2019 Beginner's Espresso Guide

by Anthony Licata January 18, 2019

So, you’ve finally decided to join the espresso world. It might seem complex at first, with the many articles, videos, and products dedicated to enhancing one tiny little bean, but it really doesn’t have to be.

The first step into your new espresso and coffee journey starts right here, with our new 2019 Beginner Guide. Here we’ll just introduce a few basic concepts and tips to help you get started.

It’s… a seed?

A table with coffee cherries still on their vines and two woven baskets filled to the brim with picked coffee cherries.

Yes! The coffee beans that are loved all around the world are actually the seed of a coffee cherry. Coffee cherries are grown and handpicked in over 50 countries, with Brazil and Vietnam being the most productive coffee growers, producing millions of pounds of coffee each year. After the seeds are picked, they are then washed to remove any excess bits of fruit and spread out to dry. This is what we call green coffee, unroasted beans that are just waiting to reach their full potential.

There are a lot of sub-categories for coffee roasts, but the baselines are simple enough to follow: green, light, medium, and dark. The amount of time a bean is roasted drastically changes its characteristics such as caffeine content and flavor.

If you find yourself enjoying coffee from popular chain brands, you’ve likely been drinking some dark roasts, which are fairly common in commercial and cafe settings. Whatever your preference, we urge you to try a good medium or light roast, as sometimes dark roasts are made specifically to cover-up a bean’s imperfections. A lightly roasted coffee bean will still retain a lot of its original flavors and has the highest caffeine content, while a medium roast is a great combination of roasting and bean flavors. A medium roast will be sweeter than a dark roast, and steers clear of the bitter flavors associated with darker beans.

Four circular images of coffee beans, all different types of roasts, and a bar below that indicates their roasting times and Caffeine and Acidity levels. From high to low caffeine and acidity, the beans go Green (Unroasted), Light (which roasts for 9 mins), Medium Roast, and Dark Roast (which roasts for upwards to 20 mins).

There are two major bean types, or cultivars: Coffea Arabica, known as Arabica, and Coffea Caneophora, which we call Robusta.

The basics are simple to remember. Robusta is much easier to harvest and produce, but lacks flavor, making it the lesser of the two beans. Arabica beans are seen as a sign for quality beans and blends. While it doesn’t grow as well, Arabica is far and away the finer coffee with a range of delicious flavors.

The flavor notes of coffee beans typically depend on a variety of factors, which we could write a whole blog about alone. Instead, let’s just stick to some of the factors, which range from the beginning of the coffee’s growing cycle all the way until it is roasted, including the beans’: country of origin, altitude of growing location, washing process, and roasting process. Common flavor notes are chocolate, citrus, floral, and nutty, but there are far more complex flavors to discover.

What is Espresso?

We are about to blow your minds: it’s coffee.

Well, coffee brewed under pressure, to be specific. High pressure, high temperature water passes through a puck of finely ground coffee to extract the coffee’s complex flavors into the highly concentrated beverage that we lovingly call espresso. You can think of espresso as a recipe, which I'll get into a little further down. Espresso is a balance of all these variables that results in a drink that's far bolder and more flavorful than the average cup of coffee. Practice and patience are just two key ingredients to espresso's elaborate formula, but, most important of all, you must follow...

The Golden Rule

The golden rule is to pour 2 ounces of espresso in a 25 second period. This is your extraction time. If the 2 oz. extracts in less time, then the grind is too coarse and needs to be adjusted to a finer grind size. If the espresso is flowing too slowly, then the grind needs to be made coarser. The closer you get to the correct shot time, the smaller the adjustment you should make to the grind size. This process is known as dialing in the grind, or just dialing in, and it will do your espresso a lot of good to get comfortable with it.

A shot brewing into a small shot glass, pouring from a double spouted portafilter. The shot is being pulled from a shiny Rocket Appartamento, and you can see the black steam pressure gauge in the background, which is labeled with the Rocket espresso logo in white font.

