I love coffee and also run coffee classes teaching anyone who will listen about coffee.
Take a Deep Breath: Making Coffee Will Soon Seem Simple and Easy
Once you have learned the skill of making great coffee, it seems simple and easy. But when you first step behind an espresso machine, it can seem complicated, with everything happening very quickly. It can be quite overwhelming but don’t freak out: this is how it is meant to feel.
Just know that once you have made a few coffees, the whole process will seem to slow down and simplify itself. It is like driving a car: the first time, there seem to be too many different things going on. But with time, it soon seems like there is hardly anything to it.
So with time, you will be making dozens of coffees and have a backlog of orders. It will no longer be you who cannot keep up with the machine; it will be the machine that will not be able to keep up with you. You will find yourself wishing it would go faster.
How to Make Great Coffee: An Overview
There are four main steps in making a great coffee: the grind, the pour/extraction, texturing/heating the milk, and then pouring the milk.
The grind is the first step a lot of people fall over. Many have the grind level set by the coffee company or serviceman, then never adjust it.
The grind needs to be set every day since the weather (e.g., humidity) can have an effect on the grind. A good barista will check the grind each morning by making a few coffees before the store opens and adjusting the grinder accordingly. Throughout the day, the barista will continue to make minor adjustments. I will go into more detail soon.
Now the pour partly depends on the grind and the “tamp.” Most machines are automatic these days, so the size of the shot of coffee should be already set and therefore, will not be a variable at this stage. Now you want to end up with a beautiful golden even-looking crema, the golden-brownish foam that covers a freshly-brewed cup of espresso, created by the high pressure of the water being forced through the coffee grounds. If your coffee does not have this golden crema on top, you need to start again, as your coffee will not be nice at all—it will be either bitter or weak. Again we will go into more detail in the next section.
The milk needs to be smooth, silky, and not too hot. Like the grind, this is a step that many people fall over. They end up with an airy bubbly mess of boiling-hot tasteless milk that ruins the coffee.
Each of these steps is just as important as the other, and all need to be perfected to make a truly great coffee: the kind of coffee that you will come back time and time again to experience.
The Steps for Making Great Coffee
The four steps for making great coffee are the grind, the extraction/pour, the milk steaming/stretching/texturing, and the pour.
1. The Grind
An overly-coarse grind will produce a weak, watery tasting coffee. The coarse grind will give you a watery-looking black shot with little to no crema. If there is any resulting crema, it will be a really pale, light colour.
On the other hand, too fine of a grind will produce a bitter, harsh, “over-extracted” taste. This is because the water takes too long to flow through the coffee grinds. For the same reason, you will get a really dark-looking crema, instead of the desired golden, even-looking crema. Once you have used the same machine and grinder for a while, you will be able to tell a good shot of coffee just by looking at the grind. But to start with, there will be a lot of trial and error working out the best grind for the perfect shot of coffee, and it is still good practice to double-check by making a coffee even when you have become an experienced barrista.
Don’t be afraid to make shot after shot, adjusting the grind slightly each time until you get a nice, perfect shot of coffee with a beautiful, even, golden crema. Also, when you bang out the grinds from the filter, the grinds should stay together and come out in a nice compact “puck." If it comes out sloppy, the grinds were too coarse; if there is a pool of water on top, the grinds were too fine, and some of the water was not able to force its way through.
2. The Extraction/Pour
The extraction, or pour, should take between 23 and 28 seconds.
If it takes under 20 seconds, you know your grind was too coarse, leaving you little to no crema (again, crema is the golden-brownish foam that covers a freshly brewed cup of espresso, and it is created by the high pressure of the water being forced through the coffee grinds); if there is any crema, it will be a very light colour.
If it takes over 30 seconds, you know your grind was too fine, leaving you with a dark uneven crema. To recap: if the grind is too coarse, you are going to end up with a weak-tasting coffee, and if it is too fine you will end up with a bitter-tasting coffee.
3. Milk Steaming/Stretching/Texturing
Milk steaming should happen in two stages: stretching and spinning.
Stretching means exactly that: literally stretching the milk out. This is done by introducing air into the milk using the steam wand. This increases the volume of the milk (stretches it out) by about one and a half times.
The second stage is spinning the milk into the desired silky, thick texture.
