Making Perfect Espresso at Illy

When I told a friend that I was going to Italy to learn how to make coffee, she responded, “You just dump the coffee into a filter and pour water over it. What else do you need to do?”

Well, since you asked, plenty.

barista.jpgredespresso.jpg

Illy barista Giorgio Milos shows off his skill, and one of my first efforts to match his


First of all, there’s an important distinction between ‘brewing coffee’ and ‘extracting espresso’.

Brewed coffee is steeping ground beans in hot water, which any fool like me can do, whereas making espresso involves a couple of crucial steps and the deft use of a high-pressured machine combined with several specific techniques. It’s not easy to make the perfect espresso, but anyone can make a pretty decent one, even using an inexpensive home machine.

And how do you know what a good espresso is?

It’s a very tiny cup of deep-brown liquid, just a couple of sips, not bitter-tasting, but rich, complex and lingering, which endures on your tastebuds for 10-15 minutes afterward—one singular, perfectly-extracted shot of true Italian espresso.

I was really anxious to visit Illy, since I’ve been having trouble getting just the right little shot to taste good at home. Mine was either too watery, or bitter and virtually undrinkable, even though I was using a very powerful espresso maker. But I was also curious why the espresso in Italy tastes so much better than it does anywhere else, even in the humblest caffè. So when Illy invited me to come to their roasting plant and Università del Caffè in Trieste, I cleared my calendar and jumped on a plane.

So what did I learn at Illy?
I learned that anyone, even me, can pull a great cup of espresso at home.
Here’s the 1, 2 and 3′s of it…

espressofoam.jpgfavoritebarista.jpg

Moreno Faina shows off a perfect crema while a barista keeps the Illy staff fueled all day long


1. Start with good coffee.

This seems like a no-brainer. But I have a friend who said his vinaigrettes never tasted as good as he’d like them to. When I pointed out that you can’t make a good salad dressing with crappy olive oil from Trader Joe’s, neither can you make a good cup of espresso unless you start with good coffee beans correctly roasted and packed.


The best coffee is made from Arabica beans and at Illy, we tasted two espressos side-by-side; one made with pure Arabica beans and the other with a 50-50 blend of Robusta and Arabica.

The difference was astounding: The coffee brewed with Robusta was vile and smelled horrid, while the Arabica was intensely-flavored, yet smooth and full. Because Italy never colonized coffee-growing countries, they weren’t economically tied to specific coffee-growing countries so historically, they were able to cull the best beans from around the world. Other countries, like France, colonized places like Cameroon, which are known for inferior Robusta beans and tend to use them, which is reflected in the poor-quality of coffee generally served around Paris.

Don’t believe packaging that says ’100% Arabica’—it seems meaningless.

And because this is an equal-opportunity, cross-cultural blog, we’ll get to American coffee later…

triestecappuchino.jpgdripping2espresso.jpg

Ready to enjoy a chilled coffee drink while two cups of espresso trickle out


The trend towards single-origin products is rather misleading as well, since the best brands of coffee, like chocolate and some wines, combines various qualities of different beans (or grapes) to compliment each other to achieve the right flavor profile. The scientist at Illy advised that ideally, one must blend at least 4-5 difference beans to get a good flavor. Illy uses 9 different beans but constantly adjusts the roast and blend to adapt to various characteristics of the beans, depending on the seasons and environmental conditions.

In the lab, I watched them pick thought who looked like perfectly-good green beans, one-by-one. But when they handed me a bean called a ‘stinker’ and asked me to take a sniff, one whiff was all I needed to know why that’s the international moniker for the rank bean they plucked out. It was moldy and cheesy, and they told me that just one bean like that could ruin an entire can of coffee.

As a baker, it would be similar to using a rancid nut in a batch of cookies. And if you’ve ever bit into a rank nut, you know what I mean. When I was starting out as a pastry cook, the chef made me eat one, and for twenty years afterward, I made sure no one got one in their dessert, believe you me.

But even if you can start with the best green coffee beans, you can ruin them by improper roasting, and you can forget getting a good cup of coffee from them. Many people complain Starbucks and Peet’s coffee tastes burnt, which is perhaps roasted that far to mask the flavor of inferior beans. The scientist at Illy, Marino Petracco, kept looking in my direction when talking about “That Starbucks coffee from California,” but I didn’t want to interrupt and tell him Starbucks was from Seattle.

