|Now, luckily, the Italians have laid it out for us with the four "M"'s: La Miscela, La Macinazione, La Macchina, and, La Mano. Roughly—very roughly—translated, with my Italian, it's: The Beans, The Grind, The Machine, and The Hands.||
So it seems that if we're willing to absorb a few facts, polish a little technique, pursue a little hardware, and obtain a few fine beans, espresso—homemade espresso—is well within our reach. Worth the effort? Depends on whether or not you consider your coffee to be ...
["Good Eats" theme plays]
|Well, I guess the best place to start is the beginning. "M" number one: la miscela, the beans.||La Miscela|
Now, legend states that once upon a time an Ethiopian goat herder ...
... noticed that when his herd ate the fruits of a particular bush, they became very frisky and excitable. Now somehow or another, this inspired the herder to harvest the seeds, roast them, grind them, and brew them into the first cup of coffee.
Kind of hard to swallow if you ask me. The point is, coffee beans aren't beans at all. They're rather, coffee pits, which doesn't sound nearly as good.
|Now there are two commercial coffee varieties: Arabica and Robusta. Although Robusta beans sometimes show up in espresso blends for body, most of them find their way into big, bulk, budget blends, and vending machine coffee. Real coffee comes from Arabica beans. And they are grown from Sumatra to Costa Rica to Ethiopia to Hawaii. Like wine grapes, the flavor, body, and aroma of coffee differs depending on where and when it is grown. But nothing affects the flavor, body, and aroma of coffee more, than the roast.||
Coffee beans are like baked goods in that they are culinarily useless unless
heat is applied. Now this is usually accomplished in a rotating drum that
ensures an even roast. Now once the interior temperature of the bean reaches 400
degrees Fahrenheit, chemical reactions called pyrolysis take place forcing
oils to the surface of the bean and darkening the color.
Now at this point, it is up to the roaster to stop the process at precisely the right moment to achieve the desired flavor for that bean. Now there are four basic roast levels, depending on who you talk to.
|After about 20 minutes, the beans reach a "light" or "cinnamon" roast. The beans are tan and dry and a brew made from them would taste a lot like toasted grain.||Light Or "Cinnamon" Roast|
|The next level is a "medium" or "city" roast. At this point, the beans are the color of milk chocolate but not yet expressing oil. This is a good roast for tasting the subtle differences between coffees of different regions and it's my personal choice for drip coffees.||Medium Or "City" Roast|
|Next up, "dark", or "full city" roast. At this point, the beans are chocolate brown, and starting to push out a little oil. Caramel overtones emerge at this stage, but they don't overwhelm the bean which is why it's my personal espresso favorite.||Dark Or "Full City" Roast|
|Last, but not least, we have the "very dark", "French", or "espresso" roast. The beans are deep mahogany and shiny with oil. Brews rendered from such beans are relatively low in acidity. They contain less caffeine than brews from lesser roasts.||Very Dark Or "Espresso" Roast|
Flavor wise, lighter beans tend to be more complex, acidic, and revealing in terms of their origin. Darker beans are richer and sweeter, and brews drawn from them taste less like the bean and more like the roasting process itself. Oh, here's a common misconception. Although one of the darkest roast stages is called "Italian", espresso is not always made from Italian roasts. In fact, in Italy, espresso typically comes from medium roasts. Now, here's another fun fact. Espresso blends—generally two or more beans—often include what we would consider to be lower class Robusto [sic] beans, because they contribute to a heavier crema in the cup. More on that later.
Imagine for a moment that this steamer trunk is a roasted coffee bean. Now there
are a lot of tasty compounds locked away in here. And if our solvent, water, is
going to get at them, we're going to have to break in, that is grind the bean.
Of course once we do that, the clock is ticking, because most of the good stuff
in here is volatile, meaning that it dissipates rapidly. Therefore, we can
deduce that grinding is best done right before brewing. That means we're going
to have to do it ourselves. Of course, if we grind too large, the water will
move through too quickly, leaving us an under-extracted brew. Too fine a grind
and, well, we'll probably plug up the water flow entirely which would make a
big mess. Nope, we need a Goldilocks machine that can deliver a grind that's
Although there are dozens of coffee milling devices in the marketplace, there are really only two styles. The first is the very popular blade style. Kind of uses a little propeller here to just pulverize whatever is put into it. If you are fan of this show, you have certainly seen us take many a spice to task in these. The real advantage: price, ranging anywhere from $15 to maybe $40 dollars.
