The Café au Lait
In this article, we’ll walk you through a timeless classic in the coffee world, café au lait. Transport yourself to a Parisian cafe without ever leaving the house.
Espresso is arguably the most important coffee drink in the world. Not only does it taste great on its own, but it’s also the base for many other delicious drinks that are so much more than just different ways of getting your caffeine fix. Understanding espresso coffee allows you to understand more about coffee in general.
Learning to create good espresso is a journey through art, nature, science and engineering. It’s a journey that all coffee drinkers should embark upon, as it will show you just how versatile espresso is and why making it the right way is so important.
It may sound daunting to beginners, and some espresso machines are very expensive. But preparing good espresso unlocks entire chapters of the book of coffee that are well worth the read. Before we discuss how you can make great espresso at home, let’s take a look at the history of the drink.
Espresso coffee is essentially a product of hot water being forced through very finely ground coffee at high pressure to yield a very concentrated drink. The first espresso has its roots in Venice, Italy, in the early 1900s.
A businessman named Luigi Bezzera worked in manufacturing. He used his engineering mindset to create a machine that could brew stronger coffee in less time than traditional methods could. His machine was later patented by a man named Desidero Pavoni, who is the man most commonly associated with the creation of espresso.
It wasn’t until the late 1930s that espresso machines made by Achille Gaggia were using around 9 bars of pressure. This is now the commonly accepted standard of modern espresso machines. We’ll talk more about its importance shortly.
You can enjoy espresso on its own as a single or double shot, or as the base for other drinks. Its strength is unmatched by other coffee methods, which means you can add a small volume of espresso coffee to a relatively large volume of milk to create favorites like lattes and cappuccinos.
There are three key phases that make the espresso so special. The first phase involves small droplets of oil in an emulsion. This gives the espresso a creamy texture. There are also some solid particles suspended in espresso, constituting the second phase. Finally, there is a third phase of very small bubbles, often referred to as the crema.
In order to make a true espresso, the Italian Espresso National Institute lays out some key parameters. The most important one is the pressure, which should be 9 ±1 bar. It’s this pressure that extracts all of the wonderful flavors of the ground coffee, and it’s the reason you can’t really make an espresso without a proper machine!
As the pressure requirements exceed what you can easily generate by hand, espresso machines are very well-engineered – and often expensive – pieces of kit. Some coffee makers claim to be able to make espressos, or espresso style coffees, but they simply can’t do it.
The AeroPress is a coffee maker that claims to be able to make espresso style coffee. However, you can’t get close to the pressures required to make real espresso coffee with a simple plastic plunger. That’s not to say it doesn’t make good coffee; it just can’t make espresso!
The Moka Pot is the other main method of making espresso style coffee without a machine. While the moka pot can make a remarkably strong and flavorful coffee, it also doesn’t generate enough pressure to make true espresso.
There are some hand-operated espresso machines on the market, however. They usually use levers that you pull to generate up to 9 bars of pressure, which can make some delicious – and real – espresso. However, to keep things simple, our guide below will only concern your standard espresso machine.
There are thousands of espresso machines on the market. From the manual lever-style espresso machines we’ve just discussed, to the fancy espresso machines you might find in your local café, there are lots to choose from.
We won’t go through any specific examples here, and instead we’ll take a fairly generalized approach.
If you’ve just bought your first espresso machine, you’ll want to prime it. This involves running it with clean water a couple of times just to remove any particles or dust that might have gathered. This also applies if you’ve not used your machine in a few months.
You also want to make sure you’re using fresh, clean water within your espresso machine. If you use hard water your machine will be susceptible to scale buildup, which is not what you want! Clean, fresh water will also just make for a nicer espresso.
You also want to go for fresh coffee – obviously! Picking up the first bag of finely ground coffee that you see at the supermarket might be the easy option, but when it comes to espresso there is a lot to gain from doing your due diligence on the coffee you decide to buy.
You’ll want to go for fresh coffee and grind the beans yourself if you can. Normally a darker roast is better for espresso, as it can be tough to brew a balanced shot with a light roast. But it’s not impossible, and you can get some really unique flavors with a light roast. Feel free to experiment!
The grind size is what really counts with espresso, as it needs to be very fine. Espresso coffee at your local supermarket might look fine, but it’s often espresso style, and not actually ideal for an espresso machine. You need a fine grind size as the coffee isn’t exposed to the water for very long, so it doesn’t have much time to extract the wonderful flavors of the grounds.
Somewhere between table salt and sand is the sweet spot for espresso grinds. As for the dose size, this is where there is a bit of wiggle room. Generally, you’ll see people talk about a ratio of the coffee they put into the machine to the amount of liquid they get out.
For example, if you put 18g of coffee into the machine you should expect to get around 36g of brewed espresso out of the machine. This is because the ideal ratio of coffee in to espresso out is somewhere between 1:1.5 and 1:2.
It should therefore be clear that a set of scales will be vital for brewing great espresso! Taking the weights of your coffee input and your coffee output is the only way you’ll learn what you do and don’t like when it comes to espresso. But what else do you need?
You want a coffee to espresso ratio of about 1.5/2:1. So, think about how much espresso you want to produce, and then use this ratio to calculate the weight of coffee you should be using. This will also depend on the size of your espresso machine’s basket.
Common basket sizes are 7g, 18g, 20g and 22g. If you’re looking for a double espresso for example, you could weigh out 18g of coffee grinds and add that to your 18g basket. You then want to tamp your coffee.
Once you’ve added your coffee to your basket, evenly distribute the grinds with your finger and then use a tamper to compact your grounds. This is key to ensuring you avoid any channeling, or uneven flow of water, through your coffee. This helps to produce the tastiest espresso coffee.
Run your espresso machine for a few seconds to clear your ground head. Then, lock your portafilter in place and place your cup or glass underneath.
You may need to manually select a brew time or select from a range of options. This will depend on the specifics of your machine. However, it should take around 25-30 seconds for your espresso to brew.
Once your espresso has finished brewing, it’s time to taste it! You’re looking for something that has balanced acidity and bitterness and has a nice smooth texture to it. It will take a bit of practice to dial in what you like, but logging your methods and results on the Good Fika app will allow you to quickly produce some delicious espresso coffee!