Described by coffee connoisseurs as poetry in a cup, espresso embodies the heart and soul of coffee. This dark, rich elixir is said to have derived its name from its rapid Italian brewing method, which uses high pressure to quickly extract every nuance of flavor and aroma. The word "espresso" also has a second meaning that comes from its French root exprès, indicating that each cup is prepared expressly to order.
As pleasing to the eye as it is to the palate, a perfectly brewed espresso is topped with a burnished amber foam called crema (a frothy mixture of aromatic coffee oils and water). The intense flavors of the brew are deep and complex, presenting an evocative portrait of the coffee beans' distinctive characteristics.
One of the best ways to explore the delicious world of espresso is to sample the variations produced by different coffee beans and brewing methods. Any way you savor it, a well-brewed espresso will energize your body, refresh your mind and lift your spirits.
Selecting the Beans
The perfect cup of espresso begins with freshly roasted, properly ground Arabica coffee beans. You can prepare a memorable brew using any Arabica coffee; typically, espresso is made from a blend of beans from different coffee-growing regions. In general, coffees from East Africa and Arabia tend to have rich flavor, bright acidity and medium to full body. Coffees from Indonesia and the Pacific are often described as having smooth, earthy flavors, with low acidity and full body. For fresh, lively tasting coffees with low acidity and light to medium body, try beans from Central and South America, or Kona coffee from Hawaii.
Storing the Beans
Since coffee beans begin to lose their distinctive flavor and aroma the moment you open the package, proper storage is essential. To ensure the best quality, purchase your coffee weekly. If you plan to use the beans within 2 weeks of purchase, transfer them to an opaque, airtight container and store in a cool, dry place. For longer storage, keep coffee beans in the freezer.
Roasting the Beans
The art of roasting the beans requires meticulous care and precise timing to elicit the fullest potential of the coffee. As coffee beans roast, their color slowly changes from straw-green to a rich chestnut brown. The most important transformation, however, occurs in the flavor of the beans as their aromatic essential oils rise to the surface. Roasting time varies with the bean variety as well as with the intended brewing method. For espresso, experts typically recommend a dark roast, which focuses the flavors of the beans and caramelizes their natural sugars.
Grinding the Beans
The proper grind is key to a well-brewed espresso because it determines how quickly the water will flow through the coffee. An overly coarse grind will cause the water to flow too rapidly, producing a weak, underextracted espresso. If the grind is too fine, the result will be an overextracted espresso with harsh, bitter flavor. The perfect espresso requires a powdery grind that allows water to flow through at a smooth, steady pace, extracting full flavor and aroma. To ensure optimal extraction, use a burr grinder, which generates minimal heat and features customized settings for a precise, uniform grind. For best results, always grind coffee beans just before brewing.
Generations of Italian espresso lovers have sworn by simple stovetop espresso makers. These classic pots boil water in a closed chamber, producing enough steam pressure to force hot water through the coffee grounds. While the resulting brew does not offer the character and crema of an espresso made with an electric machine, the espresso is satisfyingly rich and dark, with pleasant body.
For authentic espresso, use an electric pump or piston machine, which generates sufficient pressure to emulsify the beans' soluble oils and flavor components into a velvety, bittersweet brew crowned with a caramel-hued crema. Espresso machines range from manually controlled models to fully automatic machines that allow you to brew espresso drinks at the touch of a button. Many of these machines also feature built-in frothing systems, making it easy to prepare authentic cappuccinos, lattes and mochas at home.