Espresso – pouring a GREAT coffee at home (we’re using the Sage / Breville Barista Express

Now here is something a bit unusual for this blog, we are talking about coffee. 

The reason it’s not something we’ve really spoken about on the blog is mostly that Kate was a big coffee fan whereas I hated the stuff. I grew up near a coffee roasting plant resulting in a hatred for the harsh, burnt smell. I then went onto manage various coffee shop franchises where I was trained as a barrista (this was 20 years ago), but still couldn’t develop a love for the stuff.

That all changed though when we treated Kate to a new coffee machine, and through that, some subscriptions for VERY fresh locally roasted coffee beans from Steampunk Coffee in North Berwick, and I discovered that chain coffee shop coffee was light years away from fresh roasted, fresh ground espresso.

When we treated ourselves to the Sage (Breville) Barista Express espresso machine, we did a little review video, but, YouTube kind of went a bit crazy and we were completely unprepared for the response. We just wanted to show off our new machine and put some info out there to help folk thinking of buying one. Since then though, we get requests for a walkthrough video almost daily, possibly because as much as it is a great semi-automated machine that makes a good coffee, once you’ve had good coffee, you want great coffee and for that, you need to step away from the automation a little.

But you do need to have a bit of knowledge of how to get the best out of the machine in order to do that though, so… I’ve dusted off my old barista hat (we are talking OLD here, it’s been a very long time and from before coffee was trendy), and put together a making great espresso video and some instructions so we can share it with you guys. Be warned, this is very much aimed at the beginner who just wants enough knowledge to get started. We are keeping it super simple to suit beginners… things can get a lot more precise and complicated once you get the basics down if you want it to but we are going to try to keep it basic here.

Start at the very beginning

Espresso is all about pressure, and pressure is made up of a few controllable things. How fresh the beans are, which affects the available oils we can extract, how coarse or fine the coffee is ground, how much of the ground coffee we have in the filter basket (the dose) and how compacted it is, or how hard we tamp that coffee.

All of those factors come together to create resistance so that when the pump tries to push the water through the coffee, it’s at the right pressure to extract the flavours we want and give us a nice, rich coffee with a great crema.

What do you mean fresh coffee?

Coffee beans have hundreds of different flavour compounds in them, some good and some bad. In a good espresso, we need to balance these compounds, we want as much of the good stuff as we can and as little of the horrible stuff as possible. We do that by making sure our coffee beans are as fresh as is possible, preferably roasted between 4 and 20 days ago. The longer since the beans have been roasted the more of the good compounds are lost as the beans go stale. It won’t kill you but it won’t make good espresso either.

On our machine, we can also control the temperature of the water, not too hot to scold things and not too cold so that it doesn’t pull the oils we want from the coffee beans. We aim for about 93C.

Being able to control all of the above and knowing how it all affects the espresso pour is key and will let you adjust your pour to suit different beans giving you consistency.

So what happens when you don’t get this right?

Well, if we use too much resistance/pressure or water that’s too hot we get too many of the burnt or bitter flavours. This is called over-extracted. The opposite of this if we have too cold water, don’t have enough pressure and let the water run too quickly we won’t get enough of those bitter notes and can end up with an overly sour taste, this is under-extracted.

There’s a bit of a Goldilocks thing going on, we want it just right.

A double espresso should take about 20 – 30 seconds to pour about 36g in weight of coffee.

So it’s all about learning to taste your coffee and work out what flavours you are after, cause let’s face it, no matter how perfect a coffee is on paper, if it’s not got the flavours you like then its a bad coffee. So you learn to “dial in” your espresso so that it always tastes the way you like and once you have learned this, you can apply it to any coffee you buy. It’s all about consistency.

So here is the most basic recipe to start you off

and you can adjust from here.

Grind about 18g of coffee finely into your filter basket, tamp it so that it is even and level, and then run an espresso shot. Did it take between 20 and 30 seconds to give you about 36g of coffee?

If it poured too quickly or you got too much coffee, then your grind is too coarse or your tamp is not strong enough. Taste it and make a note of how it tastes, what flavours are there? I suspect you may find it tastes sour or even a bit watery, this is a sign of an under extracted espresso. Adjust your grind size to be finer and try again.

Did you get less than the amount of coffee or did it take longer than 30 seconds? Then your coffee is ground too fine or your tamp is too strong. Taste the coffee, take a note of flavours, was it very bitter or burnt tasting? Maybe an over extracted espresso?
Adjust your grind size to be finer and try again.

Did it seem to sputter rather than be a steady thin stream? Did it come out one side more than the other? This could mean your coffee wasn’t distributed evenly in the filter basket and or your tamp wasn’t level and even.

The process of “dialing in” your espresso is simply this, trial and error until you find the right amount of coffee, the right grind size of coffee and the right tamp to get an espresso that to you tastes perfect. Then as your beans age, you may need to tweak again or if you change coffees, again you’ll have to tweak to get things just right. It’s a never-ending rollercoaster of measuring.

I did try to get all of this out of my head and into a video and failed miserably. You do get a good laugh at me trying to explain about grind though…. if you have 20 minutes and nothing to do there are some gorgeous cats around the 7 and a half minute mark 🙂

I’m so going to redo this video properly in a few weeks, so keep your eyes peeled for me properly explaining things 🙂

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