Forget Starbucks, Make Better Espresso at Home

Not perfect, but my first successful bit of latte art at home.
Let me start this post with a declaration. I do not hate Starbucks. Many people do, and internet sites abound that criticize, insult and mock the company that got me drinking coffee in the first place. I am not here to tell you to feel guilty about drinking Starbucks, or mock your choice of drink. I just want you to know that like many things in the food world, you can make a far superior product at home for less money.

For years, I had a Starbucks addiction. When I was in high school and college, I was a dabbler. A frappuccino was both a milkshake and a pick me up. By the time I got my first job, I needed my morning coffee. I liked it strong, milky and sweet, so the drip stuff wouldn't do. I became addicted to lattes. Espresso, whole milk and quite a few pumps of vanilla syrup was my caffeine hit of choice and since I couldn't brew espresso at home (I had neither the knowledge nor the equipment) I went to Starbucks. The only problem? I was overpaying for an inferior product. To be fair, I, like most people in the world, had never had a well-made shot of espresso. I didn't know what to expect or what to look for. I knew my drink to be tasty and it was good enough for me. For more years than I want to count, it was good enough for me. It's good enough for most people. But at that price?

Intelligentsia Black Cat Espresso
Before we get into the hows and whys, not to mention tips for awesome drinks at home, let's talk about espresso. What it is and isn't, what it should taste like, and what you can make/drink at home that simulates an espresso if you don't want to take the plunge and buy a machine. Because I promise you, homemade drinks taste a lot better and cost a lot less money over time.

First, espresso is nothing more than coffee, but it is made by pushing hot water through a puck of finely ground coffee beans at high pressure. Any beans can be made into espresso. When you see espresso on a bag of coffee, the beans are either ground very fine to accommodate the brewing process, or the blend/roast of the beans is recommended for espresso.

The Beans
Coffee beans start losing their flavor and aroma as soon as they are ground, so I prefer to buy whole beans and grind them myself. While it's true that any beans can be ground and turned into espresso, it's not a good idea to use just any beans. Starbucks is definitely not using the highest quality beans out there, and if you get your beans at the grocery store, you probably won't fare too much better. The problem with grocery store beans is their age. Many have been sitting around for months, if not years, since their roast date, losing their flavor and going stale in the meantime. So my first rule in homemade espresso - don't use beans unless you know their roast date. I've tried beans from the grocery store, from the bulks bins, from local roasters and from mail order suppliers and I have to say, the fresher the beans, the better the espresso tastes.  To me, beans seem to hit their peak a few days after roasting and are at their best for about 2 weeks before the flavors start to degrade.

The two bags above came from a local roaster, both are single origin beans and cost about $12 per bag. A similar size bag of grocery store beans costs around $8, and the differences were night and day. The smell alone was worth the price difference, but when you brew high quality, fresh roasted beans next to grocery store beans, you start noticing all the weird, sour, funky, stale flavors that come from inferior beans.

Many companies sell wonderful beans that they roast and ship next day, so by the time you get them, they are perfect. There are so many great beans available online, in fact, the fun is in the tasting. I personally look forward to trying more roasters, so if you've got a favorite, drop me a line and tell me about it. One bit of advice - make sure you order beans from the actual roaster. As much as I love Amazon, they, like other online retailers, keep a stock of beans sitting around - the beans you can get are probably a few months old at the very least.

Counter Culture Offers blends and single origin beans.
Next, we get into roast preferences. Here is one where you need to try out beans and decide what you like. I tend to favor a medium roast versus very dark or very light roasts for my espresso, but honestly, you might find you feel differently.

Now we get to the tricky part - what should espresso taste like? For years, I thought of espresso tasting like crazy strong coffee, with bitter/acrid notes needing lots of sugar and dairy to balance them out. I'm not going to say that I was completely wrong. Espresso does taste like concentrated coffee, and there is definitely bitterness there, but a well made espresso is balanced. It tastes rich and sweet, not bitter and acrid. Coffee beans have flavor profiles (chocolatey, fruity, nutty, floral, etc) but a good shot of espresso should never taste burnt, ashy, sour, or like old cardboard. In fact, until I started drinking good espresso, I never imagined drinking it without sugar or milk, much less straight up. Now I can say I enjoy several drinks, usually dependent on the time of day I have them. In the morning I still like a latte, sometimes with syrup (I use agave nectar or flavored syrups at home) sometimes without. After dinner, a shot straight up is nice, or a capuccino with dessert fits the bill (in which case I say no to syrup/sweeteners.)