The best way to learn how to execute these two stages of steaming milk is to start out with very cold milk. This will give you the maximum time to do these two stages as you are learning the process. Start with a clean cold jug, a milk thermometer, and cold fresh milk. If you put some milk in the jug, then pop it back in the fridge for 5 minutes, this will make it extra cold and give you a bit more time.
Here are the steps for both stages.
- Cover the steam wand with a damp cloth and turn it on for three seconds to make sure it is cleared of all water.
- To begin stretching, sink the tip of the steam wand into the milk about halfway to the bottom and turn the steam up.
- Then bring the tip of the wand up to just below the surface of the milk. You should hear a ch-ch-ch sound. If there's no sound, the steam wand is too far down. This means that you aren't introducing air into the milk, you're just heating it, so bring the wand up. If there is a horrible screeching sound, the steam is directly hitting the side or bottom of the jug. Gently bring the steam wand up to the surface, slowly introducing some air. If you start producing big, bulging bubbles and the steam wand is spluttering you're too near the surface, so bring the wand down.
- Stir the milk as it expands, while keeping an eye on the thermometer.
- You have finished stretching once the milk has expanded to 1.5 times its original volume.
- Spinning begins once the milk is around 30°C (note that there is usually a 5°C lag on thermometers, so it is best to begin when the reading is around 25°C). If the milk has not yet finished stretching, you may have to begin spinning while continuing to introduce the air with the steam wand for the milk to stretch.
You want the steam to produce the whirlpool effect known spinning, so that all of the milk heats up evenly. When you first start making coffee, it is a good idea to use a thermometer, but once you are skilled, you can use your hand on the edge of the jug to judge when it is hot enough.
How hot is too hot? The ideal temperature for immediate consumption is between 65°C and 70°C. Too much below this, your milk will miss out on the caramelizing effect; too much above this, you will scald your milk and lose its silky, creamy texture. Once the milk is scalded, it separates, and you end up with the froth on top and a watery coffee down below.
However, the customer is the main concern. If a customer wants their coffee scalding hot, then you need to prepare it that way.
As I said earlier, when learning, you can give yourself more time to texture the milk correctly by making sure both the milk and the metal jug are cold and straight out of the fridge.
- When the temperature reaches about 30°C, sink the steam wand into the milk on one side of the jug. Tilt the jug slightly, and move the steam wand in a circular motion to achieve a whirlpool effect. The whirlpool effect helps achieve those micro-bubbles that give the silky texture you want for your coffee.
- Continue until the milk reaches about 70°C. (Again, note that there is usually a 5°C lag on thermometers, so it is best to remove the steam wand when the reading if five degrees below your desired temperature. Otherwise, if you shut the steam wand off at the desired temperature you'll quite likely see the needle continue to rise upwards and settle at above what you were aiming for.)
- Turn off the steam wand before removing it. Otherwise, you will introduce large bubbles of air to your milk and make a mess in the process.
- Once you have removed the steam wand, it is a good habit to clean it carefully with a damp cloth. Do so while continuing to swirl the milk in the pitcher with your other hand to keep the nicely stretched and spun milk moving.
- If you have ended up with any large bubbles in your milk, you can quickly bang the jug on the counter and then keep swirling.
- You are ready to pour!
4. Pouring the Milk
You want to start pouring the milk while it is still moving. If it has stopped swirling, give it a good couple of swirls before pouring, so the milk doesn’t separate, instead staying silky and thick. I like to pick up the glass and hold the spout of the jug quite close to the edge of the glass. When you start pouring, you do not want the milk to break the crema. Instead, you want to bring the lovely thick golden crema all the way up the glass so that the first sip you or your customer takes is full of flavour. When you finish, there should be a dark line left around the top of the glass or cup where the crema was. When pouring into a cup for a flat white or cappuccino, I like to bring the jug down to the cup rather than picking the cup up. But again, this is up to your personal preference once you feel comfortable.
Examples of Latte Art
Once you have mastered pouring the milk, you can then start to learn some simple but impressive latte art. The two main ones are the leaf and the heart shape. Both look great and, when done right, will impress the pants off of anyone. The pure simplicity of the designs looks good on top of a flat white or a latte.
