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Culinary Lesson #33 - Espresso

Saturday, August 27, 2016

As some of you might know, I cook at a local breakfast cafe; so naturally, coffee often takes the spotlight.  I have the (dangerous) luxury of having quality coffee and espresso-based drinks at my hands, so I always took it for granted that the coffee's always there, and a latte can always be made for me whenever I want.

But then a few weeks ago my 'non-barista-educated mind' started thinking, "what exactly goes into making a latte"?  I mean, I know that hot water passes through compressed coffee grounds in a short amount of time, but as far as any specifics, I'm lost.  And specifics aside, what makes a latte a latte?  Or a cappuccino a cappuccino?

It was time to do a little coffee research, which ultimately resulted in this post.

Image from http://www.juaralife.com/.
To understand what goes into a latte and how it differs from similar drinks, I needed to understand the foundation of all of these drinks:  espresso.

After watching an awesome episode of Good Eats on Netflix called 'Espresso Yourself', I learned right away about the specifics I was wondering about (thanks Alton!).

To make the perfect shot of espresso, "use 9 bars of pressure to push 200° F  water through a 7 to 9 gram puck of perfectly ground coffee that's been compressed with approximately 40 pounds of force all within 25 seconds of brew time".

So there you have it.  The type of coffee bean and grind, amount of pressure, water temperature, and brew time are all crucial.  If just one of these variables is off, you'll end up with sub-par espresso, and that's just not good eats...

When it comes to the coffee bean, you can either use Arabica beans, which are generally a higher quality choice, or Robusta beans, which are usually used in large batches due to their abundance.  Beans are roasted to 400° F, and then taken off the heat at just the right time.  The four general types of roasts include:

  1. Light or "cinnamon" roast
  2. Medium or "city" roast
  3. Dark or "full city" roast
  4. Very dark or "espresso" roast
[Side note:  Contrary to the name, most people don't use beans from an espresso roast to make grounds for a shot of espresso.  Rather, medium roasts are a more common choice].

Once you have the perfect roasted bean, it's time to grind.  Blade grinders are common to use since they're so affordable, but if you're making espresso, go the extra step and get a burr grinder.  This way, you'll be able to both control the size of the grind, as well as produce a homogeneous grind, leading to an even extraction.  If the grounds are too large, water will pass right through, resulting in bland espresso.  If the grounds are too fine, the water will have a hard time passing through, and the espresso will end up being bitter due to the long brewing time.

The next step is to fill your portafilter with roughly 8 grams of coffee grounds, and compress with 40 pounds of pressure.  To figure out how much this is, tamper right over a bathroom scale.

The last step is to let your espresso machine do its magic with water heated to 200° F.  If everything prior to brewing was done correctly, it should take roughly 25 seconds for the water to pass through and create a shot of espresso.
And now comes the part that gives me a headache:  memorizing the differences between a macchiato, cappuccino, latte, cafĂ© au lait, and so on.  Luckily, there are plenty of graphics online that make it much easier to understand.
Image from http://lcliving.ca/guide-to-coffee/.
And there you have it!  We now know the basics behind espresso-based drinks.  There are plenty of other topics to cover when it comes to coffee (like describing a cup of coffee based on its acidity, aroma, body, bitterness, sharpness, smoothness, etc.), but that'll best be saved for another day.

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