Espresso has long been a favorite of coffee drinkers everywhere. If you’re a fan of this caffeine delicacy, you may have noticed that baristas press down the espresso grounds before running water through it. This process is known as tamping, and while it may not appear so at first glance, it is important!
You need to press the espresso before pouring the shot so that the water doesn’t rush through the espresso. If it did, you would end up with espresso that is weak and flavorless. Pressing the espresso allows the water to fully absorb the caffeine and oils as it runs through.
In this article, we’ll talk about what espresso is, what tampering is, and how it affects the quality of the espresso shot you’re about to enjoy. Let’s get started.
Why You Should Always Press Espresso
We’ll talk a little more about this in a few minutes, but the biggest thing that differentiates espresso from regular coffee is the ratio of coffee grounds to water. When making espresso, water is pushed through the grounds with high pressure.
Because of the pressure involved, the water could very easily rush through the coffee grounds, picking up very little, if any, of the flavor, oils, and aroma of the coffee. Espresso is bold. This is the number one flavor profile of this drink. That said, weak espresso is nothing more than brewed coffee.
What Does the Tamping Process Do?
Tamping, or pressing, the espresso compacts the grounds, so the water is forced to slow down as it travels through. Because the water is shot through at high pressure, when the grounds are compacted, it spreads throughout the entire basket, releasing all the flavors and oils as it goes.
If the espresso is pressed too hard, the water may not be able to flow freely enough, which can cause weak coffee. We’ll talk more about how hard you press the espresso in the section on how to tamp.
All you really need to know right now is that the tamping process works to release the oils in the grounds. The fine grind of the espresso definitely assists with this process. Typically, normal coffee grounds are a coarser grind that doesn’t release the same flavors or oil.
What Is Espresso, and How Is It Different From Regular Coffee?
Espresso, similar to regular coffee, comes from the coffee plant. Unlike normal coffee, espresso grounds go through a completely different process. This process allows for more natural oils to be released during the roasting and grinding process.
So, how is espresso made? Similar to making regular coffee, the beans are first roasted at high temperatures and ground. The espresso grind is very fine. However, it is the way the water is forced through the grounds that makes an espresso an espresso.
To make an espresso, hot water must be forced through the grounds with significant force. The key is to have a high grounds to water ratio, which allows the drink to maintain a thicker texture and have a rich and creamy foam on top.
The Differences in Caffeine Content
Espresso also is known to have a higher caffeine content than regular coffee. One reason for this is the process of how it’s made. Espresso is a concentrated form of caffeine.
While coffee measures more cup-for-cup as far as caffeine content goes, espresso actually has more because it’s more caffeine in a more concentrated amount. Typically eight ounces of brewed coffee contains between 95 and 165 milligrams (0.095-0.165 g) of caffeine, while one ounce of espresso contains between 47 and 64 milligrams (0.047-0.064 g) of caffeine.
However, remember that typically one drink made with espresso has between two and four shots of espresso, giving you significantly more caffeine content.
What Gives Espresso Its Signature Flavors?
Espresso actually comes in many different flavors, from a light blonde to a dark roast. This is because espresso beans are roasted the same way as coffee beans, with varying temperatures of between 350°F (177°C) and 475°F (246°C).
The thing that really gives espresso its signature flavor, however, is what is known as the crema. The crema is the foam that rests on top of an espresso shot and contains a ton of flavor.
Crema is formed when the air bubbles combine with the ground’s soluble oils. This is also seen in various beers. The crema is also what gives espresso its rich aroma.
In the world of the coffee connoisseur, the presence of crema indicates that the espresso shot high quality and typically has been made with coffee that has been ground extremely fine. The crema gives the espresso its rich and full flavor, along with the lingering aftertaste.
How Do You Know You Have the Perfect Crema?
Of course, everyone has their own opinion, but the consensus is that the longer the crema remains on top of the espresso shot, the better.
Crema is formed as the water filters through the grounds, and the texture and quality of it are highly dependent upon the grounds-to-water ratio. The goal of the perfect crema is to have one that is neither too thick nor too thin and lingers on the shot as long as possible, usually for at least two minutes.
Surprisingly enough, getting the perfect crema has a lot to do with how you press the coffee. If the coffee isn’t pressed well, you can expect that it will have minimal foam on top, if any. You can also expect that it won’t stick around for long.
What Influences the Crema?
Beyond the water to grounds ratio, there are a few things that influence the flavor of your crema and, therefore, the flavor of your espresso.
One thing to note is that freshly roasted beans will produce both more crema and a bolder flavor profile. If the beans haven’t had very much time to sit, the oils are still heavy once they’ve been ground. It can be difficult to find freshly roasted beans if you aren’t roasting your own, but sometimes you can find a good coffee shop that roasts in-house.
Another thing to factor in is that darker roast beans produce less crema. You end up with a more bitter flavor profile but less richness when you use a darker roast. The ideal roast to get the most crema is a medium roast, as blonde roasts sometimes encounter some of the same issues as dark.
One more thing I want to make mention is that you will have more crema with beans that are roasted as naturally as possible. As I’ve mentioned, the oils are the key to flavor, and roasting naturally does something special with them, keeping them intact and full of flavor.
How To Properly Press Your Espresso
You may think that pressing your espresso is a simple process, and it is, but there’s more to it than just pressing the tamper down and moving on. To get the perfect cup of espresso, you must first have proper form.
The best position to be in is standing with your wrist completely straight and your elbow bent at ninety degrees. You want as much force as possible to come from your shoulder muscles rather than your wrist.
After you’ve practiced the proper form and feel comfortable moving on to the tamping process, it’s time to measure your grounds. If you’re a spontaneous measurer like myself, you may think it’s okay to just toss in some grounds and get to pressing. However, sometimes measuring is important, and this is one of those times.
The problem with just tossing in some grounds and moving on is that you’re probably going to add too much. As you might remember, the hot water that comes through is under a decent amount of pressure, and if your basket is too full, espresso grounds are going to be everywhere!
The Pressing Process
Alright, now it’s time to get into how to press the espresso. I’ve listed the steps below.
- Measure your espresso. Place your grounds into the coffee container or basket.
- Rest the tamper on the top of the grounds. Make sure that it’s completely level.
- Begin pushing down the tamper. Use firm and consistent pressure. Focus on exerting even pressure throughout the basket rather than using more force.
- Remove the tamper and check out your espresso. The grounds should look like they’ve been compressed evenly and level.
Simple enough, right? Pressing espresso isn’t as complicated as you might think, but it does take some practice to get it completely right. With time, you find brewing the perfect shot of espresso to be as easy as pie.
Espresso is one of those things that just comes full of flavor. It’s rich. It’s bold. It’s delicious.
There are a lot of factors that influence the flavor of espresso, though, and the pressing process is one of the primary influencers. Espresso must be pressed properly, or the flavor is guaranteed to be off.
The pressing process is fairly simple once you get the hang of it. So keep practicing, and I look forward to hearing about how much better your espresso is turning out now that you know the proper tamping procedure.