The Zoka website features a fairly extensive article on how to brew espresso at home, which I studied before heading off to my very first Zoka Barista Jam last week. (Don’t worry, I didn’t know “Barista Jam” was part of the coffee dialect either. And no, there is no live music involved. Just some Beyoncé to help us get our coffee groove on.)
I thought I was somewhat well-versed in the art of the espresso, especially after reading Zoka’s educational guide. I figured if those coffee slingers at the big chains could serve a shot in under a minute what was stopping me? It’s pretty straightforward right?
The answer is yes and no. Yes, I could potentially make good espresso. No, it’s not so straightforward. A five-hour training session (my layman’s term for barista jamming) in the Zoka headquarters covered two necessary barista skills: pulling near-perfect shots of espresso and steaming milk. Two skills in five hours. Nope – turns out, not simple at all.
Robbie Britt, barista extraordinaire, headed my small group of beginning baristas where he expertly led Zoka’s future latte laureates through every step of the espresso. I will do my best to debrief you on that same process, so in case you ever find yourself in a barista jam, you’ll be ready.
Robbie Britt, giving the barista jammers a morning pep-talk.
Get Your Coffee Beans Dosed
What is the correct dose of grounds for the perfect espresso? If you answered between 18.5 and 19.5 grams, congratulations. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, and should perhaps think about going into the barista business. Around 19 grams will make a very tasty espresso – professionals like Robbie Britt can eyeball 19 grams within a half-gram.
What does 19 grams look like when heaped in the basket? A tiny coffee mountain, rising up out of the middle of the basket about one inch above the recessed edge. Not a lopsided peak, not a rounded dome, but a regal, perfectly centered mountain.
To make sure things are settled soundly into the basket while you are sifting the grounds, give the portafilter two nice sturdy taps as the mountain builds. But not enough to make everything spill (dare I say, erupt?). That’s wasteful, and Robbie will make you do it over. And over. And over still, until under his masterful tutelage, you eventually get it right. Excellent Zoka coffee will only get you so far in attaining the ideal espresso – the rest is up to you, barista.
Achieving this perfectly dosed mountain on a regular basis took upwards of thirty minutes in training… and my mountain was more still more St. Helens than Rainier.
Mold That Sucker
Smoothing out your coffee-grounds mountain into a nice, sealed puck means the water will filter through at the right rate and hit as much of the coffee as possible. Filling the basket unevenly gives the water an easy route through which to flow, and your espresso will be weak and lacking buzz.
With a stiff, flat finger (meaning not curved in any way… you will be surprised how tempting it is to round your finger to fit over the mountain), smooth the coffee back and forth so the grounds are spread evenly to the edges creating the perfect seal. The key is not to spill or wipe any coffee off the mountain and onto the floor.
In the professional Zoka barista world, you are allowed 1/2 gram of spilled grounds – referred to as “acceptable waste.” Granted, if you are making espresso at home, you could just wipe the excess grounds from the counter back into your grinder and call it a day. But we all like to pretend we are professionals right?
Sealing the puck is not the time to push or compress the grounds into the basket, so don’t start packing in the grounds with your fingers. That task is reserved for tamping… a whole other art unto itself.
And the subject of our next Daily Dose.
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