Don't make espresso at home, probably

24 Dec 2017

Baristas don’t make espresso at home.

“Oh, I just use a French Press”, is a typical response to the question ‘what do you make at home?’. Making good espresso at home is a real hobby: it requires practice and some not inexpensive kit. The baristas I’ve spoken to seem surprised that anyone would bother with this.

I’ve been making espresso at home using a ‘manual’ machine (i.e. not capsules) for at least five years and I think I’m OK at it (I can probaby make a better espresso than you’ll get in most chain coffee shops and restaurants). But if I was faced with the option of starting this hobby now, with all of the knowledge I’ve gained over the last five years, I’m not sure I could be bothered.

Here are all the reasons why you probably shouldn’t bother making yourself espresso using a manual espresso machine.

Someone else can make it for you

You can get really good double-espresso made by a professional barista for £1.80-£2.50 from independent coffee shops in London. Baristas will use a professional machine that cost a minimum of £5K (and possibly up to £20K) and have a grinder that cost a minimum of £200, hence why the baristas I’ve spoken to think it’s a fool’s errand to try and make good espresso at home on a tenth of the budget. Baristas practice and refine their skills by making dozens (maybe hundreds) of espresso shots every shift. You’re likely to make less than five in any day at home (and not make any for days or weeks at a time) so your learning will be pretty slow (unless you have the time and interest to practice and maybe even attend a few lessons).

You can cheat

‘Pod-coffee’ like Nespresso wasn’t quite such a big thing in 2010/11 when I got in to coffee but today they’re a popular option. There are a bunch of automated espresso machines that use pods and make the whole process easy. The results are consistent and more than good enough for most people (who just want something smooth and coffee-tasting). You’ll get something decent straight out of the box (probably better than your first few attempts from a manual espresso machine). You’ll never get results to match those of a good independent coffee shop, or a manual espresso machine that you’ve learned to use properly but equally you can just plug it in and start using it. Two popular brands are Nespresso and Tassimo and I’ve had decent coffee from both. Downsides are: ground coffee goes stale quickly, so you’re always brewing with stale coffee; pods are expensive; pods create a lot of rubbish. Upsides are: the machines are well priced; you get consistent results; you can just plug-in and start using.

There are easier ways to make coffee at home

The reason that many baristas brew coffee at home is that it’s much cheaper and easier than making espresso. The full kit for brewing coffee using a French Press can cost less than £30 and the technique involved is simple, likewise for filter coffee. You can see the difference between these brewing methods in these photos I shared on Twitter.

Making espresso is an expensive hobby when you start

You’ll struggle to spend less than £300-£400 when you start. I’m not talking about top of the range kit here, I’m talking minimum quality needed to produce decent espresso.

Manual espresso machines

The steam wand is consistently rubbish in ‘cheaper’ espresso machines (those below £150ish). This doesn’t matter if you’re only making espresso but is a problem if you want to steam milk too. ‘Cheaper’ espresso machines may also have fixed-size of ‘portafilter’ (the handle you use to hold the coffee in place when making your espresso) which will limit you making single espressos. The De’Longhi Icona is an example of a manual espresso machine that you can buy for under £100, and as long as yuo acknowledge its limits then you’re getting a decent deal.

I own a Gaggia Classic which cost £180 but has actually gone up in price over the last few years, you’re now looking at £200-£300 for this espresso machine. The Gaggia Classic is extremely well built but had a couple of limitations that I was willing to accept in order to get a good deal:

I would have spent £400-£500 on a Rancilio Silvia if I could have afforded it, but the Gaggia Classic has turned out to have been a great choice. If money’s no object then you can buy some beautiful manual coffee machines for the home kitchen like the Rocket Espresso machine for upwards of £1,000.

Coffee grinders

‘Your coffee grinder is as important as your espresso machine.’ I repeatedly received advice to this effect when first sniffing around the world of homemade espresso but dismissed it at the time, assuming it to be something that coffee snobs say to justify spending huge sums of money on cool-looking kit. Now I realise that a good coffee grinder is worth the investment if you want the ability to make espresso from a wide variety of beans.

On a basic level the two things you’e looking for from a grinder are a consistent size of grinds and a low temperature during the grinding process (so as not to damage the coffee’s flavour) and my burr grinder is fairly good on both counts, within limits. I’ve got the De’Longhi KG79 Professional Burr Grinder (currently around £40), pretty-much the cheapest coffee grinder that you can get away with if you want to make good espresso at home. My grinder can just about grind fine enough for espresso . . . from certain types of beans, and this is where its limits kick-in. Coffee beans come in all manner of varieties and I simply can’t make decent coffee with some of them because I have such a basic grinder. In simplest terms possible, coffee beans are either dark-roasted (think traditional Italian coffee), medium-roasted, or light-roasted (think Aussie/Kiwi style independent coffee shops). De’Longhi is an Italian manufacturer and the KG79 handles dark-roasted, Italian style beans really well; it can cope with medium-roasted beans; and is can’t cope with lightly roasted beans (which often require fine-tuning).

