Local coffee experts explain the art and science of espresso
Sometimes coffee just is not enough; the fatigue is too great and someone needs something a little stronger. Something with the force of a cup of coffee compacted into a tiny "shot" of energy. Enter espresso.
"Espresso was French-made, but the Italians perfected it," said Karen Richmond, owner of Cuppers coffee shop. "Espresso uses a much finer grind than coffee and a different brewing process. It's forced through with more pressure and uses very hot water, just below boiling."
This produces an extremely powerful brew, which siphons more of the coffee flavor out of the finely ground beans and packs it into a small volume of water.
"I'm going to get scientific here," Richmond said. "Generally, there should be 7 grams of coffee per shot. The average shot should be between one and one-and-a-half ounces, and the beans should be tamped with 40 pounds of pressure."
"Tamping" is the process in which someone packs the espresso grind beans into a "portafilter" which they attach to the espresso machine. The machine will force the water through, which results in a thin stream of hot espresso.
"The perfect espresso shot takes 28 seconds from start to finish," said Richard Gregory, owner of Coffee Roasters coffee shop. "The pressure and temperature should always be exact. The barista (the person who works the counter in a coffee shop) is responsible for how finely ground the espresso beans are, and how they tamp it."
Gregory said he has reservations about the entirely automated espresso machines, as he feels they have no room for adjustment on the fly, unlike a human espresso maker. Still, the majority of espresso making has a "science" to it, he said, adding that some go as far as factoring in elevation and air pressure into their "espresso equation."
"I definitely think there's a science to it," Richmond agreed. "But the art comes in with the feeling of the barista. They need to follow the science, but they need to put their feelings, their love, into each shot. People can really tell the difference."
Both Richmond and Gregory said that learning the basics of making espresso does not take long, but perfecting one's technique can be a long-term challenge.
"I think they learn to be a lot faster with it, while still getting a good shot, over time," Richmond said. "We'll sometimes make a few hundred shots a day, so they get a lot of practice."
Gregory said that a good espresso shot should be more "syrupy than liquidy" and it should have a layer of foam across the top called "crema."
"The Italians have a really different view on espresso and coffee than Americans do," Gregory said. "We want everything as dark and burned as possible. The Italians like to roast their beans a little less, so it keeps of its original flavor."
Richmond agreed, adding that she spent some time in Italy and learned that they have a very different take on what constitutes good coffee, or good espresso.
"I think Starbucks is to blame here," Richmond said. "People think Starbucks must define what's good, and they have a specific way of doing things. That is for everything to be burnt, dark, but the Italians value the lighter flavors, more subtlety."
Both Richmond and Gregory use special espresso blends for their shots. Richmond said that the blend she uses comes from elsewhere, and that the recipe is a secret to her. Gregory prepares his own espresso blend in-house.
"My blend is pretty popular, a little more like the European stuff than what people might be used to with Starbucks," Gregory said. "In the end, though, I still have to count on my people to prepare a good shot. The sad thing is, you can have the perfect espresso blend, but the person behind the counter can still screw it up, if they don't know what they're doing."