I recently threw out some old receipts and was suprised to find that I bought my first espresso machine eight years ago - it made me realise that I’ve come a long way since those first bitter, watery attempts back when the UK was starting prepartion to host the Olympics. Here’s what I’ve learned about making espresso at home over the last eaight years: what to buy, and how to use it.
There are loads of reasons why you shouldn’t bother making your own espresso at home but for me it’s my go-to coffee. Espresso is thicker and has more concentrated flavours than most other types of coffee and you can drink a couple of them because they contain less caffeine than other types of coffee (caffeine is more concentrated in espresso than other coffees but the overall small volume means there’s less caffeine in total. I also enjoy the simple fact that I can make decent espresso at home - it’s something that lots of people don’t have the kit, the patience, or the practice to do - so I take pleasure in making it, and friends enjoy the novelty of drinking it.
Coffee beans have different flavours based on a bunch of factors like where they’re grown, how they’re grown, how the flesh of the coffee cherry is removed from the coffee bean, and how the coffee beans are roasted. There’s no such thing as the ‘perfect’ coffee beans, that’s just clickbait to get you to read an article - the ‘perfect’ coffee bean is simply the one you most enjoy.
The factor that’s often had most impact on my choice of coffee bean (and the kit I need to make my espresso) is how the coffee is roasted. I was at Spa Terminus in London a few years back and got talking about coffee roasting with a coffee roaster called Jack Coleman - I’d just had a go at roasting my own coffee and the results had been rubbish. One of the things that Jack explained to me was that coffee has two ‘cracks’ when it’s roasted: the first ‘crack’ is the first point at which you’ll get drinkable coffee - before this point the coffee beans remain green and produce undrinkable coffee; the second ‘crack’ is the last point at which you’ll get drinkable coffee - after this point you’ve got burned coffee beans and the coffee will taste like ash. This is the scale for coffee roasting - first crack is the lightest roast possible - second crack is the darkest roast possible. The ‘Italian’ style coffee beans we get in the UK tend to be towards the darker end of the scale, where you’re tasting the roasting process along with the taste of the bean itself (this is why it can sometimes taste bitter, and why Italian-style espresso sometimes benefits from the addition of sugar to sweeten it) - in my experience, dark-roasting helps to produce a more consistent end result than light and medium-roasted beans - and seems to be what the entry-level home expresso kit (often created by Italian companies) can handle pretty well. However, my natural preference is for the ligther-roasted coffee beans where I can taste more of the bean itself and more of the natural sweetness of the coffee cherry - I never need to add sugar to this type of espresso. In my experience, the downside to light-roasts and some medium-roasts is that the results are less consistent than dark-roasts so there’s more of a need to fine-tune my espresso kit to get decent results - somethings that’s not possible with the cheapest, most entry-level kit.
I’ve had a few favourite roasters over the years - Nude Espresso, Monmouth Coffee, Workshop Coffee, Allpress - but what they’ve got in commmon (other than selling really nice medium/light roasted espresso beans) is that they were in some way local to me at the time of buying - either near to my home, or on the way to work. We’re spoiled for good coffee roasters in the UK and in lots of towns and cities there are excellent coffee roasters within a few miles of home. I currently drink Square Mile Coffee’s espresso blends - the coffee beans are excellent - the roastery started in Hackney (my home borough of London) - and it’s stocked in my local coffee shop, 46b Espresso Hut, so I can easily buy it when I need it.
My experience of coffee beans designed for espresso is that they tend to be a blend of a couple of types of coffee beans. I’ll be honest - I have no idea why this is. If I had to guess? Espresso is really intense - some beans have all the flavour ‘up front’ with nothing to follow, whilst some beans are more subtle and take longer to register their flavour - so maybe a mix of the two creates a good balance. But as I say: I don’t really know, so take that with a pinch of salt :)
The quality of your espresso is really dependent upon the quality of your coffee grinder.
First of all: buy whole beans and grind them yourself at home, and only grind them when you need to use them. Coffee beans are a foodstuff - they’re the beans from coffee cherries - and will go stale eventually. This takes ages as roasted coffee beans - you’ve got several weeks - but takes just hours once they’re ground. So grinding your own beans, just in time to make your espresso, makes such a positive difference to the taste of the finished drink.
I started out with a DeLonghi grinder in the £40-£50 price range. DeLonghi is an Italian company so it makes sense that their grinder works well for dark-roasted coffee beans. However, I could never get it to work consistently well for medium or light-roasts and eventually I upgraded to a Sage Grinder in the £150-£200 - I’d been making espresso for years by this point so was sure that I’d get a lot of use for it, but it still felt like a lot of money to spend on a coffee grinder. My anxiety eased upon use, however, as the coffee beans I’d had iffy results from in the past suddenly tasted amazing - the ability to fune tune settings made a massive difference. You’re unlikely to be able to spend less than £40-£50 on a grinder if you want to make your own espresso at home but can get decent results from this price range if you tactically choose the right coffee beans - but investing at least £150-£200 in a grinder will open up way more options.
