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Pulling Shots

Shahen Naidoo

If a google search led you to this page, then you're either looking to improve your espresso or you're trying to say goodbye to pulled golf shots. The good news is that it's much easier to pull a good espresso shot than it is to fix your golf shot. So here are my tips on making a great espresso.

Why espresso? If you've ever needed that "pick-me-up" shot, or you've snuggled up with a cappuccino and a book on a winter afternoon, or sipped on a latte at your favourite coffee shop, then you already have a love affair with espresso. For me, the espresso ritual is a part of my morning that shapes how every minute of the rest on my day is going to turn out. Simple right? What could go wrong with just two ingredients: coffee and water? Ok, so there's also the milk too, but you're still left with infinite possibilities that may or may not result in a smooth, well balanced and fragrant drink with an aftertaste that leaves you yearning for the next sip.

What's in an espresso? The short answer is finely ground coffee brewed under pressure. But a good espresso is about so much more than that. I've long been obsessed with the coffee. So, in my search for a great espresso, I've discovered that pulling a good espresso shot is all about extraction. An espresso shot is made up of two fundamental parts: the crema and the liquid. The crema is essentially carbon dioxide bubbles surrounded by emulsified oils and suspended coffee fragments. The soluble coffee solids contained in the liquid is what gives this soul nurturing drink its taste and strength. The liquid also contains some soluble gases that give aroma and insoluble solid suspension that add to the body of the drink. All of this results in a 16 to 20 gram shot of joy that is loved around the world. 

What do you need? An espresso machine, a good digital scale, a grinder and good quality coffee beans roasted for espresso. Making a good espresso is not easy, but becomes impossible without well roasted beans. As far as grinders go, try to get the best burr grinder that you can afford. The lowest in the range of burr grinders is still better than the best blade grinder you can find.

Is there an espresso Recipe? It's easy to roll our eyes at this question, but baristas have long been tweaking and refining their craft. Like cooking, the trick to pulling good espresso shots is in the method and setup of your equipment. The first thing to get right is the brew ratio.

What is the brew ratio? As with cooking, you start by measuring out your ingredients, and know exactly in what proportion you are going to combine each ingredient and for how long you're going to cook them. Making coffee is exactly the same. The brew ratio is the proportion of ground coffee that you put in (the dose), to the liquid espresso (yield) you get out. The brew ratio for a double espresso is 1:2, so if you put in a 16 gram dose of ground coffee into the portafilter basket, you should get a 32 gram yield of espresso out. Simple right? Not yet - you got to do this over the right amount of time. Water passing too fast through the coffee results in under extracted espresso. Under extracted coffee tastes sour and and underdeveloped. It's often described as salty on the palate. Take too long and your espresso ends up over extracted and bitter. It's often described as burnt and dry, with an unpleasant aftertaste. So it's absolutely crucial to extract this in the desired time.

How long do you extract an espresso for? You need about 30 seconds. Actually between 27 and 30 seconds is a good rule of thumb. There are always exceptions and you may find coffees that need slightly more or less time, but this usually works for most roasts. Now this is the tricky bit to getting your espresso right. The way to control the extraction time is through adjusting the coarseness of the grind. To get increase the extraction time, make the grind courser. To decrease the extraction time, make the grind finer. Adjusting your coffee machine to consistently achieve the desired yield in the desired time is referred to as dialling in your machine, and is the topic of a future blog post. 

What about tamping? Tamping refers to compacting the finely ground coffee inside the portafilter basket into a puck of coffee. The key to good tamping is applying consistent even pressure throughout the coffee. You want your tamper to be clean and dry.

Can we pull that shot already? So the basic procedure is:

  • Remove the portafilter and purge (draw some water through the machine without the portafilter attached)
  • Clean your basket
  • Measure and dose your basket (I use 16g, but that depends on the size of your basket)
  • Settle and distribute the ground evenly in the basket before tamping
  • Tamp evenly and firmly before removing the tamper from the basket. A slight twist on the tamper will make sure that you don't remove any coffee grind with the tamper.
  • Insert the portafilter into the machine and immediately start the shot extracting for 30 seconds.

And finally you can sit back and enjoy your shot.

So the next time you're at your favourite coffee house and that vein in your neck starts throbbing while you wait for the hippy barista serving you your favourite espresso based drink, take a deep breath and know that the drink you're about to savour is going to be worth the wait. The possibilities to create a great espresso shot are endless, so sit back an enjoy every moment of it.

If you enjoy a good steak over the braai, look out for a delectable recipe in our next blog post. Until then, keep pulling those great espresso shots.  


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