Now on down here, the price goes up: sixty to over $400 dollars. These are the burr grinders. They're special because they house this device in one form or another. The beans are fed in through here and are pulverized, or actually ground, by these mill wheels. One is stationary, the other one connected to the motor. Now by changing the distance between these wheels, of course, you can affect the size of the grind. Now, does this really make a difference in your espresso? Come here.
Technically speaking, there are two types
of burr grinders: flat-plate and conical.
[AB is looking at a magnified shot of ground coffee beans on his computer screen]
As you can see here, the sample from our blade grinder is just wildly
inconsistent. Look, we've got these huge coffee boulders which water will never
be able to extract anything from here. And yet up here ... Now this little bitty
microscopic dust, which will probably just plug up our puck—which is what you
call the coffee in the espresso machine—preventing the water from passing
On the other hand, look at the sample from our burr grinder. It's a very, very different tale. Look, we have a very consistent grind size and shape. That is going to lead to an even extraction and a far more pleasant cup of coffee. Microscopic differences? To be sure. But in espresso, small things matter.
|Now my grinder actually has 34 grind settings, and I found that number 3 is perfect for my espresso. Your particular machine may be rated completely differently. It may have 10 grind settings ... or 20. You're just going to have to kind of tinker around and find out what works best for you.||La Macinazione|
Now I never brew when I don't brew a double shot. That's just the kind of guy I
am. That's going to require 14 to 17 grams of coffee. Now after a while, you'll
get used to what that looks like. But until then, you might as well cut yourself
some slack and use a scale, a digital scale. Now I'm just going to put down the Porta-Filter from my espresso machine (more on that shortly), zero out its
weight, and fill 'er up and see where we land. [demonstrating] A couple of
pulls, knock it down, a couple more, just to keep it from falling over the
edges. See where we landed. [measures the mass of the sample]. Ooohhh, 16 grams.
Well, now that we have "La Miscela" out of the way and "La Macinazione" out of the way. Ordinarily, we would go straight to "La Mano", but considering where this came from, I think we should probably back up and deal with "La Macchina".
AB: [is on a Vespa scooter, to someone he just passed] Ciao.
"La Macchina" means "the machine" in Italian. And besides, perhaps, the Vespa here, I can't think of another "macchina" that better represents the Italian way of life. Now the "macchina" is crucial, because like cotton candy, espresso only exists because somebody invented a "macchina" to make it. And he made that "macchina" out of a desire for the great manna of the 20th century, speed.
|Dateline: Milan, 1901. Hoping to reduce the time his employees took for coffee breaks, manufacturer Luigi Bezzera started tinkering around with a machine that used steam pressure to force water through coffee grounds thus producing a fast, or "espresso", coffee. The problem was, the coffee produced by his "tipo gigante", as he called it, was so bitter that nobody wanted to drink it. In 1905, Bezzera sold his patents to Desiderio Pavoni, who improved the design, and took espresso public.||
|The ext big espresso breakthrough came in 1947, when the Gaggio company delivered the first hand-actuated piston model, which gave the barista the ability to produce consistent pressure at a sub-boiling temperature, which is crucial for superior flavor. This is, by the way, where the expression "pulling a shot" came from.||
Gaggio company develops new machine!
Now a decade later, an electric pump replaced the manual piston, and a modern machine—"macchina"—capable of generating nine atmospheres of pressure—perfect for espresso extraction—was born.
AB: [to an AB Elvis figure] Ciao.
|For espresso lovers, it is the best of times and it is the worst of times. It is the best of times because there are plenty of good home espresso machines on the market at a reasonable price. It's the worst of times because there are even more really crummy home espresso machines not at a reasonable price.||La Macchina|
Now at the very least, we require a device that can generate the proper
temperature; that is between, say, 195 and 202 degrees Fahrenheit. And enough
pressure for extraction; that being nine bars, give or take a bar. Now to my
mind, that automatically rules out manual machines such as this [one], which
rely completely on the skill of the barista to apply the pressure. It also rules
out ultra-cheap electric machines like this. They're usually under a hundred
bucks and almost always lack a pump of any type. As you can tell just by
looking down into the boiler, this doesn't have a reservoir, and just uses
boiler pressure. Bad coffee! Bad deal at any price.
