AeroPress Home Brewer
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To get making great coffee with the AeroPress, you will need the following supplies; 

  • Fresh, whole beans - You can use light roasts all the way up to dark roasts in the AeroPress and still make great coffee.

  • A set of scales - At least accurate to 1g

  • A coffee grinder - It can be a little coarser than a fine espresso grind but somewhere in that ballpark.

  • The AeroPress - A bargain of home brewing for around £30.

To start with though follow the advice as listed in the instructions;

Step One - Pull your Plunger out  and rinse your AeroPress filter and place the filter in the cap

Step Two - Grind around 11 grams in quite a fine grind and add the grounds to the AeroPress

Step Three - Place on scales and add 200 grams of water with a temperature between 80 degrees for dark roasts and up to boiling for lighter roasts

Step Four - Agitate the grinds by giving a little stir and wait for 2 minutes

Step Five - Grab both parts of the AeroPress and your cup and give it a little swirl to knock the grinds to the bottom and wait another 30 seconds

Step Six - Press gently and evenly until all the brew is in the cup.


If you're not getting great tasting coffee, adjust the grind size or the brew temperature and try again, these are likely to be the main culprits if it has not gone well. But it won't take much practice before you are making top quality coffee.

Final Thoughts

No matter what brewing method you choose, these are some great options to be had in creating a small concentrated coffee, you can then add steamed milk, or water for an americano, or just drink the shot. If you prefer a more manual process, then the AeroPress or Moka Pot are the way to go, but if you have deep pockets, then perhaps a home barista setup with a full espresso machine is right for you

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