The smaller something is, the less room for error. A 1-ounce espresso shot is dense, viscous, highly concentrated. If one element is off — grounds too fine or water too hard — the cup is compromised. Therefore, espresso, for all its challenges, rewards tinkering obsessives.
“Coffees are in a constant state of change, and you have to be constantly changing how you interact with it to make it taste as good as possible,” says Kyle Ramage, winner of the 2017 United States Barista Championship and a technician at Mahlkonig, manufacturer of industry-leading burr coffee grinders. “There are so many things you need to do right.”
“Coffees are in a constant state of change, and you have to be constantly changing how you interact with it to make it taste as good as possible.”
For all the variables in flux, investing in quality espresso equipment guarantees a strong foundation. “The entry-level espresso machine that’s worth buying is the Breville Dual Boiler ($1,267), paired with the Breville Smart Grinder ($325) or a Baratza grinder,” Ramage says. “But you’re looking at a $2,000 minimum input. It’s pretty steep. It takes a long time to drink $2,000 worth of espresso.” Ramage noted that all-in-one super automatic machines can be tempting, but their limited control produces lesser coffee.
A hybrid concept such as the Breville Oracle ($2,000), however, meets in the middle. “It will grind the coffee and tamp it for you, and then you put the portafilter in the machine just like a barista would, and it extracts a normal-style espresso, with water flowing through the coffee in 20 to 30 seconds.” Independent of semi- or fully automatic machinery, Ramage outlined five tips for keeping variables in check in order to pull the best shot of espresso possible:
Don’t skimp on a grinder. “Don’t bust the bank on an amazing espresso machine and cheap out on the grinder. The grinder really matters — I promise I’m not just saying that because I sell grinders. It does matter a ton.”
Bad water ruins more than just coffee. “Water with really high mineral content … not only damages espresso machines if not treated, but it also just makes horrible-tasting coffee. Use a carbon filter to get that chlorine out, as well as sedimentary, non-dissolved solids. Or, ask your cafe for water. Most have big, reverse osmosis or ion exchange water systems in place to purify water and protect their investment in coffee machines.”
Freeze your beans for extended freshness. “A scientist I work with, Christopher Hendon, tested what happens when you freeze physical coffee beans, and it does prolong the life significantly. There are a couple of caveats, though. It has to be in a sealed container with a one-way valve, and the beans can’t be ground. Coffee is incredibly porous, which means that if a container is semi-opened, or can let air in in any way, you’re going to pick up everything that’s in your freezer.”
Favor omni-roasts. “Espresso is a preparation method, not a bean roast. An espresso roast, then, is just a roaster’s interpretation of what someone wants to taste when they taste espresso. It’s typically significantly darker than a filter coffee roast.
“But a lot of really cutting-edge roasters are working with what they call ‘omni-roasts,’ which means it can be prepared in any method and will taste good across all those methods. Counter Culture does that with their blends, Stumptown has that with Hair Bender and Holler Mountain. But that’s where things are moving — talking less about roast level and thinking more about great coffee that’s really balanced and can be used for whatever you might want.”
Don’t discount pod brewers. “The most simple espresso machine is the one that you stick the pod in the top and it pulls you some coffee. The problem with those is that they don’t typically taste very good; but they do control a lot of the variables for you. [Colonna Coffee in the UK] makes specialty Nespresso pods, and those are delicious. It’s great coffee in there, so great coffee comes out the other side, and all of the other variables are controlled for you.”
Championship Espresso Equipment
Beans: Counter Culture Coffee 2017 Fincua Nuguo Learn More
Cooler: 20-quart RTIC $200
Scale: Acaia Lunar Scale $140
Grinder: Mahlkonig EK43 $2,700
Tamper: Clockwork Espresso PUSH Tamper ~$167
Distribution Tool: Mahlgut Dozer $165
Espresso Machine: Victoria Adurino Black Eagle $21,600
Cup: Georgia Lee Pottery Custom-Made Mugs Learn More
A Step-by-Step Guide to Making Award-Winning Espresso
“I froze my coffee with dry ice and ground it frozen for a more uniform particle distribution. This, coupled with the EK43’s already amazing particle distribution, gave me stunning favor clarity for my Finca Nuguo honey-processed Gesha coffee. It tasted like jasmine, fresh lime, fresh Rainier cherry, wildflower honey, with a slightly dry, tonic-like finish — incredible, and pretty much nothing like coffee would normally taste.”
1: Grind 20 grams of coffee very fine. Consistency should be close to, but not quite as fine as, flour.
2: Use the distribution tool to level the grounds.
3: Compress the grounds using the Clockwork Espresso tamper.
4: Set the water to 200 degrees (competition standard).
5: Extract 52 grams of espresso into 2 cups, or 26 grams per cup.