What distinguishes a good espresso from a bad expresso?
Is it just me or does it really annoy you when you hear people asking for an ‘expresso’? ‘I’ll have one expresso and one latte’, they say with as much ease and confidence as Kath and Kim. The word is espresso! Translated literally it means ‘on the spur of the moment’. To me that doesn’t really say ‘express’. When I hear express I think babies and breast milk, trains…not coffee. A true espresso should be drunk quickly, yet the speed denotes the decision to drink or order the coffee rather than the hastiness with which it is prepared. A good espresso requires careful measures and skill as well as a top-notch espresso coffee machine in order to be produced properly. In fact, there is a famous Italian line that goes something to the effect of “the customer must wait for the espresso; the espresso must not wait for the customer.” A true espresso must be consumed immediately, so I guess that really is the only bit that has anything to do with ‘expresso’.
Elements of a good espresso
An espresso is a small, concentrated coffee beverage, consisting of 7 grams of coffee for a single, 14 for a double espresso, served in a demitasse cup. The actual meaning of the word is ‘a small cup of coffee, or the cup in which it is served’…so, next time you are asked to prepare an espresso make sure you have a miniature coffee cup on hand beside your coffee machine. The size of the cup is a true reflection of the quality of the espresso.
The Coffee Cake
An espresso has both a liquid and a foam element to it. It is made using a specialised espresso coffee machine that forces hot water through finely ground coffee beans that have been tightly and carefully compacted – or ‘tamped’ to form a sort of cake. The pressure caused by the coffee machine forces the water through the coffee cake, taking 20-30 seconds to percolate the water through the coffee cake – or ‘puck’ which is held in a handle – or ‘group handle’.
The Crema Says It All!
What is crema, you ask under your breath, not wanting to sound ignorant. Yes, it is Italian for cream, yet is has nothing to do with cream, or milk. It does denote the presence of foam however. If you do spot foam on your espresso, it means you are halfway there… it means you have probably had good control over other significant variables needed to produce a good espresso, and indeed your cup might be referred to as well-pulled!
Crema is in actual fact a part of the espresso beverage, not an additional component. A good espresso shouldn’t be all or even mostly crema, nor should it have less than 1/10th crema. Crema sits unashamedly on the top of the beverage, giving it an attractive look and a splash of caramel colour .It is also what causes the famous mouthfeel (body) and after-taste. It acts as a cap, retaining the aroma and flavour of the espresso beverage. Technically speaking, crema signifies the tiny gas bubbles suspended in a liquid, oily film, between the water molecules. The crema effect should last 2 minutes before the suspended water molecules deplete, the gas is released and the coffee-brown liquid underneath is revealed.
The must-haves of a good espresso
Traditionally, espresso is prepared by a master coffee maker, or barista. Nowadays, Australian coffee houses are well equipped with their own baristas, and Melbourne coffee machines and coffee beverages are amongst some of the best in the world. A trained barista is generally concerned with four things when preparing an espresso worth talking about:
- The Coffee Machine
The water pressure is a vital factor of the espresso-making process. Because the espresso machine controls the temperature and pressure of the water as it passes through the coffee cake, it is important that it be high-quality, clean and in good working order.
- The Blend
A blend is any combination of “single-origin” coffees (see our pages on the exotic origins of coffee) . Because it is rare for a single-origin coffee to accommodate all the flavours and aromas necessary for a good espresso, baristas often blend several coffees together in order to achieve their desired taste, depending on their clientele as well as the coffee machine they are working with.
- The Grinder/Doser
Every good cup of coffee requires a well-bladed grinder. Behind every great coffee machine sits an even better grinder. The coffee grinder/doser crushes the beans into small particles for brewing. Much to the dismay of many espresso and coffee lovers out there, there is actually no “ideal” coffee particle size. Therefore the barista needs to determine how coarse or fine to make the ground in order to attain the flavor desired, relying on their own pulling experience in order to do so.
- The Hand
The skill of the operator is of utmost importance in espresso making. We are a privileged coffee-drinking generation, with an endless supply of high quality, technically advanced espresso coffee machines available. Yet even with today’s advances, the barista or the person operating the coffee machine truly holds the keys to a good espresso.
A Final Word From The Judges
In the end, a good espresso is judged on the following points:
- appearance ( a lot to do with the allure of the crema)
- mouthfeel (body)