On the other end of the spectrum are super-deluxe automatic machines like this baby which not only grinds a couple of different types of coffee, but brews every drink you can think of and gets rid of the grounds for you. All you have to do: push a button and make the payments. Since I don't own a coffee shop, I think I'll skip this beauty.
Truth is, most of us just really need a semi-automatic machine and that certainly makes up the great bulk of the industry. Automatics, of course, will generate close to the right pressure, and close to the right temperature. It'll do some frothing, but leaves the rest of the brewing to us, which is just fine. The problem is, it's easy to be seduced the wrong way. For instance, don't be seduced by big, fancy, you know, industrial-looking design. Don't be taken in by shiny surfaces or dials and extra buttons and what-not. The truth is, there are just a few things you need to look for.
For instance, check out the switches. There should really just be three: power, brew, and frothing, which of course boosts the temperature of the water.
There should also be a knob for routing the steam into the milk frother, which should be articulated, and easy to access.
The Porta-Filter—the thing that the coffee actually goes in—should fit easily and snugly up into the diffuser head, thusly.
The drain should be easy to get at. You might not think of that, but it's certainly nice to not dump dirty water all over yourself.
Take a look at the reservoir. It should be easy to reach, and sufficient in volume to support your particular coffee habit.
Now the only kind of extra feature that I like here; a warming tray up top to keep your cups nice and warm. It's a nice feature.
I like this little guy. Not too sexy-looking, but boxy and nice. And I like the fact that it's small. It won't take up too much counter space. Let's go to the second stage of testing, shall we?
Espresso is traditionally served in heated, half-sized
cups known as demitasse or tazzina.
We've allowed our machine to heat up for about ten minutes. It's good to go. I've added a couple of shot glasses to the equation. These are one-ounce shot glasses, and I like brewing directly into them, instead of a cup, mug, or demitasse. It helps to keep me honest.
|Now we have reached the kind of most mysterious part of the process: tamping. That is the process by which we convert this 16 grams of coffee into a tight little puck which is necessary for the brewing procedure. It will require 40 to 50 pounds of pressure. And the best way to make sure we get that is simply to tamp on a bathroom scale. You probably have one at home.||La Mano|
Now if your espresso maker came with a tamper that looks like this,
throw it away! And go online or to a kitchen store and buy yourself a real
tamper, something with a little bit of heft. It'll just cost a few dollars. Now
in order to do this properly, you want to make sure that the coffee is level
and the Porta-Filter is level. I'm going to set the tamper down. Position your
arm so that it's straight up and down, and then apply the pressure, and twist.
Come up, and just give it a tap [taps the side of the vessel], to get the spare
kind of grounds off the side, and tamp one more time. [reading the bathroom
scale] Fifty pounds, twist. There. That's a nice-looking puck if I don't say
Now, we move the Porta-Filter over to the diffusion head and it should fit easily. We lock into place fully so the pressure won't go over the sides. Our shot glasses go down, and we brew. And I'm going to time this from the moment that the coffee begins to flow, until it reaches up to the one ounce line. And we're looking for that to take 20 to 30 seconds. If both of these shot glasses fill in that amount of time, we'll know that we have the appropriate grind size and appropriate pressure on the puck as well. Fifteen seconds. Looking good so far. Twenty: you see a nice head building up there. And ... twenty-five. There. You see that nice chestnut foam on the top. That is called the "crema" and that is the sign of a properly pulled espresso. Now an Italian might add a little bit of sugar to this. Me, uh, well ... [downs the shot] Ahh, I like it neat. Whoa!
|Now, if we were to pull a little short, say, less than an ounce, we'd have what is called an espresso ristretto or "restricted".||
|Closer to two ounces, and it would be a lungo; two and a half to three, a double or doppio.||
Lungo or Doppio Espresso
|A romano gets a twist of lemon, and an espresso con panna is dressed up with a little whipped cream and cocoa.||
Espresso con Panna
|Then there's the corretto, which is an espresso corrected with a shot of grava.||Cafe Corretto|
Most of the espresso drinks served in The United States are paired somehow with
dairy. That is why most of the manufacturers of espresso machines include a
frothing wand on their machines. Now basically, milk frothing is just like
whipping cream only instead of using a whisk to make the bubbles, we're going
to use steam.
