Thursday, March 09, 2006

My First Crema

my first crema
Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Making good espresso comes down to just a few variables. Why is it so challenging?

A couple of them were easy to knock down. Water, of course, will make or break an espresso shot, but once you lock in the right water you don't need to think about it again. Preheating the portafilter, yeah, just run a blank shot through the empty filter. After that it comes down to three things:

The choice of coffee.
The grind of the coffee.
The pressure you tamp the coffee down into the portafilter with.

At first I started with medium roasts, Dean's Beans Aztec 2 Step and Uprising! I was able to pull shots that were drinkable with enough steamed half & half, but these were nothing close to the rumored "God Shots" that taste so good that you wouldn't dream of adding anything to it.

I just couldn't get it right. The goal is to get a shot that takes about 25 seconds to stream 1.5 ounces. Less than that and the coffee is underextracted and weak. More than that and it is overextracted and bitter. But at the magic amount of time you get the great espresso taste, and you're rewarded with crema. The coffee pours into your shot glass like Guiness, dark with a smoke of bubbles that slowly rise to the surface to create that creamy brown head. For espresso, that head is called crema, and the more crema, the better.

I was getting no crema, and the shots were coming out too fast or too slow. I just couldn't get it dialed in. I tried changing the grind. The finer the grind, the slower the extraction. I just couldn't get it spot-on though. I tried a finer grind and a lighter tamp, because the harder you tamp it down, the harder it is for the water to get through. You need to use about 30 lbs of pressure when you tamp. I appropriated Jessie's bathroom scale and put the portafilter on top of it so I could see how much pressure I was using.

And then, one weekend I ran out of medium roast and all I had was Marakkesh Express, Dean's Beans darkest roast. I'd been avoiding dark roasts for the espresso because the oiliness seemed like it would be a problem, but it was all I had.

Somehow it all clicked. The grind, the pressure, the coffee... the shot streamed out in the dark tan "rat tail" I'd heard about. It "Guinessed" in the shot glass, and the crema was a centimeter thick. I ran to get my camera but the batteries were dead, so by the time I got the picture, the crema had subsided a bit. Still it was gorgeous.

My shots have been consistently decent since then, but not quite as good as that one. Still, I know it is possible and with a bit more practice I'll get it right.

The problem is that now I've become an espresso junky, sometimes having 3 or 4 shots in a day, because I'll be like, "Okay, that was close, what if I tried with just a little more pressure..."

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