How To Use An Espresso Machine-Alternative Brewing

With so many home espresso machines now available, many people often decide to take the plunge before they really know what they're buying into. Espresso machines might look simple enough to use, but getting the best out of them is something of an art form.

That's why we pay people good money to make our coffee, and why we all appreciate a good barista. Converting those coffee grounds into delicious espresso with home espresso machines takes time, patience and skill. But that's not to say it's beyond any of you reading: in fact, with just a little know-how you can be brewing espresso at home in no time.

That's because we've done most of the hard work for you, and put together this step by step guide to help you get the most out of your espresso maker. So, whether you're dusting off your little-used hand press espresso maker, or you're just curious to know how to brew coffee with a commercial machine, read on.

Check out our video on how to make great espresso with a home espresso machine:

What Do You Need To Make Espresso With An Espresso Machine?

To make espresso with an espresso machine, here's what you'll need:

Knowing how espresso machines work is key to making great coffee. The major difference between espresso and most other styles of brewing is the high pressure applied to the coffee and water during brewing.

This has the effect of not only accelerating the brewing process, but forcing more of the flavoursome oils from the coffee - giving espresso its famous, rich strong aroma and taste.

But getting the best espresso requires precision. Although different beans and blends will require slightly different brewing conditions for the perfect extraction, the guidelines below are a pretty good ballpark for you to begin experimenting.

Rancilio Silvia V6 Silver Coffee Espresso Machine

Hot Water

Good espresso needs to be brewed at just below boiling temperature, allowing enough heat to maximise the release of the oils and flavour compounds present in the beans (the process known as extraction).

But if only slightly too hot, the water will scald or burn the grounds, creating a bitter, unpleasant taste. The ideal brewing temperature, in the sweet spot that's neither too hot or too cold, is somewhere between 195 to 205 F.

Hot water temperature requirement

Pressure

Although other brew methods use pressure, nothing rivals an espresso machine for pressure bars generated. A moka pot will generate roughly 1.5 bars, and a simple manual maker like an Aeropress only 0.35 to 0.7 bars. Perfect espresso, however, is brewed at a whopping 9 bars.

The amount of coffee you use, the grind and the tamp will all affect the pressure that is generated by your machine.

What Kind Of Coffee Do You Use In An Espresso Machine?

The kind of coffee you can use in an espresso machine includes dark roast and espresso roast. It goes without saying that you'll never brew great espresso without the right coffee beans. Most roasters aspire to creating roasts and blends which work perfectly for espresso, so shop around and find a blend that works for you.

Although darker roasts are generally considered better for espresso, don't feel limited to those - ask your local roaster what they recommend. And don't feel constrained to espresso roasts - many blends and single origin beans will work great for espresso.

But finding the right coffee bean is only part of it. Preserving the flavour of the bean is key - which is why grinding your own beans at home is always recommended.

Bezzera BZ10 Coffee Machine

Can You Use Regular Ground Coffee In An Espresso Machine?

You can use regular ground coffee in an espresso machine, but if you are going to, you should aim to use the freshest ground coffee you can find. Upon exposure to oxygen, the oils and compounds that give coffee its flavour begin to degrade rapidly, resulting in a cloudy, confused and bitter brew.

That's why we always recommend grinding the beans yourself at home, immediately before brewing.

How Do You Use An Espresso Machine At Home?

Here's how to use an espresso machine at home:

  1. Flush your espresso machine and steam wand before use.
  2. Set heat and pressure.
  3. Add purified water to the reservoir of your espresso machine.
  4. Grind your espresso coffee beans.
  5. Load your ground coffee into the portafilter basket and remove excess grounds.
  6. Tamp your coffee grounds evenly.
  7. Pull your espresso shot!

The most popular modern machine is the semi-automatic - the type you've seen around, as most coffee shops and many homes now pack the semi-automatic as part of their coffee arsenal. Using pumps and steam to generate pressure, and allowing control over temp and extraction time, these are popular with professional and amateur baristas alike for the control they offer.

They also normally feature a steam wand for steaming milk and frothing. It's these we'll be concentrating on mostly. The Gaggia Classic Pro Coffee Machine and the Breville Barista Express are both great examples of a semi automatic home espresso machine.

The parts of the espresso maker you will need to concern yourself with are:

Boiler - this is where the heating element lives, where water is heated and pressure generated. Generally found on the back, some machines will have two boilers, although heat exchange devices (which for home users is most machines) only use one.

Gauges - normally on the front, here you can monitor temperature and pressure.

Portafilter and Filter Basket - the gadget you load the coffee grounds into and attach to the group head (technically, you load the coffee into the filter basket, which sits inside the portafilter). Portafilters normally feature one spout for a single shot, or two for double shots: selecting the correct size of basket for each is of course, quite important.

Various basket capacities



Group Head - describes the mechanism where you connect the portafilter to the machine, and where the steam, water and pressure meets the coffee grounds.

Steam Wand - used for steaming milk and creating milk froth, for milky espresso drinks like lattes and flat whites.

Flush The System

If you're using your machine for the first time, it's brand new, or you just want to keep your appliance in the best possible shape, most espresso machines work better for longer if regularly flushed though before use. Leave the porta filter and set your machine to brew. Do the same with the steam wand if you'll be using that too.

Set Heat and Pressure

Many home and nearly all commercial machines will allow you to control the water temp on the boiler. As we said before, you want a temperature in the range of 195-205 F, to maximise extraction without burning the coffee grounds. Experiment with your settings and take notes to perfect your brew.

The pressure on many machines will be preset, but if you can manipulate this, you want to be aiming for somewhere around 9 bars.

