The importance of water
Water is a key ingredient in making coffee, and its quality can impact the quality of your cup. Teaming high-quality coffee beans that are freshly ground to the correct fineness with clean, filtered water should result in a coffee that smells good and has a great flavor and aftertaste too.
The brewing process varies depending on what's in the water, its temperature, how long it's in contact with the coffee and what kind of grind was used in preparing the beans. Always use fresh, filtered water, and keep in mind the best temperature for brewing is around 91–92°C. If the water is too hot or passes through the coffee for too long it can result in a bitter flavour, but if the water is too cold or passes through the coffee too quickly it can be under-extracted, leaving you with a watery coffee that lacks flavour. The correct grind, brewing time and water temperature will help you achieve a full-flavored coffee.
Tamping compresses your coffee in the filter basket, allowing the pressurised water to flow through the espresso evenly to give you a quality shot. An incorrect tamp can result in a poor-quality shot.
- Dose the ground coffee into the filter and place the filter on a flat, stable surface. Hold the filter in one hand and gently level the coffee with the other.
- Apply the first tamp. While holding the filter, hold the tamper firmly in the other hand. Place the tamper on top of the coffee so it's parallel to the surface and press downwards.
The jury is still out on whether you should apply the final tamp. Our tester Peter Horvath says one firm tamp should be enough, followed by wiping the top of the filter basket to remove any loose coffee particles.
- When you have a new machine, flush about a litre of water through it to remove any factory flavours. Be sure to push a cup of hot water through the steam wand as well as the group head and the filter.
- Once you've heated up the machine, switch on the pump and see how the hot water comes out without the group handle being attached to the group head. Some machines tend to overheat the boiler, which makes the water too hot and produces too much steam, which can burn the coffee granules. If this is the case with your machine, be sure to let some water out before making your coffee.
- The standard amount of ground coffee for an espresso is seven grams for 30mL of water. If you like your coffee stronger and with more flavour, try increasing it to eight or even nine grams. Or, try reducing the amount of water to about 20–25mL.
- If you're making a short black don't run more than 30mL of water through the machine, as it will remove flavour and make the coffee too bitter.
- Always use fresh water straight from the tap or bottled water that doesn't have a chlorine flavour.
- During the warm-up period, keep the group handle in the group head so that every part of the machine that comes into contact with the coffee gets hot.
- A warm cup keeps the coffee hot, which in turn keeps milk coffee frothy. Some machines have an inbuilt cup warmer, but you can also just run some hot water from the machine into the cups instead.
- Run a small amount of water though the machine after frothing milk to cool the internal parts down. This is important if you're going to make more coffees, as the extra heat from the frothing process can burn the grind.
Since upwards of 90% of coffee beverages in Australia and New Zealand are milk-based, the frothing technique is an important part in making the perfect cup of coffee.
- Some machines come with a froth enhancer, and while it's easy to use it often puts large bubbles into the milk, which is undesirable. Generally, a creamy and silky froth is achieved by following the correct technique without using the froth enhancer.
- Use a small stainless steel jug and cold milk straight from the fridge. Using warm milk won't give your machine enough time to froth. Inject steam until the milk reaches about 65°C; – by then it should be the right texture for pouring. You should aim for the froth to stay stable for at least five minutes. Also, ensure you don't heat the milk beyond 72°C or reheat it down the track.
- When using the steam wand, ensure you remove all condensation before placing it in the milk. Once you have dry steam, to avoid splattering you should put the tip of the wand into the milk and then raise it so it sits just below the surface. To spin the milk, tilt the jug slightly.
- A thermometer is a handy tool to have if you're just starting out. But if you don't have one, the milk is generally at the right temperature when you can no longer hold your hand at the bottom of the jug.
- To break any air bubbles, tap and then swirl the jug around on your bench after frothing. You should then pour the milk into the cup immediately, before its texture changes. Tilt the cup slightly, and pour with a consistent speed.
- The steam wand should always be wiped clean after use to avoid possible cross-contamination and to remove crusted-on milk.