So you bang out a good morning latte. And your partner/mum/housemate loves your doppio espresso. But are you really getting the most out of your coffee? Or maybe you've just bought your first coffee-maker and want to know how to create a cafe-level cuppa at home.
If you can give yourself a big red tick for every one of these 10 pointers, we’re impressed – and we’d love to hear what else you suggest for the home coffee maker looking to make an excellent cup. If not, these tips will help you tweak your coffee to achieve a consistently good espresso base and get more satisfaction from your daily brew. (Note: We are assuming you have invested in a decent espresso maker and a quality grinder. And that you grind fresh beans each time you make an espresso.)
Adopt even a few of these and it will help. If you follow every one of our tips, the road to improved coffee will cost you around $50. That’s not much divided among the many cups of top-notch coffee you’ll now be able to make.
Barista Michael Munroe has twice won Western Australia's state barista championship. Now based in Switzerland, and managing a cafe in Zurich, he shares his tips for the best possible homemade espresso.
1. Know your flavour preferences
Do you prefer a fruity coffee with hints of berries, or stone fruit? Or something sweet, with overtones of honey, or a hint of jasmine? Perhaps, a broody chocolate-heavy brew? Do you want to know more about the provenance of your coffee? Where and how it was farmed and harvested? Do you prefer a blend or a single-origin bean. “I always encourage people to explore different flavours and styles of coffee, but it’s good to understand the flavours that you enjoy most,” says Michael. “If you find your favourite blend or style of coffee you can really hone your skills with it.”
2. Make friends with your retailer (i.e., be the perfect customer)
“Most coffee professionals are very passionate about coffee. And they get very excited by customers who are too. They generally aren’t pretentious but are very enthusiastic about sharing their love of coffee and their knowledge,” says Michael.
He believes the perfect customer is one who goes to the same roaster regularly, asks all sorts of questions, and listens to the answers.
3. Buy a set of digital scales
These are not expensive, around $30, and will help you to establish an accurate understanding of the amount of freshly ground coffee needed for your perfect cup of java.
Michael recommends weighing the usual amount of coffee you would place into your filter basket. Then tare and weigh the usual amount of espresso it creates, based on a timed extraction of around 28–30 seconds.
Check your grind setting to increase or decrease the amount of espresso extracted until you get a length of espresso that you enjoy most. This should be approximately double the weight of the dry coffee. For example 20 grams of coffee should create a 40-gram dose of espresso and might take 28 seconds to extract.
The principle is the same whether you extract a double or single shot, and whether you like an espresso, ristretto or lungo. “We are aiming for consistency and ease, something that you can reproduce every day,” says Michael.
Grind, weigh, time and measure until you get it just the way you like it.
4. Record your formula
Now you’ve got your own recipe. Keep it somewhere safe. Consistency is the key – it’s the foundation for future coffee perfection. As you buy different beans and blends you may need to adjust weights and times, but you’ll have that original formula as a starting point. “This will make replicating your favourite drinks quicker, easier and much more delicious,” says Michael.
5. Keep your equipment clean
Home espresso machines don’t require daily cleaning like those used in a busy cafe (of course, if you’ve got the time go right ahead), but regular machine maintenance will ensure the best-tasting brews.
Every time you use your espresso machine you should wipe equipment clean and rinse the machine by flushing water through the group head, filter basket and steam wand, both before and after making a coffee.
Caffetto is the leading industry cleaning product brand. The company makes descaling tablets, powders and an organic descaling liquid designed for use in espresso machine cleaning tanks and with coffee brewing equipment. It also makes makes a cleaning liquid for steamer wands.
The descaling products are designed to remove coffee oils and residue, and prevent corrosion. They are available in supermarkets for around $7 for 250ml of liquid, or can be purchased online for $20 for 500g of powder.
Depending on how often you use your machine, descaling should be done every few days. It can take 15 or so minutes to complete the process, but the instructions on the products are easy to follow. Don’t forget to re-season the machine by brewing and discarding an espresso before use.
White vinegar can be used with similar results to commercial products. Mix a solution of half vinegar, half water to fill the water reservoir of your machine. Flush this through your machine completely and then follow with a full reservoir of water. Make sure you re-season your machine by brewing, and discarding, an espresso. Some people say they can detect an odour after using vinegar.
6. Store your beans right
Any coffee roaster will tell you coffee beans are best when they are fresh, generally within seven to 21 days of being roasted. Buy them in small quantities each week and store them in a resealable bag or jar in a cool, dark place such as the pantry.
Once beans are ground, they lose integrity of aroma and flavour. Only grind when you are ready to brew that perfect coffee.
7. Use good filtered water
In some cities, using filtered water is less essential than others, but fresh, filtered water will dramatically change the flavour and purity of your coffee. Some coffee aficionados who live in places where water quality is poor invest in tap filtration systems; others have been known to use bottled water in their espresso machines.
8. Consider a milk temperature gauge
If you want to polish your milk texturing skills, it is worth investing in a $7–$20 milk thermometer or milk frothing probe. These can be purchased from coffee retailers or online. The thermometer attaches to the side of the milk jug, with a probe that rests in the milk and a gauge that lets you view the temperature as it rises. Ideally, cow’s milk should be heated to between 60°C and 65°C; soy and almond milk are best steamed to around 55°C.
Once you have learned to feel the temperature on the side of the milk jug with your hand, you will be able to dispense with the thermometer.
9. Texture your milk to perfection
Michael says it can be more difficult for the home barista to achieve perfectly textured milk like a professional, “simply because of the quality of the espresso machine”, but there are things you can do to ensure a good result.
“The best thing to focus on to improve the quality of your milk is getting the perfect temperature. That’s the sweet spot, when the flavour of the milk just seems to pop and you will get the most out of the flavour of the coffee,” he says.
“Keep the steam wand submerged in the milk and gently allow the steam to create air in the liquid. The aim is to work the milk until just the right amount of air and a delicate foam have been created. You should be gradually rolling the milk to create a soft whirlpool until it looks shiny and glossy, with a consistency and sheen like paint.
“If you don’t get it right, tip the milk out and start again with fresh, cold milk. Your coffee is too good to be spoiled and you’re worth it. Besides, it’s less effort and cost than making another coffee,” says Michael.
10. Make it look fabulous
If you’ve got all of the elements right, a great looking espresso with a delicate crema (a thin, golden capping) should follow. But Michael has a few tips for visual enjoyment of your milk-based coffee, too. We’re not necessarily talking about latte art here, but that will be a side benefit if you master some additional techniques.
His first piece of advice is to “let the milk do the work”. You’ve got it perfectly textured, light and glossy and now it is just waiting to be combined with your rich, dark espresso.
“Begin with a nice, steady controlled pour with your hand over the cup and begin lowering the jug as the cup fills. The crema will rise with the milk and make your coffee look great.”
Budding latte artists will learn to create patterns by lowering and raising the jug and swirling with practice. There are plenty of latte art instruction clips online.