Broadly speaking, I’m looking to tweak the settings of my grinder to help get to the flavour of the beans - and the exact settings very bean to bean, and crop to crop. At its simplest, I’m often thinking: ok, if this tastes weak or watery then maybe the coffee has been ground too large and the water is running through it too quickly so I need to grind it a little finer and start again; or maybe the espresso tastes bitter because the coffee beans are ground too finely, the water is sitting in the coffee grinders for too long and over-extracting the coffee, so I need to grind a little coarser.
Espresso only has two ingredients - coffee and water - with water being the main ingredient by far, so it’s worth making sure it’s decent water. What makes decent water? In my experience, it’s how well the water allows the coffee to dissolve into it. I live in London which has ‘hard water’ - which means that it already has lots of solids dissolved in it (hence looking chalky) and is not great at absorbing additional solids, like coffee. A water filter is a great investment if you live in a city like London, since it will remove some of the solids in the water, increase the amount of coffee solids it can absorb, and improve the flavour of the espresso. Using filtered water also has the benefit of reducing the speed with which limescale builds up in your espresso machine, reducing the amount of services it needs and extending its lifespan. Living somewhere with very ‘soft’ water, I’d assume it’s fine straight out of the tap. You can buy mineral water if you want to go super-fancy but I’ve never been bothered to do this.
So you’ve got 3 main options when choosing an espresso machine: manual, semi-automatic, or automatic.
A manual espresso machine has a lever that you manually pull down in order to get a shot of espresso - hence the phrase ‘pulling a shot of espresso’. I have never met someone who has manual espresso machine. They look cool and there’s a certain charm to how basic they are but the videos I’ve watched suggest there’s a lot of skill and effort required to get even decent results, and the machines have real limitations to what you can do with them.
At the other end of the scale there are automatic espresso machines that do pretty much everything for you - you pour in water, coffee beans (and milk, if wanted), press a button, and it does the rest. These are great if you want consistently decent espresso without any effort - and trust me, this is not to be sniffed-at - but you’re unable to fine-tune the kit to get the best from specific coffee beans so the best you can get is ‘decent and consistent’ (which, once again, is not to be sniffed at). Nespresso machines are an extreme type of automatic espresso machine - I’d assume their business model is that they can subsidise selling the machines at a loss by locking you in to over-priced coffee capsules for the lifetime of the product.
I’ve got a semi-automatic espresso machine, which means that I don’t have to manually pully down a lever (the machine pushes the water through at pressure on my behalf) but I do need to grind, measure, and press (or ‘tamp’) the coffee grinds myself and time the shot myself (and foam milk myself if wanted). This takes skill and practice - there’s no way around this and it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise. It took me a few months to start getting decent results, following a couple of lessons - and I don’t think I was getting really good results (on a par with some coffee shops) for a year or so. If you don’t have the time or interest to learn a new skill and practice that skill then a semi-automatic espresso machine is a bad choice and I’d suggest an automatic espresso machine instead.
My first espresso machine was a DeLonghi Icona which can often be picked-up for around £100 on Amazon. This was a great way to learn and pracice without spending lots of money, whilst I was still learnig the basics. Eventually I hit the limits of the machine and upgraded to a Gaggia Classic. I got mine for £180 in 2012 but oddly they’ve gone up in price and now seem to cost £200-£300. I think that automatic espresso machines have become the market leader in the last ten years, possibly because of the popularity of capsule espresso machines, and semi-automatic machines are more of a niche market. Whatever the reason, there’s not a massive range of decent semi-automatic espresso machines below £1,000. If you don’t like the look of the Gaggia Classic then the main alternative seems to remain the Rancilio Silvia that can sometimes be found in the £500-£600 price range.
One of the reasons I like the Gaggia Classic is that it’s got a portafiler that’s 58mm in size - the same size as many commercial machines in coffee shops - which means it’s relatively easy to get spares, replacements, and modifications. The Gaggia Classic I bought shipped as standard with a shallow poratfilter basket (the thing that holds the coffee grinds) which only allows you to make a single espresso) but I was able to buy a new, deeper basket capable of holding more than enough coffee grinds to produce a double espresso for £5-£10.
I treated myself to a new portafilter a year ago - a ‘bottomless portafiler’ which doesn’t have spouts, for £35. The practical purpose is that is creates more space underneath the portafilter to make it easier to move my espresso cupes in and out whilst creating espresso shots - helpful for me because I rest the espresso cup on small digital scales in order to measure the weight of my shot. An unexpected bonus is that it makes it easier to see how well the espresso is flowing from the machine.
