How many times have you walked into a bar and drank a coffee even though it tasted rancid or was lacking in flavour? It’s astonishing how little we know about—and how little we appreciate—the world’s most important drink after water. Tommaso Bongini, master barista of Tuscan roastery Caffè Mokarico, explains the golden rules to making the perfect espresso.
Like all food preparation, hygiene and cleanliness are essential. Before making each espresso, the portafilter should be released and cleaned with a designated cloth to remove the coffee left from the previous operation. There’s no need to hit the portafilter on the counter—the cloth does the business. Run the water on the machine to clean the spouts.
Weigh the handle on the scales. (All coffee shops should have a set of scales by the coffee machine.)
Coffee should always be ground when needed. After just 30 minutes, ground coffee loses 65 per cent of its aroma. In many bars, you see already ground coffee sitting there, which the barista just takes prior to extraction. This means that customers lose out in terms of freshness, flavour and aroma. Coffee must always begin with the beans, in the hopper, whose sides should be transparent and clean. Weigh again to check and adjust the dose if needed (15–16 grams of grinds in the portafilter for two shots).
The coffee is pressed with a handheld steel tamp, the only tool capable of guaranteeing top precision. Place the portafilter on a level surface and push down firmly ensuring that your tamp is flat and then release. This way, there’s never a need to tap the side of the portafilter with the tamp, which leads to channeling—and an under extracted and often watery shot.
5. Clean (again)
Clean the edges of the portafilter to remove any excess grinds. This should be done by hand, but never flicking it against the machine or counter.
Return the portafilter to the group head and extract the drink between 20 and 30 seconds. Less than 20 seconds makes the espresso watery and flavourless, whereas more than 30 seconds makes it bitter in flavour and releases a burnt aroma.
How to taste espresso
Be honest: have you ever really tasted an espresso? My guess is probably not, certainly not like you’ve tasted wine. A twice-a-day single-shot drinker, I’d never truly degustato espresso before attending Bongini’s masterclass.
1/ Observe the crema to see how elastic it is.
2/ Take a sniff. What can you smell? Vanilla maybe. Or perhaps chocolate. The nuances are endless.
3/ Take two sips—one for the crema, one for the drink. Consider the body, bitterness, acidity and sweetness.