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How to Improve Your Espresso
Synopsis of the SwagFest 2005 Writing Contest


An Aficionado's Guide to Espresso Blending

By Mike Walsh

There is an abundance of information on espresso blending out there on the Internet from places like Coffeegeek and Sweet Marias, and wonderful authors like Jim Schulman and Donald Blum who contribute to CG and other boards.

But over time, despite the volumes of information (or maybe because of the volumes!) the question that comes up over and over again is the same: I'm a beginner, how do I get started in espresso blending? What roast level? What beans? What proportions?

I'd like to take a shot at the question, and in the process walk the reader through my favorite blend and how I got there. Hopefully I'll be able to share some of the information that has been so helpfully shared with me along my espresso journey.

And when it comes to blending, most of all - be a kid, have fun! More...

How to pull a beautiful "naked" triple shot

JonR10's secrets for great extractions

Maybe you have been to the "Look Out" monster thread at CoffeeGeek and wondered how to make those amazing-looking extractions.

In this article I describe my own process and give tips about how you might improve your extractions. Before describing the process I must say that it all starts with the beans. Without great beans you'll get poor results even if you have perfect technique. Use high-quality beans roasted within a week or two. My preferred roast is deep brown in color with no visible surface oil.

Honestly I have never considered anything I do to be unique. It's all about adjusting the variables to produce a shot that's best for your own personal taste. Here's my step-by-step process. More...

Quit Filling That Water Tank!

By David R. Stephens

So you have thought long and hard about what espresso machine you want to put on display in your kitchen. You have read the Internet forums, searched endless pages of online vendors, made your decision and tossed your hard-earned cash on the counter. Congratulations, you are now the proud owner of your own espresso machine! I bet you did not consider that constantly filling that water tank would become such a pain?

It's a good bet that at some point, you will forget to fill the tank and it will run dry. While most modern machines have a low-water shutoff switch to prevent serious problems, you still end up with a ruined pitcher of milk or shot of espresso.

So what is an average Espresso Joe to do? Plumb that thing in! More...

Putting it all together

By Charlie Wicker

If you're reading this then you've probably thrown down good money to set up a miniature café inside your house and I commend you for that. Undoubtedly, you've sifted through articles and practiced technique so that your drinks impress your visiting friends. It's fun to throw a dinner party and have real cappuccinos with dessert.

You, however, are not quite satisfied with the drinks. Your friends don't seem to notice when you've over-extracted a shot or when the bubbles in the milk are unacceptably large. But you are troubled by these things. Don't worry, you're not alone. Those who have bothered to step up and try making espresso drinks in the first place are people who seek perfection. We're all troubled because perfection can never be attained.

How can you fix all this? More...

Storage of Roasted Coffee Beans to Maximize Flavor

By Bob Barraza

It is fairly common to hear from home roasters that the biggest improvement they have every made in their espresso is when they started roasting at home. They state that nothing brews like fresh roasted coffee. As a chemist, this makes a lot of sense to me since roasted coffee is so unstable and continuously deteriorating.

The thing that makes espresso unique amongst all coffee brewing methods is its use of CO2 in the extraction process. Under the conditions of temperature and pressure encountered in pulling a shot, the CO2 from the coffee dissolves in the water forming carbonic acid which lowers the pH (acidity) of the water. This in turn affects the relative solubility of the hundreds of components that reside in the coffee grounds and it changes the profile of the compounds that are extracted. As the extract starts to pour from the basket and it returns to ambient pressure, the dissolved CO2 boils off and creates that honey-like crema which lets us know that we are in the sweet spot. Not too different from popping the cork on a fine bottle of champagne! More...

Honorable Mentions

Are we straying from the path of righteousness?

By Teemu Pihlatie

It is likely that you, the reader have studied or read up on espresso coffee. It is therefore also most likely that you have come across the four M's of espresso, the golden rule, know of David Schomer and his take on techniques etc. There is a lot of theory behind a small cup of coffee.

I would like to point out that discussing the ingredients, coffee (or Miscela, the blend, one of the four M's) and water is outside the scope of this short article. Suffice to say that they are crucial in the pursuit of good espresso coffee.

This article presents a question and by no means aims at disputing the findings of the highly regarded professionals behind the theory. I merely suggest that we should consider the prevailing imbalance of the remaining three M's as well as the overly strict adherence to the commonly accepted "rules" from the viewpoint of an average (or beginner) consumer and home espresso aficionado. More...