Here I have one cup of cold milk. I like to use whole milk. Do not use skim; it will not create enough bubbles. You could go with 2%, I guess; whole is better. Now I'm going to apply this little alligator clip here and a thermometer, because I want to get this up to at least 160 degrees. This is a good way to tell. Now, under the nozzle and slowly open up the valve. There's going to be a little bit of sputtering. Now you want to basically keep the tip just off the bottom of the pitcher for warming the milk, okay? It's not foaming. That's another operation. And just keep it moving until the thermometer reaches 160. It's going to take a little bit of time. That's okay. The last thing you want is to pour cold milk into your perfect espresso.
When you reach 160, go ahead and pull the thermometer out, and then drop the pitcher, so that the tip of the wand is just, say, a third to half an inch under the surface. Now that's going to start sucking in some air, and blowing up those bubbles that we need. Keep it moving. There. When it comes right up to the top, slowly shut off the valve, and make sure the tip is underneath the milk when you do that. And I like to just take a towel, kind of hold on to that [frothing wand], open it up to clean out that nozzle, and you're good to go.
Use extreme caution when working with steam.
|America, when it comes to espresso drinks containing dairy products, we need to work on a few definitions. Now, let's say that I had a mug such as this, and then I added one single shot of espresso. Now, if I were to add just a wee dollop of foam to that, we would have ourselves a "macchiato". If, however, we added equal portions of steamed milk and froth, we would have ourselves a "cappuccino", which one would never, ever drink after ten o'clock A.M. in Italy.||
|Now, if we have ourselves another mug, and this time, we added not one, but two shots of espresso, then eight to ten ounces of steamed milk, and just a little bit of foam up on top, we would have ourselves a "latte". And by the way, this is strictly an American concoction. If you order it in Italy, they'll bring you a glass of hot milk. [sips] Ahhh.||
Subtract the foam from a latte and you have what the French call café au lait.
Ahh, now I realize that there are probably some folks out there who like to
enjoy the latte experience without, you know, experiencing the whole espresso
machine-cash-outlay thing. And, well, for those of you, there is, maybe, a
little shortcut. It's not espresso, okay? But it'll get you there part way, at
least. It requires a secret piece of technology which I keep hidden up here
[retrieves a cookie jar]. There it is. Oh, I'm sorry. [shows the inside revealing
the press insides] There it is. It is called
a French press, or press pot. Here is what you do with it.
Okay, we begin with the coffee. I have 16 grams—that's half an ounce, by weight, seven 24ths of a cup, by volume. We'll just call it a big fat quarter cup, shall we? Now you'll notice that this is coarsely ground coffee. Why? Well, because fine ground coffee, like our espresso grind, would slip through the screen, creating a nasty sludge. We'll just make up for it with a little extra brew time. Now ten ounces of water, just off the boil. Remember, 195 to 200 is our target. Plunger goes on, and we set our trusty timer for between two and four minutes. We'll say: three.
A French press is also great for brewing loose-leaf teas and other infusions.
Now it's time to take the plunge, and we do so slowly, gently. Not only are we pushing out the grounds at this point, submerging them, we are emulsifying the oils in the water phase of the coffee which will create body. It will somewhat imitate espresso. Not that it's the real thing. There, now we pour. A little bit of steamed milk, a little froth, and you've got yourself a darned good faux latte.
Ludwig van Beethoven brewed each cup of coffee with exactly 60 beans.
Ahhh. Whether you decide to brew your own or simply find a barista who can do more than push a button, the search for great espresso is a journey well worth taking. This delicious elixir is a combination of art and science, man and machine, pressure and pleasure. It's 100 years of Italian experience, expressed in a single, robust gulp full of joy. Small, but good ... eats, that is.
Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger
Last Edited on 08/27/2010