You'll also want to pay attention how much coffee you're dosing and how hard you tamp. For some basic tips to get you started, grind 18 g of coffee for a double shot of espresso, and apply a level tamp with about 30 lbs. of pressure. The tamp pressure is arguable, so do whatever is most comfortable for you, as long as you keep consistent with it.

Making Good Espresso

Often times, people mistake espresso as a specific type of coffee bean, which is totally untrue. Espresso is just a highly concentrated, pressurized brewing method to create a stronger, more potent coffee drink. While espresso can technically be made with any coffee beans, typically bags that are labeled as espresso blends are specifically designed to make better espresso. Roasters have the choice between using beans of a single origin or, more commonly, a blended roast of multiple growing locations and countries.

So, how do you do it? Well, making good espresso isn’t necessarily hard, but it does take practice and precision. Here are a few easy tips to get started on the right foot:

Grind your beans fresh. We can’t overstate how important this is. Grinding your beans fresh makes an incredible difference in the quality and flavor of your drink, this applies to all coffees, such as drip, french press, espresso, etc.

Invest in a burr grinder. Instead of buying a $30 blade grinder at your local store, invest in a burr grinder. Whether you are brewing espresso or drip coffee, burr grinders are far superior to blade grinders. Blade grinders don’t really grind anything, but instead they chop the beans into uneven particles that can harm the flavor and consistency of your drink! A good entry-level burr grinder, like the Baratza Sette 270, will grind your whole beans into fluffy, consistent grounds that will make a difference in the quality of your drinks and help you make much better espresso and coffee in general. After a good amount of practice, look into something like the Ceado E5P for a long-lasting, quality grinder.

Test your grind settings. The grounds should come out looking slightly finer than granulated sugar. Use your hands to feel the consistency and fineness of your beans before grinding the next set into your portafilter. You’ll have to change your grind settings depending what bean you are using and other variables, so test often. Pulling a consistent shot means following the golden rule formula that we listed above. Be patient and have fun with the process, you’ll be brewing some great espresso soon enough.

Find the right espresso machine. This is a tough one. There are a lot of personal questions that go into finding the right machine for you. For this guide, look through some of our Semi-Automatic machines, which give you the most control when brewing espresso. It’s tough to go wrong with a Gaggia Classic; it's a high quality, beginner-friendly machine with a low price point and excellent longevity. There's a lot of options to consider, but if you head over to our YouTube channel for our recommendations, we can help narrow the list a little! It's all about finding the right fit. Plus, you can always give us a call and we can figure it out for you.

Learn to Love Milk Again

Espresso is a powerful beverage with a strong flavor. A good shot of espresso can be a perfectly tasty drink all its own, but also makes for a great partner when paired with velvety steamed milk. That bold flavor of espresso is cut beautifully by the light sweetness of steamed and frothed milk, resulting in some great cafe-style specialties.

The most popular milk for frothing and steaming is whole milk because of its fat content and full flavor. However, the world of milk is looking cooler everyday with the options of soy, almond, cashew, coconut, pecan, rice, and pea milk. We even tested 10 different kinds of milks to see how they frothed, poured and tasted.

Frothing technique is an art form that should be seen and experienced rather than read. Click this link to see our videos on everything milk frothing, including the key difference between preparing milk for a cappuccino vs a latte

We tried to just cover some of the basics here, but practicing making espresso can range from a regular, everyday practice to a full-fledged hobby. It’s all about the amount of time and energy you put into it.

We hope you learned a bit with our Beginner’s Espresso Guide. Whole Latte Love is a wealth of knowledge for coffee lovers worldwide, and if you like what you’ve seen so far, check out our YouTube channel, our blogs on the website, and our support wiki to adventure even further into the world of coffee and espresso.

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Anthony Licata
Anthony Licata

Anthony is the newest Copywriter at Whole Latte Love and is interested in the culture and history behind coffee. His favorite things to do include playing with pug puppies and bothering our web designers to make him images for his blogs.