How Al's Rule Saved My Life

By Jeremy R. Thompson

I knew if my espresso didn't get better my wife would kill me for having spent so much money on equipment, only to produce lip-puckering swill. I thought I knew the basics: grind, dose, distribution, tamp, cooling flush, lock, shoot, watch for blonding, cut the shot. And, in a way, I did know the basics. I read about them over and over again on the Internet.

After continued research and experimentation, I discovered that I did not know how to properly apply the basics that I had learned on the Internet to my setup at home. Everything changed the day I discovered Al's Rule (or Al's Sweet Spot Rule). My espresso improved, and my life was spared.

The following is a brief introduction to Al's Rule and how it can be used at home. I assume that the reader is familiar with, and has mastery of, the basics mentioned above. More...

The Best Way to Improve your Shot is a Popcorn Popper!

By Dave Jones

Over the last year, I have been on a voyage of continual improvement within the four main elements necessary for straight espresso shots that I drink. The Miscela or blend of the espresso-roasted coffee is best bang for the buck improvement that I have found. For those of you with no patience beyond the first paragraph, drink decaf...

Just kidding, of all the improvements that I have made over the last year, the $6 hot air popcorn popper has made the most impact for the least dollars. The next most efficient improvement is the Mano dell'operatore or the human part behind the portafilter; I made these with a bottomless portafilter and a gram scale and a bathroom scale. The third most effective dollars spent were on my Super Jolly. The Macinadosatore (grinder-doser) and the Macchina espresso (espresso machine) both tend to be too expensive to have a good ratio of cost to improvement. So what follows is my experience on hot air popper roasting. More...

No More Guesswork! Naked Truth of E61 Temperature Revealed

By Dave Stephens

'Help! My espresso tastes bitter/sour!' If I had a dollar for every time that appeared on an Internet forum, I would have a commercial espresso machine. There are numerous articles available on the Internet that discuss the importance of thermal stability. To achieve repeatable results, you must operate within the same temperature range and the initial extraction temperature should be within a degree. Without a reliable method of measuring that temperature it is just guesswork and sometimes bitter, other times sour shots of espresso. More...

Espresso Machine Cleaning 101

By Dave Stephens

You have your espresso machine and life is good. You have begun to master the art of espresso making, but after a week, that big shiny hunk of stainless steel is not looking too shiny anymore and the espresso is starting to develop an off flavor. Why? It's time to clean the machine inside and out!

The best coffee beans cannot make up for the impurities a dirty machine adds to your drinks. Coffee beans contain essential oils. While these oils are responsible for the rich crema that tops your espresso, it can also be responsible for a rancid off flavor that develops over time. Those oils emulsify and cling to and behind the water screen of your espresso machine, doubly so on brass surfaces. These oils also leave a film on the filter basket and portafilter. Over time this film will start to plug the holes of the filter basket and create deposits inside the portafilter spout. Luckily these impurities are relatively easy to remove IF you follow a regular cleaning schedule. More...

Espresso Machine Scheduled Maintenance

By Nick Griffith

Whether you own a Kees Van Der Westin Mirage, or Rancilio Silvia, you need to have a good cleaning regiment. I know what you're thinking, "But I wash the portafilters once a week, whether it needs it or not." Well? not good enough! If you're a home user or pro-barista the following recomendations apply. I'm going to give you a schedule for cleaning your machine on a yearly, monthly, weekly, daily and even hourly basis.

Hourly? Yes! Hourly! You probably never thought about doing anything to clean your machine every hour, but did you know, coffee oils go rancid after 45 minutes? So, every shot you pull, hot espresso is rolling over those nasty oils and particles, picking up that bitter flavor and putting it right in your cup! This applies if you pull 1,000 shots an hour, or 1 double every hour. Get that oil out of there! More...

Question Authority

By Bruce Holmes

The top way to improve your espresso at home is to question anything and everything you have heard and seen about making espresso and verify for yourself what works. Your espresso will only improve if you have curiosity and constantly experiment. Whether the 'authority' is an Italian friend with years of experience drinking espresso, the dogma promulgated on the popular internet 'coffee nerd' forums, or your local Big Green, you must be critical of their advice and decide for yourself what works in your home. It is tempting to treat the espresso professionals as gods and to emulate what you see them doing in the café. But the way others approach espresso is not necessarily what is best suited to your own skills, tastes or equipment. More...