Pour the milk about 3 cm away from the bottom. Once the cup is about half-filled, gently shake the jug back and forth while slowly moving it backwards. The leaf design will move forward, filling the cup. You need to do this with a shaking motion using your wrist instead of moving your whole hand back and forth. Once you get to one side, you then push the jug forward back through the design to create the stalk. This whole pour needs to be done without stopping and starting, otherwise you will ruin the shape.
Starting off with the milk jug close to the top of the mug, introduce a little bit of milk in the same place. Lifting the jug an inch or so you then tilt the jug forward and wiggle back and forth, so that the milk comes out and forms a round white circle. Make sure to move the milk jug, not the cup.
When your milk is almost completely poured, and you are at one edge of the circle, bring the milk back up through the middle of the circle to create the bottom tip of your heart. This whole pour needs to be done without stopping and starting, otherwise you will ruin the shape.
Types of Coffee Drinks and Recipes for How to Make Them
Caffè Latte or Latte
It is prepared with one shot of espresso in a glass filled to the top with velvety smooth milk. As it settles, you are left with about a finger's width of micro foam.
The main difference between a latte and a flat white is the ratio of milk and espresso. The flat white has less milk than a latte and usually a little less micro foam on top. Unlike what many people think, the flat white does have micro foam on top. Some people also think that the flat white is a stronger coffee, but it has the same amount of espresso; it just tastes stronger due to there being less milk.
A long black is a double shot of coffee topped up with hot water to about one finger's width from the top of a ceramic flat white cup. Some people prefer just one shot, but I like the extra crema on a double shot long black.
Cappuccino is served in the same cup as a flat white and has the same amount of micro foam as a latte. You can then sprinkle chocolate on top. You do not spoon bubbly froth on top. In fact, if you have bubbly froth, then you have not textured your milk correctly.
Espresso or Short Black
Just one shot of espresso served in a small glass or small ceramic cup. I prefer the small glass as I personally think it looks better.
A macchiato is an espresso with a minimal amount (or "mark") of milk on top. This is a drink with a strong espresso flavour and just a touch of milkiness. A macchiato will often have half a teaspoon of micro foam on it. However, the traditional preparation of the drink does not require foam, but rather milk or steamed milk. I normally put a dash of cold milk and just half a teaspoon of textured steamed milk. Serve it in a short glass, as it looks better than in a ceramic cup.
A ristretto is the strongest and most concentrated espresso drink. It is made with about half the amount of water but the same amount of coffee as a regular espresso. It is intense and has a pure, strong taste. To make it, start out the same way as a normal espresso, but stop the pour halfway through. This means you only get the first part of the pour, which is the strongest. "Ristretto" in Italian means "restricted," and it is called this because the amount of water used is restricted. Serve it in either a short black glass or ceramic cup. Again, I prefer the loot of a glass, but this is purely my choice.
A doppio is a double shot of espresso. This is the perfect solution if you are really in need of a quick pick-me-up. A doppio is served a half-sized cup, which is bigger than a short black cup. Most people will have a teaspoon of sugar in this coffee, even if they don’t normally. As always, use raw sugar as it caramelises with the coffee for a much fuller taste than white sugar does.
A mocha can be prepared in a variety of ways. But basically, it is a chocolate-flavoured cafe latte. I put two teaspoons of hot chocolate in a latte glass, pour the shot of coffee over it, and mix them together. Then I pour in the milk the same way I would for a latte and sprinkle chocolate on top. I serve it in the same glass as a latte.
Deluxe Iced Coffee
This is the best iced coffee—you have to give it a go even if you don’t normally drink it!
- Start with two shots of espresso and one teaspoon of castor sugar.
- Then add two ice cubes to cool it down.
- Grab a tall glass and add a teaspoon of honey by dripping it down the sides of the glass.
- Then add the espresso and ice cubes (which may have melted).
- Add one drop of vanilla extract, then two scoops of good quality vanilla ice cream
- Top it off with milk.
- Serve with a long spoon.
Your Favourite Coffee
Cleaning Your Espresso Machine
You will need:
- a blind filter (this is just like a regular filter but without the holes)
- commercial espresso machine cleaner
- Put the blind filter into the group handle.
- Put ½ teaspoon of commercial espresso machine cleaner into the blind filter.
- Lock the group handle into the group head of the espresso machine.
- Then use the manual override to flush water into the group head. The blind filter will cause the cleaner to backwash into the machine and clean it.
