How I Learned to Make the Perfect Espresso at Home
When a lack of local cafes forces a coffee drinker to become his own barista.
After a few sips of a perfectly prepared espresso, I knew I couldn’t keeping lying to myself.
Since moving to an old farm in rural Virginia, I had convinced myself that the lack of a good local cup of coffee wasn’t a big deal. (Yes, there’s coffee about 45 minutes away, but that’s hardly local.) I have fields to walk and fences to mend, enough to fill my heart and satisfy my soul. Who needs coffee anyway?
As it turned out, I did. And faced with a steaming demitasse cup in a cafe in, of all places, Louisville, Kentucky, I suddenly realized how much I had missed the luxury of being able to get a real espresso whenever I wanted one.
The problem, of course, is that espresso is thoroughly modern and thoroughly cosmopolitan. I have, in other words, no business pining for it or pursuing it. One may either shoot skeet in the yard or be a flaneur, but the Venn diagram representing those two lives does not overlap. What’s a coffee lover to do?
The obvious answer was to become my own barista. So begrudgingly, knowing that I tend to go overboard in such endeavors, I went down that rabbit hole, reading and researching as much as I could about the history of espresso.
The CliffsNotes of what I found: Caffe Espresso first appeared to the general public at a fair in Milan in 1906. Luigi Bezzerra and Desiderio Pavoni had made advancements on a machine invented a few years prior and they ran a bar along the arcade complete with men in jackets behind the counter. Apparently, the coffee was scalded and bitter, the steam was too hot. But the cups came faster than anyone had ever seen, a big plus.
Over the course of the 20th century, espresso was refined and perfected. Achille Gaggia added a lever system, allowing a barista to pull the shot and, as a result, push the water through the grinds at a higher atmospheric pressure.
Why does that matter? Coffee brewed at atmospheres approaching 10 times natural pressure will develop a creamy, pale froth—the holy grail, the crema. In 1961 Ernesto Valente added a motorized pump and his design is still ubiquitous today.
What makes espresso so alluring is that it’s a perfect mixture of art and science.
The tinkering and science part appeals to me in particular. When I started making coffee with an AeroPress (in which coffee begins as an immersion, like a French press, and ends being hand pressed through a filter), I spent a month trying out formulas used in Japanese coffee competitions. I settled on 17 grams of coffee brewed in an inverted AeroPress, stirred for a count of 20, and rested for another 20 before being flipped and pressed into the cup.
It makes fantastic coffee, but it isn’t espresso.
I’ve had half a dozen stove-top moka pots, easily. I’ve had them in modernist stainless, in classic aluminum, I’ve even got the one that’s got two brass outlets instead of a pot. I’ve enjoyed many a cup of robust, edgy, bohemian brew through them, but the contraption doesn’t produce enough pressure for its coffee to be considered technically espresso. But I have my limits: Although I’d like to play around with a complicated manual espresso machine, I’m not sure I’d like to rely on one.
So, I’d only been home from Louisville for a few days, still coveting other people’s easy access to perfect one ounce portions of dark coffee, when Illy contacted me about the forthcoming release of their anniversary model X1 espresso machine ($599 to $699). Would I be interested in trying it out? I jumped at the chance to take it through its paces.
It is a beautiful machine. It’s like a stainless steel classic Vespa parked on my kitchen table.
Turning it on from dead cold, it is up to temperature in one minute and 14 seconds, and a shot of coffee is pulled in just over another 32.
Although the X1 offers no room for adjustment, I have found that it doesn’t need any. Automatically, the water is heated to between 88°-93°C (190°-200°F) and then is pushed through exactly seven grams of coffee at a pressure of nine or more atmospheres. Giving up that much control was a new experience for me, but I’ve come to appreciate it. The proof is in the cup.
What’s more, the milk frothing wand—an afterthought on every machine I’ve ever owned—works very well. I’ve even started looking at YouTube videos about latte art, getting ready to spring a little heart on some unsuspecting guest.
My espresso in Louisville was enough to make me pine for excellence in a cup, for opportunities lost, but every espresso is not up to that high standard. Just last week, out and about, I was served a shot that had spilled over the edge of its cup—I watched the barista grab a damp rag off the top of the machine and try to wipe it clean. The saucer was chipped, which I find charming, but it was also the wrong size, so the cup slid around. The coffee was scalded and bitter on the front of my palate and then fell off into an empty hole I might call dishwater.
My espressos at home have fruit notes and depth. Each cup is cohesive and balanced. And best of all that’s how it is every single time.