Unlike what many people think, coffee beans roasted for espresso should not be ultra dark-roasted, which would obliterate any of the subtle flavors that emerge when roasting. Coffee beans destined for espresso should ideally be medium-roasted. Coffee beans can be roasted in as little as 90 seconds, or up to 40 minutes—too long degrades aroma and too little makes the beans bitter. And once roasted, in spite of what you might have been told, coffee should be stored at room temperature in a dark, airtight container. Humidity, light, and oxygen are the biggest enemies of coffee, so the damp refrigerator is not an ideal place to keep your coffee. The freezer’s alright, but if you let the coffee sit out for any length of time, condensation will form which can ruin the beans.

A previous reader queried if the Illy coffee he bought in the US was as fresh as what’s available in Italy, so I asked the Illy team who responded by taking me on a tour of the packing facility. They showed me how their coffee is ‘pressurized’, not just vacuum-packed. Each tin, which they fabricate themselves, is welded together and in a nearby machine, I almost had an regrettable accident when I heard a very, very loud explosion, which turned out to be a test run. Every so often a tin is removed from the welder and pressurized before it loudly explodes, to test the seal. (Note to self: If you’ve been drinking a lot of diuretic caffeinated beverages, use the men’s room before taking a tour of a coffee packing facility, since you never know what deafening surprises await. Especially if you’re only traveling with one pair of trousers.)

The difference between ‘pressurized’ over ‘vacuum-packed’ coffee is a dose of nitrogen gas gets added just before the container is sealed, which they say actually augments good aromas over time in the coffee, but which can augment bad flavors as well…which they told me is why no one else does it. They claim their coffee stays fresh for up to three years that way.

Be sure to check back here in 2010, and I’ll post the results of that test.

2. Understanding Espresso.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to me, which shouldn’t have been a surprise when you think about it, is that espresso is an emulsion; a liquid composed of stratified oils. Think salad dressing that separates as it sits, which has lost its emulsion. But a good shake brings it back. Chocolate, mayonnaise, gravy, and butter are other examples of emulsions.

Emulsions are lurking everywhere!

Since a coffee bean is roughly 12% oil, a hot (but not too hot), high-pressured water system can extract a nicely-emulsified cup of espresso in 20-25 seconds. Too short, and it’s watery and insipid. Too long, and it’s thick but bitter. So timing is important.

Anywhere outside of Italy, I watch the barista make an espresso before placing my order. When in doubt, I order a macchiato, or espresso ‘marked’ with a dab of steamed milk, which neutralizes the acidity of a poorly-extracted cup. A common mistake is to add more water, creating a caffè Americano actually increases the sensation of bitterness on your tongue and isn’t recommended, unless you add milk.

firstespressomachine.jpg

One of the world’s first espresso machines


Although the espresso-maker was invented by the French, Francesco Illy refined it in 1935, adding compressed pressure to the process, which shortened the extraction time and reduced the bitterness in the finished espresso. (Gaggia invented the spring-lever machine in 1947 and Faema introduced a pump to push the water through in 1961.)

There are a lot of various machines available to make espresso, but it’s difficult to find a home machine that will do it as well as the professional models. And they had them all lined up at Illy’s Università del Caffè for me to take through their paces.

The inexpensive machines don’t have the high-pressure pumps needed to make a perfect espresso, but I was able to pull a very good cup in the smaller machines, including their Francis!Francis! X1 machine. The Illy barista, Michele Pauletic (who kept me fueled by so much espresso all weekend, I think I slept a total of 2½ hours) had me try that machine and I extracted an excellent espresso, similar in strength and quality to the huge powerhouse models they had lined up. These machines are inexpensive in Italy, although the prices do creep up when exported to the states. But due to voltage differences, the ones sold in the US are modified.

If anyone’s interested in buying a second-home in Trieste, I’m happy to stay there when you’re not in town. And teach you how to make espresso. Get in touch.

tongue.jpgpouringmilk.jpg

Learning how coffee tastes and steamed milk techniques


Because we all taste things differently depending on our physiology, and where things hit our tongues, most of us tend to crave sweet, fatty things, since their high-caloric value means nourishment. Whereas bitter usually send a danger signal to our brains, since many toxic substances are indeed tart and sour, explained Signore Pettracco, the scientist.

So a good espresso isn’t bitter (or burnt-tasting) and should be a thin syrup, 25 ml (about 2 tablespoons) and should have a layer of crema on top, a bit of foam which barista Michele told me was marked with what he called a “tiger’s stripes”, because of the wavy lines and mottled marks in the foam. Jeffrey Steingarten, in his obsessive-essay on espresso-making, says a good crema is notable if it’ll support a spoonful of sugar atop for 2 seconds before disappearing under the surface.

3. Extracting of the Perfect Cup

It’s generally recognized that there are three major factors you need to combine in order to make a good espresso: good beans, good water, and good grinding. (Thanks Alan for the exceptionally-thorough link about water…I think!)

