There is a lot of debate in the coffee community about what makes a great shot of espresso. The agreed-upon description is this "espresso is a concentrated coffee drink made with very strong coffee beans and water."
Water is put through tightly packed coffee grounds at a high amount of pressure very quickly. This results in a small amount of strong coffee with a foam around the top called the crema. The crema is a signature of an espresso shot that is made correctly and with fresh roasted coffee.
As a result of this, the oils from the coffee beans are extracted and concentrated. These oils make espresso rich and robust. The extraction process also causes espresso shots to have a much higher caffeine content than a standard coffee drink per ounce.
Making these highly coveted shots of coffee goodness usually requires an espresso machine. These are made to maintain specific pressure and easily make consistent espresso shots. The downside is that these machines are super expensive.
How to Make Great Espresso
A lot goes into making a perfect espresso shot. You have to consider everything from the type of coffee beans you are using, the consistency of your ground beans, the pressure level of your machine, and the temperature of your water.
If it tastes bitter or burnt, then something went wrong with the process. Try again, and don’t give up. It takes time and practice to consistently make good espresso shots, but you WILL get there.
The first thing to consider is the level of roast your coffee beans have been through. If you are trying to make a robust espresso shot, you will want a dark roasted bean. The longer and hotter coffee beans roast, the more porous they become. This helps when making espresso since you are pulling highly pressurized water through your ground quickly.
Grind texture is a major factor for the flavor of espresso. You want a fine grind when trying to make espresso. If the grounds are too coarse, then you won’t be able to build the right amount of pressure to pull the shot. If they are ground to a fine consistency, then it will block the water to build pressure and extract more flavor when it does go through.
Espresso machines use boiling water that has been pressurized to make your espresso. It forces hot water through your coffee grounds quickly to extract the flavor and oils. It is an incredible amount of pressure, too. Nine bars is the minimum pressure required, and that is nine times the earth’s atmospheric pressure.
This is the reason it requires a special machine to make. You can’t generate that kind of pressure by hand, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have espresso, or something similar, without an expensive espresso machine. There are a few ways to get as close as possible to espresso shots without a machine.
#1 The French Press Method
This method won’t get you top-notch espresso shots, but it can get you some strong espresso tasting coffee. A French Press uses an immersion method of brewing coffee, so it doesn’t have the necessary pressure to make an actual shot of espresso. You can make an almost espresso-like drink by double brewing using a specific method.
To do this right, you will need to use coffee beans that are dark roasted. Grind your coffee beans to a coarse grind just like you would when brewing a normal cup of French Press coffee. Boil your water in a separate container and then let it cool for 30 seconds.
This should put it at the optimal brewing temperature, between 185 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit. Wait around four minutes, a little longer than average coffee through a French Press. After brewing, pour your coffee into a container and filter the used coffee grounds into a sieve.
Immediately set up the French Press to brew another round of coffee, but instead of adding water, you should use the coffee you just made.
This is called double brewing. It won’t produce the iconic crema that espresso is known for, but the taste will be just as strong. This is about as close as you can get using a French Press pot, and it can be used in cappuccinos and lattes without much of a taste difference.
#2 The Moka Pot Method
The moka pot is also lovingly referred to as a stovetop espresso maker. It can create the closest coffee-like drink you can get that isn’t from an espresso machine. It’s concentrated just like an espresso shot, but it won’t have that signature crema that a shot from a machine would have.
To start, you are going to need coffee beans that are finely ground. Get yourself some cold filtered water and fill the bottom part of the moka pot with it. Put your espresso coffee grinds into the filter basket and place it into the water. Screw on the top part of the moka pot and make sure it is secure.
You will need a heat source for this to work. Luckily it’s flexible since you can use a stovetop or even make espresso while camping with an open fire. Bring the water in the bottom to a boil and wait for the unmistakable gurgling sound that a moka pot makes. This sound means the upper part is now full of coffee. Just pour it into a mug and enjoy.
#3 The AeroPress Method
The AeroPress was originally designed for backpackers who wanted a device to make great coffee that was lightweight and required no electricity. It uses pressure just like an espresso machine would but at a fraction of the cost. It takes a bit of know-how to get great espresso-like coffee out of the AeroPress.