What does this mean for your choice of grinder?

I’ve remained pragmatic and chosen beans that will work with my grinder. Allpress is one of my favourite coffee roasters, and their house espresso blend is at the dark end of medium-roast which means that my grinder can just about handle it. Workshop Coffee is another of my favourite roasters but I found that their roasts, often ligher or more exprimental, just wouldn’t work with by <£40 grinder.

My grinder is decent but remains the weakest-link in my espresso gear.

. . . and the rest

You’ll need a whole lot more kit.

Digital scales. You’re dealing with tiny quantities of ground coffee when making espresso, so benefit from scales that go to a decimal point. I use American Weighing Scales AC-650 but these seem difficult to get hold of and have doubled in price (£20 when I bought, now £40). If you don’t already have digital scales accurate to 0.1g then there are options on Amazon for less than £10.

Tamper. When your coffee grinds are flat in the basket and there aren’t any cracks in the surface, it means that the water will run evenly through the coffee and produce a decent espresso. Your tamper is your tool to make this happen. I used a plastic, double-sided tamper (bought for £5) for a couple of years before finally upgrading to something a bit more sturdy for around £30. The benefit of a ‘proper’ tamper was that I could choose a base that fit snuggly in my basket (therefore tamping all of the coffee grinds), and the weight of the tamper made the job much easier and more effective.

Water. The majority of your espresso is water. The ‘harder’ the water, the higher the total dissolved solids it already contains and the less of your coffee can be dissolved in to it. London tap water is hard and will make your coffee taste bad. A water filter will improve the taste of your espresso and extend the life of your machine (by slowing the build-up of limescale).

You might also consider:

Still here?

OK, all the sensible people have decided that life’s too short to spend over £500 and over 6 months of trial and error in order to make decent espresso at home. That leaves me and you: people who like the challenge of learning a new skill and becoming good at it over time. If you’re really committed to making espresso at home the truth is that it can be fun and provides an excuse to find out more about the wonderful thing that is coffee. I’ve been making espresso at home for around five years now and can now knock-out consistently decent results like this.

You can kick-start your understanding of espresso by taking a class. I’ve been on a few coffee courses including an espresso class at The Department of Coffee and Social Affairs. The upside is that these classes are a chance to play with really expensive kit and get tips from someone who’s made thousands of great shots of espresso. The downside is that these classes are not geared towards making espresso at home with domestic kit, so you might need to adapt what you learn for your own kit.

You’ll quickly exhaust the espresso help readily available online and end up at a great resource like Coffee Forums UK. These forums helped me to understand how to use my Gaggia Classic - it was great to read that the basket and steam wand really were rubbish (and it wasn’t just me not knowing how to use them) and that they could both be replaced. The upside to these kind of forums is that they’re aimed at helping people to use domestic (rather than professional) kit. The downside is that I’ve found some bad advice has become accepted to be true.

Mostly what I’ve learned is that you have to find what works for you and go with it. The coffee world can be a bit snobby and wilfully exclusive but ultimately espresso is just water with dissolved solids for flavour. You can change the ratio of water to dissolved solids, and the method of dissolving solids in to the water. Espresso is typically 1 part coffee grinds, to 2 parts beverage: so for a double espresso you might grind 14g of coffee beans and extract a 28g, double-shot of espresso (plus an extra few grams of mass for the creama, the silky head on top of the espresso). This is only a starting point, and you should find what works for you. The ‘perfect shot’ is the one you enjoy the most, ignore anybody who tells you has to be done a certain way.

Using the kit and beans mentioned above, my current favourite recipe for a double-shot of espresso is

  1. 16g of coffee grinds
  2. Extract 30g of espresso
  3. Expect up to an additional 3g of crema once extraction has stopped.

You’ll notice that I use mass as my primary gauge, others will use extraction time as their primary gauge. Neither is ‘right’, you just use what works for you.

There’s a whole world to explore in making espresso, and we haven’t even touched on steaming milk yet. If you’re looking to get a quick coffee then manual espresso is probably just a time-suck. If you’re looking for a hobby and the satisfaction of mastering a new skill then it can be a great thing to learn.