- Run the water for about 2 seconds, then release. Repeat this about 4 times.
- Then take out the blind filter and run some water through without a filter in.
- Use a damp cloth to wipe any excess coffee grind from around the edge of where the water comes out.
- Turn off the espresso machine.
After that, it's good to get used to a routine for cleaning the rest of your supplies as well. Here is my routine for cleaning everything I use in a normal day after I clean the espresso machine.
Cleaning Your Steam Wands
- Then turn on the steam wands and let all the steam run out.
- Leave them open overnight.
Cleaning Your Drip Trays, Group Handles, and Filters
- Wipe the grinds off of the drip tray.
- Pull the drip tray out and drain it.
- Clean the drip tray of any remaining grinds, and leave the tray out to dry overnight. Don't put the tray back into the espresso machine until morning, when it has completely dried.
- Make sure you wash all the group handles and filters in warm soapy water if needed. Alternatively, you can soak them in commercial coffee cleaner overnight. If you do this, make sure you thoroughly rinse them in the morning before using them again.
Fun Facts and Trivia About Coffee
These are all things I have heard or read about coffee over the years. I am sure that some of the stories that have been passed down through the ages may have been embellished, but they are interesting nonetheless and part of the coffee shop lore.
- My personal favorite: Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world; the only commodity more highly traded is oil.
- The world drinks 500 billion cups of coffee each year.
- Coffee was declared illegal five times by five different cultures. The first was in Mecca during the 16th century. In Italy, Catholics were unsure whether coffee was acceptable, and there were movements to ban it until Pope Clement VIII settled the matter in coffee's favor. Charles the II in England tried to ban coffee houses in hopes of quelling the ongoing rebellion (coffeehouses were places for political and religious discussions), yet it backfired and was never enforced (people need their coffee!). In Sweden, coffee was banned, and King Gustav III, who was convinced that coffee had terrible health effects, even conducted an experiment on a pair of identical twins convicted of murder and condemned to death. One was forced to drink three pots of coffee a day, while the other was sentenced to three pots of tea a day (the tea drinker died first). The last was Fredrick the Great, who banned the beverage in Germany in 1677.
- Caffeine used to be on the International Olympic Committee list of prohibited substances. Athletes who tested positive for more than 12 micrograms of caffeine per millilitre of urine could be banned from the Olympic Games or retroactively stripped of a medal. This level may be reached after drinking about 5 cups of coffee.
- The first espresso machine was built in Italy by Angelo Moriondo in 1884.
- The largest consumer of coffee as of 2014 was the Netherlands, with a whopping 2.414 cups of daily coffee consumption per capita.
- In Japan, people try to improve their skin and reduce wrinkles by bathing in coffee grounds fermented with pineapple pulp.
- The most widely accepted legend associated with the discovery of coffee is of the goat herder named Kaldi of Ethiopia. Around the year 600 A.D., Kaldi was amazed as he noticed his goats behaving in a frisky manner after eating the leaves and berries of a coffee shrub. And, of course, he had to try them!
- In the year 1763, there were over 200 coffee shops in Venice.
- The heavy tea tax imposed on the American colonies in 1773, which caused the 'Boston Tea Party', resulted in America switching from tea to coffee. Drinking coffee was an expression of freedom.
- The average age of an Italian barista is 48 years old; in Italy, a barista is a respected job title.
- In Greece and Turkey, the oldest person is always served coffee first.
- In the last three centuries, 90% of all people living in the Western world have switched from tea to coffee
- Coffee has been around for over 11 centuries.
- Turkish bridegrooms were once required to make a promise during their wedding ceremonies to always provide their new wives with coffee. If they failed to do so, it was grounds for divorce!
- One time there was a group of women who formed Women's Petition Against Coffee (WPAC). That was in London in 1674. They complained that their men were always at the coffeehouses instead of doing what was needed at home.
- Beethoven, who was a coffee lover, was so particular about his coffee that he always counted 60 beans into each cup when he prepared his brew.
- Louis XV was rumoured to have spent USD 15,000 per year on coffee for his daughters.
- Voltaire supposedly drank 50 cups a day.
- The first documented license to sell coffee in America was obtained by Dorothy Jones of the Massachusetts Colony in 1670.