Purify Water

Water is added to the reservoir at the back of the unit, unless yours is plumbed in. The water you use is also very important. Tap water is rich in minerals and also contains contaminants.

Chlorine and chloride is used to treat water and although safe in the amounts found, can affect flavour. Limescale will also degrade your espresso maker over time, so make sure you clean and descale your machine with coffee machine cleaner and commercial coffee machine descaler regularly. Some baristas recommend using distilled water only, but for good espresso, and to preserve your appliance, filtered water is fine.

Grind Your Beans

For the best results, you always want to grind your beans at home, right before you brew. For espresso, you want your beans finely ground - but you can experiment with the exact grind size.

Double espresso ratio

You will find that grinds on the coarser end will under extract, as not enough of the surface area of the coffee grounds will be exposed to water, and your brew will taste bitter. Too fine and it will over-extract, resulting in a sour brew.

Most grinders will allow you to load directly into the portafilter, and some will automatically dose your shot. If not, we've got some tips on dosing.

Dosing

If you're lucky enough to have a built in grinder, you can skip the first part of this. Otherwise, read on. If your grinder doesn't dose for you, you will need to use a precision coffee scale to get your coffee dosing right. There is, of course, some discussion over how much coffee makes the perfect shot. You'll need to figure out what works for you, but you're looking at between 6-9g for a single shot, and around 13-18g to fill a double shot basket.

Once you have loaded the basket, you should have a mound of coffee grounds piled up above the rim of the portafilter. Now you need to pack the puck in. Even the grounds out with your hand, removing any excess grounds on the edges of the portafilter. Using a coffee distribution tool for this helps to distribute your coffee grounds evenly and efficiently.

Tamping

Tamping is important to ensure an even flow of water through the espresso grounds. Having a coffee tamper is the key to an even tamp. If your tamp is uneven, hot water will flow more easily through less densely packed areas. This is known as channeling, and is one of the prime causes of poor extraction.

Tapping method


It means some of the grounds over extract, some under extract, and it lowers the pressure the coffee brews under. This results in a dull brew which is both bitter and sour.

Tamping itself is an art form, which we can't explain fully here. You should aim to push down flat and even, applying around 20-30lbs of pressure. Apply for 1-2 secs and then twist the tamp as you release to polish the shot.

Of course, it's difficult to gauge pressure intuitively, and depending on the coffee beans and whether it's a single or double shot, it will vary anyway. Aim to create a solid, even puck, and take notes. If the pressure seems high when brewing, you may have tamped too hard, and vice versa.

If you notice water spitting out of the side of the porta filter (or unevenly between the spouts for a double shot) your shot could be channelling. You need to be more careful about the distribution of grounds and tamp with more force.

Tamping method in espresso making

Pulling The Perfect Espresso Shot

You're now ready to pull a shot of espresso. With the right preparation, pulling shots should actually be the easy part.

What does it mean to pull a shot of espresso?

  1. First, place your cup on the drip tray.
  2. Load the portafilter into the grouphead: you need to align the protrusions on the portafilter with the gaps in the grouphead, which normally slot in with the handle pointing straight out the front.
  3. Then twist to the right until the handle aligns with the machine horizontally. The portafilter should be firmly attached and can require a little oomph.
  4. Make sure your temperature is set, and press the button to brew. Your espresso maker will most likely have a pressure gauge display: you can monitor this when pulling your shot to make sure everything is working correctly. Too little pressure means you need to pack tighter/use a finer grind, too much a little looser/coarser. You'll also notice this affects the time to the shot takes to brew, and thus the rate of flow from the spout.
  5. Your shot should take between 20-30 secs: enough brewing time to extract the maximum flavour without imparting bitterness. Once the shot is pulled, you can either add to hot water for an Americano, or steam some milk to enjoy whatever your favourite brew is.
  6. Knock the puck out into your knock box, wipe clean your gear, and you're ready to pull your next shot.

Keep notes with each shot of how you tamped, the temperature, the pressure when brewing, and the brew time. You can then by taste identify which parameters are working best for you.

You'll be surprised how quickly you begin to reach conclusions, and how soon you'll want more parameters to play with! The perfect espresso shot is subjective: so keep experimenting until you've nailed your version.

Friends enjoying espresso on a get together event

How Do You Froth Milk With An Espresso Machine?

Here's how to froth milk with an espresso machine:

  1. First, purge the steam wand by releasing the steam valve briefly.
  2. Hold the jug at a slight angle under the steam wand, with the wand just slightly submerged at first.
  3. Release the valve.
  4. Slowly rock the jug to create a vortex of milk.
  5. The steam will now be bubbling through the milk, which will start to expand, with froth forming on the top.
  6. Continue until the temperature reaches between 110-115F and plunge the wand deeper.
  7. Continue until the milk reaches around 160F.
  8. Swirl, and you're ready to add to your espresso shot.

If you're a fan of flat white, latte, cappuccino or cortado, your steam wand is the key. Even if you normally take cold milk in your Americano, you might be surprised how much difference hot milk can make.

A good barista knows that technique is everything, and frothing milk with your steam wand or milk frother is no different. You'll need a milk jug, with roughly the mount you need for your favourite brew - 100ml for a cappuccino, or 250ml for a latte, for example. Follow the instructions above on how to froth milk and take a look at our last post if you'd like more tips!

Froth on an espressoo coffee at the barWe hope you've found this article helpful, and now feel ready to go ahead and start pulling shots at home. With a little practice, you can soon be rivalling your local barista. Remember to take notes and remain present with the process, and all the joy of espresso making can be yours. Take a look at Alternative Brewing's range of espresso machines with Aus-wide fast shipping!