My coffee drink of choice for the past five years has been the espresso. Straight shots. No milk and no sugar. In my opinion, espresso represents the best potential for coffee. If it is done perfectly it can an amazing experience that is remembered long after the beverage is consumed. But getting a perfect shot is a rare thing.
There are so many things that can go wrong when espresso is prepared. When you combine that with rising expectations, what you have is a situation much like a lottery ticket. You pay to play. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Most of the time the experience is somewhere in the middle, good but nothing memorable.
I play the espresso lottery 2-4 times a day.
What Could Go Wrong?
Off the top of my head, here is a list of things that could go wrong with the preparation of an espresso.
- Sourcing the right green coffee beans.
- Roasting old beans.
- Not constructing a good blend or picking the ideal Single Origin offering.
- Roasting profile fails to bring out the flavors desired.
- Grinder is too tight or too loose. Seconds are critical to ideal shots.
- Espresso machine is not maintained.
- Water temperature is too hot or cold. Some blends require 1/2 degree calibration.
- Espresso is too fresh or too stale. Different blends will peak on different days from roast.
- Espresso shot is pulled too fast or too slow. Could be a grinder or tamping issue.
- Espresso cup is not warmed prior to pull.
This is just what I go through as a home roaster who makes espresso at home. Professional coffee shops have more factors to consider. An espresso shot that is a few seconds or degrees off could move from perfection to defective. Other coffee brewing methods are more forgiving or time and temperature, but there is very little room for error with espresso. However, with risks comes rewards. Like a lottery ticket.
What I considered a good espresso back when I started INeedCoffee in 1999, I’d probably spit out today. Moving to Seattle has greatly increased my expectations for espresso. Trips to Vancouver and Portland also helped turn me into an espresso aficionado. As the espressos get better, so do my expectations. In other words, I now want a higher payout on my lottery ticket.
How I Rate Espresso
I use a 1-5 scale to rate espresso.
- 5 – God shot. The kind of espresso you remember for months, maybe years. The rest of your day is spent in a blissful daze. Extremely rare.
- 4 – Excellent shot. Since the God Shot is so rare, I am usually hoping to get an excellent shot. An excellent shot is still a wonderful thing. A lottery winner for sure.
- 3 – Good shot. Pleasant, drinkable, but lacking any greatness. Could probably be improved to an excellent shot by fixing a defect.
- 2 – Fair shot. Drinkable, but disappointing. Since my heart can only handle a few espressos a day, I’m always let down when I get a fair espresso. I have to wait hours or until the next day before I can play again.
- 1 – Awful shot. Undrinkable. One sip and you put it down. A losing ticket. A nasty espresso can put you into a nasty mood.
The distribution is like a bell curve. The majority of espressos falling in the 2-4 zone, with 3 getting the most representation.
Increasing Your Lottery Odds At Home
If you play at home, the best way to improve the odds that your espresso is outstanding is to get better gear and practice. You’ll also want to use espresso blends that are more temperature resilient. Many commercial roasters today are constructing amazing blends that expect 1/2 degree precision to really shine. That isn’t going to work for most home espresso machines. You want your blend to have some slack. The best pre-blended espresso blends I’ve had come from Paradise Roasters. They also offer unroasted espresso blends for the home roaster.
Increasing Your Lottery Odds At the Cafe
I could probably do an entire article on this topic, but instead I’ll just hit some main points. The first thing you want to see before ordering is who the roasts the coffee. A good cafe will be proud of their roaster. You’ll also want to track which roasters you like and which you don’t, so you aren’t wasting your time trying new cafes that use the same espresso blend.
Look for signs that they care about espresso. Not coffee or bagels or waffles, but espresso. Do they have little demitasse cups being warmed on top of the espresso machine? Do they offer a single origin espresso? Do you see other people drinking espresso or is everyone drinking whipped cream covered monster lattes?
Validate Yourself With the Barista
The barista is making hundreds of drinks a day and most of their customers will happily accept defects without complaining. How do you validate yourself? Ask a question that lets them know you are an espresso aficionado. Some examples you can use:
- Is this the same espresso blend you had a few months ago or is it a seasonal offering?
- Do you roast your own espresso blend? (even if you know the answer)
- Do you ever offer single origin espressos? Alternate: What other single origin espressos have they served?
- Someone at [name a respected coffee place nearby] told me the espresso here was excellent.
- Mention something you saw on their website. With smart phones you can easily do this minutes before walking into the coffee shop.
Another trick I recently started doing is if I know I am going to a new coffee shop or if I am in a new city is I wear one of my coffee roaster t-shirts. At this time I have three shirts of quality coffee roasters. This is another signal to the barista that I take coffee seriously. It will often trigger a conversation about that roaster, which is a great thing, because it gives me a chance to distinguish myself as a customer who cares deeply about quality. I’ve even gotten free drinks using this trick.
I’ve used these tricks in places I’ve never been to before and gotten excellent espresso shots. I’ve watched baristas pour defective shots into lattes ordered by people behind me in line until the shot was just right. Then when the pull is just perfect, that espresso is handed to me. Score! Another winning ticket in the espresso lottery.
6 Reasons I Haven’t Been To Your Coffee Shop – Something I wrote for the Seattle market on validating coffee shops.
Paradise Roasters – Excellent espresso blends that work on home equipment. This is not sponsored link. I’ve been a customer of Paradise for a few years.
In 2007, Michael moved to America's coffee capitol Seattle, Washington. He has visited close to two hundred different coffee places in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver and met many of the top roasters and baristas in the country. Since 2009, Michael has been the Organizer of the Coffee Club of Seattle, which is a Meetup group of over 600 coffee enthusiasts. Besides the social aspect of the group, the Coffee Club of Seattle partners with local coffee professionals for educational events such as coffee cuppings, brewing demonstrations and roasting tours.
Unrelated to coffee, Michael has a personal blog at CriticalMAS.com which covers several topics including fitness, cooking and economics.