Just Add Water?
The big premise behind many of our brew guides and videos is that it is helpful to think of coffee making as a just-add-water scenario. All the contraptions and fussiness that comprise the many machines and methods of preparation are essentially just different ways of combining ground coffee with hot water and separating out the resulting brew. Brewing coffee isn’t hard and shouldn’t feel intimidating.
And for the most part, this is true. Coffee-to-water ratios, the relationship between grind size and dwell time, and the considerations of filtering are not hard to wrap your head around once you start looking past the surface differences of the various methods and see what’s really happening to the coffee grounds.
But espresso is a bit of a different beast.
In espresso you are getting to the finish line extremely fast, using unusual coffee-to-water ratios, and adding into the mix the power and problems of high pressure and precision engineered gear.
The little details matter in espresso. Very small changes in inputs result in dramatic changes in outcomes. A gram of coffee more or less, a miniscule drop in water temperature, an imperceptible drift in the size and uniformity of the grind – many things can thwart getting a great cup. Even using the most state-of-the-art commercial gear, it can still feel like tightrope walking on dental floss. Maybe there’s a good reason why professional baristas take themselves so seriously!
And it is because of espresso's notorious stubbornness, complexity, and its requirement for serious and expensive gear that the Tonx message of brewing made simple is often met with skepticism from some self-confessed coffee snobs. Espresso lovers know how rare a truly great cup of this elixir is and will often travel far to be served by the serious practitioners. The cult of the barista has a small but fanatical following. Our propaganda that you can easily have great coffee in your kitchen comes with unstated "except for espresso" fine print.
What espresso is
My personal relationship with espresso is tempestuous. When I was a barista, a great espresso was the holy grail, and I was blessed to glimpse it from time to time. When I started roasting it became an alchemical quest of endless tinkering and ever increasing nuance. But as a coffee drinker, it is still often a crap shoot. Ordering espresso from even the top coffeebars affords the same odds as most scratch-and-win lotto tickets. Sometimes you hit it big and your faith is renewed but on most days disenchantment abounds. In spite of that, the relationship remains strong and I still drink a lot of espresso.
There are a lot of competing definitions of espresso and I’m wary of wading too deep into the debates. The Italians devised, refined, commercialized, and popularized it as a method starting just over a hundred years ago. Modern refinements have altered some of the mechanisms, and added some horsepower to the machines, and one could argue that the beverage we enjoy today is consistently better as a result.
My friend Scott Rao offers this definition from his geeky but essential Professional Barista’s Handbook:
Espresso is a small, made to order, concentrated coffee consisting of liquid topped by foam, or crema. The liquid and crema are each multiphasic systems consisting of an emulsion, a suspension, and a solution.
Crema is composed primarily of CO2 and water vapor bubbles wrapped in liquid films made up of an aqueous solution of surfactants. Crema also contains suspended coffee bean cell wall fragments, or fines (responsible for "tiger striping," or mottling), and emulsified oils containing aromatics.
The liquid phase of an espresso consists of dissolved solids, emulsified oils, suspended fines, and an effervescence of gas bubbles.
Such a scientific definition is hard to argue with (or maybe even comprehend for the non-scientist), but the culinary definitions leave a lot more wiggle room. Different qualities and volumes are discussed as being more or less authentic, but almost all parties to the debate would agree that the resulting beverage should be tasty, highly aromatic, and intensely concentrated in contrast to other forms of brewed coffee.
What espresso is not
Contrary to much old school coffee marketing, espresso is not a style of roast. Any coffee from any origin roasted with any range of profiles can be prepared as an espresso. Some coffees may fare better, and some styles or origins might prove to be more of an acquired taste, but fundamentally coffee is coffee and sweet, high-quality coffee will usually perform best. While coffees are often still marketed as “espresso roasts”, very little consensus exists about what that might actually mean. In general, roasters who create espresso blends are typically working to build good balance and attempting to craft an easy to hit target for the many machines that their blend will meet.
Moka pot coffee, while having some similarities with espresso, is its own beverage. The steam pressure method doesn’t produce enough oomph to create the same quality of crema or the same speed of brewing. A vast number of cheaper home “espresso” machines exist that are simply moka pots made into mediocre appliances. But while this coffee is brewed strong, it is not quite the same thing as espresso.
Nespresso capsules and their K-Cup cousins are not espresso. The exorbitant price tag notwithstanding, these silly machines and the stale proprietary capsules of old grounds they consume produce a much thinner beverage closer to instant coffee than any real brew. They offer a convenience that comes at astronomical cost and minimal quality. A waste of money that makes your kitchen counter look more like a cosmetics counter.