Eventually your Gaggia Classic will get clogged-up to the point that it requires a service - in my case it took 5-6 years. When this happened I was able to find a bunch of excellent, helpful vidoes online that told me what to do - this Youtube video is the one I used most - and just required a special kind of cleaning basket + cleaning powder that I got for £10-£20 from Doppio.
Tip to get you started. The question you need to ask yourself, if you want to make your own espresso at home, is: do I want a hobby, or do I just want a decent espresso at the weekend? A manual or a semi-automatic espresso machine is a hobby that requires time and effort - with the reward being potentially excellent results. An automatic espresso machine is a consumer device that gets decent results at the touch of a button - with the reward being consistent results with little or no effort.
There’s some other bits that I use every time I make espresso. I use standard digital kitchen scales to make sure that I start with the right amount of ground coffee - I zero the scales with the empty portafilter + basket, grind the coffee diretly into the basket and portafilter, then weigh again to check I’ve got the right amount (I often brew my espresso with 18g-19g ground coffee, depending on the beans I’m using). I’ve also got micro scales that I use to measure the weight of the espresso as I’m making it - I zero the scales with the espresso cup on them and normally pour the espresso until I have a double-shot of about 28g-30g (depending on the coffee) - there’s normally around and extrate 3g-5g of weight by the time the flow has stopped. The microscales means that they’ll actually fit in the small space under the portafilter.
The espresso cups I favour tend to be on the shorter end of the scale so that they’re easier to get in and out of the machine (versus taller ones, which can catch on the portafilter). My current favourites are these from Kaffeeform, made from discarded coffee grounds.
Finally, a coffee tamper is critical in order to compress the coffee grinds and create a flat, even surface (both so that water doesn’t pass through the coffee grinds too quickly, or pass unevenly through the coffee grinds), and a knockbox is really helpful for emptying out the used coffee grinds - before having one of these I kept accidentally dumping the basket into the bin.
How do I actually make the espresso?
Using my Sage Grinder to grind Square Mile espresso beans, I will normally use grind setting ‘10’ and set the timer to grind for 15.4-15.6 seconds, which will normally produce approx. 18g of coffee grinds (sometimes it’s too much and I just remove a little at a time until it’s the right amount). I’ll tamp with a medium firmness, then run the espresso machine until I’ve got 28g-30g, stopping and expecting a further 3g-5g to come out as the flow stops. Here’s a photo of the results you’ll get using this method.
This isn’t the ‘perfect’ espresso (no such thing, this is a clickbait title), it’s what gets results that fit my tastes using the beans and kit I own. Use the websites, Youtube channels, and classes I’ve recommended at the end of the post to learn more about espresso and figure out what method gets a flavour that you like.
I often like to have milk with my espresso and frequently make myself a flat white at the weekend. The steam wand that ships with the Gaggia Classic is bad - if you want to steam milk with any kind of decent results then you’ll need to replace it with a better steam wand from a different machine. Once again, Youtube came to the rescue - I found and used this video, and replaced it with a spare Rancilio Silvia steam wand that I bought for £20-£30 (I think). Be warned though: this type of modification will void your warranty, if you break something then it’s up to you to fix it (or to pay for it to be fixed).
Tip: if you want to use vegan milk then I’ve found that Oatly barista edition gives the best results whilst being widely available in supermarkets. You’ll get results decent enough to do latte art with - here’s a photo of a recent flat white.
I’ve been helped a lot over the year by the kindess and insights of strangers, including: Coffee Forums UK has great advice on modifying and using espresso machines at home; Seattle Coffee Gear’s Youtube Channel is a great way to find out about kit and see it in action; and James Hoffman’s Youtube Channel is a great way to find out about how to make coffee and coffee trends (from one of the people behing Square Mile Coffee).
I think that’s it. Eight-years of ‘self-taught’, trial and error, home-made espresso - guided by the kindess of strangers and a couple of classes from experts, distilled into one long post. I hope it’s useful.
If it’s convinced you that espresso is too much like hard work or too expensive to make at home - that’d be a sensible conclusion! My kit would probably cost at least £500-£600 to buy from scratch in one go in 2019, and realistically takes at least a few months and a lot of practice to get to grips with. If that’s not for you then you can create amazing coffee much more simply using lower-tech methods - here’s my guide to brewing coffee using French Press, filter, and Aeropress - or support your local, independent coffee shop (£2.50-£3 for a flat white suddenly sounds more reasonable, right?).
If it’s convinced you that making espresso at home using a semi-automatic machine sounds nice and fun, then join the club :) My Gaggia Classic is seven years old and built like a tank - I’m expecting another five-ten years out of it, and it’s nice to understand enough about the machine to get good results from it and to look after it. It’s really enjoyable to make espresso as good as you might find in some decent independent coffee shops (and better than most chain coffee shops). If you’re willing to put in some time and money, it’s a hobby that can give you and your loved ones pleasure every morning.