Now, before we get into the details of making espresso at home, you need to ask yourself a few questions. First, how often do you want an espresso-based drink?

The Recreational Espresso Drinker
If you like your morning drip coffee and just want espresso on the weekends, you are probably not looking into the investment of a major espresso machine. I've got two recommendations for you. Neither of these is "true" espresso, but both will get you similar products and both will be far superior to a Starbucks drink.

Option 1: Moka Pot Stovetop Espresso
Considered a stovetop espresso maker, this is a 3 piece coffee pot that sends hot water, pressurized by steam, through coffee grounds. You'll want finely ground coffee beans, and while this isn't "real" espresso, the pressure does allow for the creation of crema.

La Colombe Coffee
Option 2: French Press
One of the simplest devices to use, you simply put coarse grounds in the press, pour over hot water, let it steep, then press the plunger. You'll get a rich, robust coffee with full flavor and without a burnt, harsh aftertaste.

Both of these options allow you to brew better than Starbucks coffee at home. You will need a coffee grinder (as I mentioned above, fresh ground beans are better) but a solid Moka Pot or French Press can easily be obtained for around $30, and a baseline coffee grinder for around $20. That's a $50 investment, which is surprisingly small since Starbucks charges around $4 for a latte. The only downside to these options is that neither allows you to steam/froth milk conveniently. Not a big deal for some, a deal breaker for others.

The Espresso Addict
Okay, the simplest solutions are above, but if you are like me, hitting Starbucks every morning on the way to work, then you are probably ready for a more serious investment. Think about it, if you go to Starbucks at least three times a week, at the end of a year you've spent roughly $1000. Espresso machines are expensive and range from a hundred bucks to several thousand, but a couple hundred bucks will get you a basic model, 9 bars of pressure, and a handy dandy wand to steam/froth milk.

My suggestion? Start with the grinder. Find a high quality grinder and use at least half of your budget there. Then use the rest on the espresso machine with the features you want. In fact, in my humble opinion, the grinder may be more important than the machine. Why? Because so many espresso extraction problems can be solved by changing the grind. Trust me on this, when you start pulling your own shots and you want to increase or decrease your espresso output, changing the grind will give you much more control (especially since most basic espresso machine are semi-automatic and don't give you much control over the pressure, water used, or extraction time.) Want more/less crema? Change the grind size. I didn't appreciate the importance of a good grinder when I started making espresso at home, but I do now.

So you've got an espresso machine, you've got a grinder, you've got high quality, fresh roasted beans. While you get to know your equipment, I've got a couple of tips for you.

1. Double shots are easier to pull. When you start making espresso, pulling single shots can be a real challenge, the double shot size is more forgiving.

2. Measure your coffee in grams. Your espresso machine will come with a recommended dosage. The standard is 7g of ground coffee for a single shot, 14g for a double shot, but my Breville's dosage is 9g/18g. Check what is best for your machine and measure your dosage.

3. Measure your output. I bought the handy shot glass above so I could see how much espresso I was pulling. I like 1.5 to 2 oz of espresso for a 30-35 second pull. This will also help you figure out if you are tamping well and using a appropriate grind size. Basic guide, if your pull is extremely slow and you are not getting much espresso, you have either tamped too hard, ground too fine, or used too much coffee. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if the espresso comes flowing out quickly and you get a watery shot, you're either using too big a grind, not tamping enough, or using too little coffee. That's a lot of options to figure out, and you may be doing multiple things together. Just measure your volume output for a certain period of time (I like to start with 30 seconds, your machine may not give you the option) and adjust one thing at a time until you find the sweet spot.

4. Use bottled/filtered water. At it's most basic, your espresso has two ingredients, ground coffee and water. Your tap water may taste lovey, mine does not. The flavor of the water will affect the flavor of the shot.

Don't expect to be pull perfect shots immediately. Real baristas are actual professionals with training, you'll make some mistakes on your path, but learn from them and very soon you'll be enjoying espresso drinks that others can only dream about. And don't be surprised if you kick the Starbucks habit for good. Once you home brew, you won't want to go back.

Enjoy your espresso!