The rise of the barista
In the last decade or two we’ve seen the emergence of what has been called the Third Wave of coffee – a loosely defined movement toward higher quality drinks, more differentiation and transparency around coffee as a seasonal product, and a general reverence for many aspects of the craft. Espresso and, by extension, the barista have played a central role in this. A new class of artisan coffeebars with well trained staff, distinctive coffees, and state-of-the-art gear are gradually popping up across the land.
Alongside this has emerged a new crowd of contemporary coffee connoisseurs-in-training, seeking to find a foothold in this new and shifting coffee landscape. This crowd has tended to be dominated by a certain subset of geeks drawn toward the most conspicuous parts of the movement. They fetishize the machines, the visible process on display, and are compelled by the collective quest for perfection.
And this de facto narrative gets amplified by the mainstream press. The latest computerized machine promising perfect brews or the newest clandestine pop up coffee cart can find themselves profiled by the NY Times resident coffee writer even before the first drink is made. This technofetishism and obsession with craft has characterized much of the press hype around Third Wave coffee culture while obscuring the less visible, harder to articulate, yet more fundamental truths that separate shit from shinola.
As a result, coffee companies often spend more energy differentiating based on brand, aesthetics, fancy faucets, or marketing smoke and mirrors, and not enough energy on improving their core coffee experience.
Glimpsing the future
More recently the compass needle of these would-be connoisseurs has slowly begun to point in a more legit direction. With the growing embrace of simple manual brew methods, coffee brewing is becoming demystified and a bit more decoupled from the myth-heavy realm of gadgets. Coffee lovers are focusing less on method and more on flavor. Some of the esoteric underpinnings of coffee understood by growers, roasters, and green coffee buyers is leaking from the cupping laboratory and into the lexicon of real coffee drinkers. It is a trend still in its infancy, but holds the promise of building better roadmaps of the landscape from confused consumer to connoisseur.
For espresso fans, it is an exciting but chaotic time. Many new ideas are being explored, new roasting philosophies, strong flavors, strange acquired tastes. Some could prove to be dead ends, others might be the next big thing. But behind it all is the reality that coffee is improving and becoming more interesting at the farm level. Pro and home baristas alike are exploring these beans and nudging the culinary definition of espresso in new directions.
Meanwhile in the kitchen
Enough of this high-falutin philosophizing! Many people just want to know what it’s going to take to have a great espresso or cappuccino in their own kitchen. And possibly one or two of those folks have suffered through my ravings and are still reading.
So here, finally, is my usual spiel for those peering down the rabbit hole of home espresso...
Espresso is hard. These are 7 things you should consider before taking the plunge:
1. More important than the espresso machine is having a good burr grinder that can produce relatively uniform grounds at a very fine end of the spectrum, and allow for very small adjustments. Such devices are not cheap, but cutting corners here leads to heartbreak.
2. There are very few legit home espresso machines worth considering for under $1500. I’m not going to make any recommendations in this article, merely I want to prepare you for the sticker shock as you begin your own research.
3. The all-in-one, super-automatic, push-a-button machines are a pricey compromise. If you really love great espresso, these will disappoint. If you really love great coffee, there are cheaper and simpler ways to make a much better beverage. If it’s merely that style of beverage that is floating your boat and you’ve got the dough, you might be satisfied with such a contraption to make your morning cappuccino-type-drink, provided you feed it decent beans.
4. Learning to pull a good shot takes patience and practice.
5. Warming up a machine, dialing in a coffee, making a drink, and keeping a clean rig takes time and effort and can put a big dent in a daily routine. The daily diligence required for the home espresso habit is something you should self select for carefully.
6. As with any other brew regime, it’s all about the beans. You’re probably already a Tonx subscriber and have fresh and amazing beans arriving fortnightly. In general you’ll find managing your inventory to be challenging while you’re still learning (and thus dumping a lot of shots).
7. Unlike pro baristas who get to go through pounds and pounds of beans in a shift, you’ll be exploring the same batch of beans over many days, watching the way it changes, and making small adjustments. When it comes to the fleeting flavors and complexity of coffee with a sensitive method like espresso, there is always room for more tinkering.
It may not be the easiest undertaking, but if you’ve heeded these warnings and feel brave enough to press on, you could enjoy the sometimes frustrating pleasures of espresso in your own home. No long lines, no surly baristas, no pants.
I think the right attitude is that espresso is just another brew method, albeit an unusually tricky one. Espresso is often the gateway drug into the world of finer coffee experiences, but I don’t believe it needs to be the ultimate coffee destination. If espresso drinks are your passion and you want to pursue it, by all means, go for it, but I would argue that it is just one scenic detour on a wider, wilder, and more interesting road.