What Exactly is Good Espresso?

Espresso at Home

When talking about coffee outside of Japan, espresso makes up a good part of the discussion.
But in Japan people rarely drink espresso, at least not directly. People like espresso-based drinks like lattes but espresso on itself is almost never on the menu.

I get most of my coffee knowledge from non-Japanese sources, so its was only a matter of time before I could not resist getting an espresso machine for my own. I had my Gaggia Classic Pro for a bit over an year now, and I am feeling a bit guilty about the purchase lately.

Why? because I haven’t been using it so much lately. I had a latte period for a while, but I’ve only had espresso directly a countable amount times.

So I’ve been wondering why that is. A part of it is the fact that espresso machines take a bit of time to heat up, but I feel that the major reason is that I like filter coffee better than straight espresso.

That itself is not a bad thing. People should have what ever preferences they have, and drink what they like. The problem for me is that I spent quite a lot of money importing my machine…

If I think about it further, there might be a reason why I don’t like espresso so much. That is, I might not know exactly what really great espresso tastes like. I might just not have the skill to pull a nice shot of espresso. If I am not getting the most out of espresso machine that would be a shame.

The issue is, as I mentioned before, it is hard to get great espresso in Japan. Almost no cafes have them, and going to a specialty coffee shop which have espresso is a bit of a challenge. (Since not many people drink espresso, the cafes might not be good at pulling espresso as well…)

Espresso is generally considered more difficult to master / dial in than filter, and since so many people like it, I really feel that it is my lack of skill that is the problem.

So what to do? Well I just got to really try a lot of shots and wish that I hit this awesome espresso. If I do, I will really understand what good espresso is.

Any way that’s the plan. To start off, I am focusing on grind size to get a sense of what impact that has.

The Experiment

The parameter with the biggest impact seems to be grind size. So today I prepared a bunch of shots with varying grind settings and tried them out.

Here are the things I kept constant.

  • Grinder : DF64 with SSP Multipurpose Burrs
  • Dose In : 15g
  • Yield (Espresso out) : about 40g
  • Beans : using the same beans. Medium Roast Blend from FLAT COFFEE

Here are the shots

Data for each shot

Grind Setting9101111.51213
Dose (g)151515151515
Yield (g)38.438.33537.740.937.7
Time (sec)554531222119

I have my grinder adjusted so that at 0, the burrs touch. (smaller the number, finer the grind)

Results and Thoughts

I will not bore you by writing out how each one tasted, and just give you the trend.

At setting 9 or 10, the shot time exceeded 40sec. Not even a drip comes out for about 10sec, so I really got worried. It does eventually start to fall, but its really unlikely that I am getting a good extraction. The taste is overwhelmingly sour at the beginning and really does not taste good. One thing I felt was that it felt lighter and thinner than the other shots (although, it is of course much stronger than filter).

The notable thing about the settings around 11 to 12 was that I felt a distinct sweetness. The acidity was there but not too strong and it struck a balance with the sweetness. I felt like I finally understood what everyone means by a balanced shot. Also the shot times were around 20~30sec, which usually is around what people recommend.
I did a few more increments around this setting because it seemed to be the best. They were all pretty good, but I was yet to find one that was amazing.

On a side note, the shots seem to get more acidic as they cooled, so I prefer the shots while they were hot.

And finally, around setting 13, the acidity gets too strong again throwing the balance off.

It goes without saying about there is a best point at some setting, and going off to both sides results in unbalanced shots.

Also I was looking for a way to identify if the grind setting was too coarse or too fine, but as far as I could tell, both ends turned out overly acidic and I could not really tell a difference from the taste alone. However the shot times are a pretty clear indicator here, so aiming towards 20~30sec seems to be a good guide line.

After the experiment, I am quite happy that I tried this. I did use about 100g of beans in one day, which does seem to be a bit too much. However without trying something like this I will never understand what good espresso is. And that would be a far bigger waste.

I could not find the perfect espresso with these shots, but I will keep trying!