- The first coffee advertisement was a handbill distributed in 1652. It read: "The Virtue of the coffee drink first publicly made and sold in England, by Pasqua Rosee...in St. Michael's Alley Cornhill...at the Signe of his own head." It is now housed in the British Museum.
- Mr. Jacobs opened England's first coffeehouse in Oxford in 1650. Two years later, Pasqua Rosee, a Greek, opened another coffee house in partnership with Daniel Edwards, an Englishman. By 1700, some two thousand such coffee shops were established.
- The three biggest coffee drinkers in the world are the Americans, the Brazilians and the Germans. In 2011, they consumed 37% of the total world's consumption of coffee.
- The Dutch literally brought the coffee plant to the rest of the world. They brought the first coffee plant from Mocha in Yemen to Holland in 1616. Their first cultivation was in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1658.
- When coffee supplies became scarce during the American Civil War, soldiers desperate for a cup of coffee used roasted sweet potato and Indian corn as a substitute!
- The word "tip" dates back to the old London coffeehouses. Conspicuously placed brass boxes etched with the inscription, "To Insure Promptness," encouraged customers to pay for efficient service. The resulting acronym, TIP, has become a byword.
- Until the late 1800s, people roasted their coffee at home. Popcorn poppers and stove-top frying pans were favoured.
- Before the first French cafe in the late 1700s, street vendors in Europe sold coffee in the Arab fashion. The Arabs were the forerunners of the sidewalk espresso carts of today.
- Iced coffee in a can has been popular in Japan since 1945.
- Coffee improves airways function for up to four hours after drinking and is related to theophylline, an asthma drug. This has led researchers to conduct studies to see whether it can be used as a treatment for asthma.
Home Coffee Machines for the Home Barista
Buying the right coffee machine for your home is a big decision with so many different machines on the market. My favorite home coffee machine is the Sunbeam Cafe Series. With these coffee machines, you can make a perfect cafe style latte, flat white, or any other coffee style you like.
They are easy to use, they look fantastic in your kitchen, and they are solid machines. I have had mine for over four years. During that time, I have used it almost every day, and it is still going strong. Breville has also put out a similar coffee machine for the last couple of years and has recently come out with the Dual Boiler Espresso Machine. Though I have not yet tested the Dual Boiler Espresso machine, it looks fantastic, and I can't wait to give it a go.
Before buying one for home, you should try to test as many as you can. It not only needs to look good in your kitchen but also you want to feel comfortable with the one you choose. Best of luck with your new espresso machine!
© 2013 Taj Barr
Liza from USA on May 16, 2020:
Hey thanks for sharing the article. I love reading anything about coffee. My husband and I are avid coffee drinker and we have a dedicated coffee bar at home. We both enjoy drinking coffee/espresso in the morning. On the weekend, we make ice coffee in the afternoon.
Mia on January 04, 2019:
It's a very detailed guide! Thnak you!
bridejohn on February 14, 2016:
Flavors can also be influenced quite a bit by changing the type of filter you use. Gold filters (and most plastic filters) allow the bean oils to permeate and find their way into the coffee. Paper filters absorb this oil and thus they are absent from the coffee. Some people swear that there are flavor differences between white (bleached) vs. brown (non-bleached) filters.
Russ on December 28, 2014:
Thanks for all the good advice. Shall now go an make that perfect cup.
Snider Mill on September 23, 2014:
I know a lot of people who have a miss belief that cleaning an espresso machine is a quite hard. But, I don't think so. last week, I purchased a new espresso machine from Tace Espresso sys and they told me that cleaning process of an espresso machine varies with type. Since I had a semi automatic espresso maker my weekly cleaning requirements are minimum. So, It's not a big job for me.
Mario Psomas from Europe on August 22, 2014:
Excellent hub on espresso. The details given are very professional and the facts about coffee enjoyable. Thumb-up & Interesting:=)
Anna on August 06, 2014:
Thanks for this very informative article! Love the interesting coffee facts section as well.
David on July 22, 2014:
GREAT article.... superba superba
Ravi on June 22, 2014:
Really helpul article, thanks
Taj Barr (author) from Torquay on May 01, 2014:
Thanks Rachael for the comment glad to be of assistance. Taj Barr happy coffee making.
Rachael on May 01, 2014:
Such a helpful article thanks Taj Barr for the info!
Pharmd670 on May 14, 2013:
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