This will require two coffee filters instead of one. Put the first coffee filter in like you normally would when making plain coffee. You will want to use espresso beans that are finely ground for this to work properly, so either prepare ahead or bring along your grinder. Add the coffee grounds into your Aeropress, and the tamp them until they are tightly packed.
After tamping the grounds, add another coffee filter on top of them. Boil your water in a separate container, then pour it into your AeroPress. Slowly press down until you have a delicious and strong espresso.
#4 The Hand Espresso Gadget Method
Hand espresso machines are another option that was originally designed for campers and outdoorsmen in mind. They are lightweight and very portable. Most have a pod for the coffee grounds to go into, and an arm that is filled with hot water. You pump the arm to build up the pressure required to pull a shot of espresso similar to a manual air pump you might use to inflate a ball.
Like other methods we have tried, this one requires finely ground espresso beans of your choice. Fill the pod of the hand machine up until the grounds are in line with the top of it. You want them packed but not too tight. While you are grinding your coffee beans to do this, you can be boiling your water in a separate container using a fire or stove.
Add the hot water into the water reservoir until it is completely full. Make sure everything is sealed back uptight, and you are firmly holding it in place before you start to pump the arm. You want to get the pressure to 16psi. After that, just hold it over your mug and press the extraction button.
#5 The Lever Machine Method
Manual lever espresso machines are a great choice if you want at home espresso shots without buying an expensive machine. They are similar to the higher end machines in the amount of control they give you. These manual machines take some practice to get a perfect pull, but once you learn how you will be making espresso in no time.
These machines give you control over every step of making delicious espresso, from the grind size of your beans to the tamp pressure. It turns simply making coffee into an artisan process; you feel like you can truly master.
First, you will always want to heat up your manual lever espresso maker first. Turn it on, then go grind your coffee beans while you wait. Use a burr grinder to get your espresso beans to a fine consistency then spoon the appropriate amount into the portafilter. Apply pressure using the tamp. I’ve found 30 pounds of pressure is a happy level for good espresso.
Place the portafilter into your machine, then grab a mug and put it below. The pull is a tricky part. You want to be slow, steady, and firm when you move the lever. Bring the lever up to the top and wait for about ten seconds, then lower the lever back down.
You want to aim for a 20-second pull and about 45 pounds of pressure. It’s not easy to do the first time, but after a few tries, you will get the hang of it.
What is so Special About Espresso?
If you have never had espresso before, you are probably wondering what all the fuss is about. The first espresso machines were created in Italy in 1884. These popularized espressos and highlighted the unique qualities it has over other standard methods of making coffee.
The bold rich taste is one of the major differences between coffee and espresso shots. Since it is so concentrated, the flavors are strong if the espresso shot is made right. It will have a brown aerated foam on top of the shot that is made from the oils of the ground coffee beans. This “crema” has become the signature of great espresso.
Espresso shots aren’t your normal cup of coffee when it comes to caffeine, either. An average cup of drip coffee contains 80 to 200 mg of caffeine, depending on the coffee beans that are used.
An espresso shot has a much higher caffeine content per ounce at 29 to 100 mg in each shot and up to 180mg in a double shot. It’s perfect if you need a quick kick to get you started in the mornings or get you through a long study session.
Espresso shots are now a popular addition to other coffee drinks to up their caffeine content and give them more kick. They are added to steamed milk to make cappuccinos or caffe lattes. If you add a shot to hot water, you create a popular coffeehouse drink called a Caffe americano.
Like most coffee, espresso also has great health benefits if consumed in moderation. Studies have shown It can help prevent heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. It can help decrease the chance of cognitive decline. It’s also been shown to reduce the risk of a liver disease caused by heavy alcohol use called cirrhosis.
As you can see, espresso is attainable even without an expensive machine to make it for you. You just need a little ingenuity, and you can enjoy the rich taste of espresso in a homemade cappuccino or even in the middle of the forest beside a roaring fire.
It’s good to occasionally try new things since you never know if you will like it better than a regular cup of java. With its rich taste and history, espresso is a great place to start.