As mentioned, you can’t make good coffee from bad beans, but the same goes with water. If it’s too rich in calcium, magnesium, or other minerals, not only will it inhibit the pressure of the pipes in your machine after a while, but will affect the taste too. All you folks out there chugging bottled water should apply the same criterion to the water you use in your coffee.

Getting the grind right is just as important and unless you have a very powerful burr grinder, you’re better off having your coffee professionally-ground for espresso since it’s impossible to get it ground fine enough in an inexpensive coffee mill (the kind with the small, whizzing blade.) If it’s too fine the water can’t get through, but if it’s too coarse, the water will flow through too quickly. So it needs to be just right.

Being a horrible snob, I thought the pods of espresso, pre-measured coffee packed in little pouches, were a lousy idea until I tried one at Illy, and I’m thinking of making the switch permanently. I’d had bad experiences with Lavazza pods, where the coffee was too-loosely packed and the water flowed through like manna.

And I normally buy pre-ground espresso and had mixed results. But I popped one of those Illy pods in my machine and I knew when a very thin stream of dark, inky liquid trickled out, I got it right. The Illy pods are indeed more expensive, but it’s still less-expensive and better-tasting, than the espresso that I get in most cafés around town.

Speaking of packing, it vital to tamp the coffee in the filter holder correctly.

tamping.jpgillyespressocups.jpg

Correct tamping is very important, and my favorite Illy espresso cups, designed by Jeff Koons (I think they were glued-down, but I was afraid to check.)


To make perfect espresso, use no more than 7 gr of coffee and one should tamp using 9-15 kg of pressure, which you can check using that long-neglected bathroom scale. (You should wash it first to get rid of any stinky-feet smell, which they didn’t mention at Illy, but I think it’s a good idea all the same.)

The ground coffee in the filter holder should be level and smooth with no gaps anywhere. A deft turn of the tamper should be used to polish it off after packing before extracting. It’s impossible to get the right amount of pressure using the plastic disk on the coffee grinder (“…like your Starbucks in California”, I can still hear ringing in my ears…), so I learned to press straight down, holding the filter holder off to the side of the countertop, not directly on it. I wanted to pocket the extremely heavy-duty tamper they had me use, but didn’t want to get busted on the way out. (Which would not be good for international relations.)

Curiously, they’re not available in France, but I do plan to pick one up when I’m in the states in June since it really did the trick. And they look pretty cool.

A perfect espresso should take 20-25 seconds to extract, although in a less-powerful home machine, it may take 18 seconds. When I tried the Francis!Francis! machine at Illy, as it passed the 18 second mark, everyone watching started panicking, rushing over telling me to “Stop! Stop!; since the pressure is less than the bigger models the extraction time is slightly less.

Still, it tasted pretty darned good to me.

Espresso should also be made fast. Once the machine is heated up and ready to go, remove the filter holder, add the coffee, tamp it down, polish it off, and let ‘er rip.

One thing that really surprised me is that the espresso make in a double-filter holder is always better than that made in a single-filter, due to its sloping sides. Because a double-filter is intended to hold more coffee, the straight sides produce a more even extraction. That’s why if you go to a good espresso bar, they’ll often make two espressos and toss one out when they make yours. Or they’ll wait for the next customer to order one before making yours.

Which if you’re in Italy, will probably be a few seconds later. You may need to wait a bit longer if you’re in one of those coffee places “like you have in California…”

In the next installment, I’ll take you in the employee coffee bar at Illy, including the barista, who I’ve dubbed The Most Popular (and perhaps busiest) Woman in Trieste, and a look at some wacky packaging from the past, frothing milk, and the fine art of coffee-tasting…and spitting.

Related Links


Pocket Coffee Haiku

Delving deeper into coffee

10 things I just learned about coffee

Joe the Art of Coffee

Where to find a good cup of coffee in Paris

Ciao Illy

53 comments

  • Well David,
    I have a Krups bistro double coffee maker for filtered and espresso! I use Illy and still make lousy watery versions of what should be fabulous coffee; give us home bodies some advice. No matter how much I try I can’t make a decent espresso! By the way, I like some of the French demitasse in Paris though I notice everyone there is into espresso!

  • David,
    This is the definitive post on making espresso. Thank you! So interesting. (Gorgeous photos too.) No wonder my espresso never tasted as good as what I got in Italy.

  • David,

    I’m going to go with Elise here, this is an informative post and one I shall read many times over! And the photos, aye, me encanta!

  • Good post and some of the language sounds like an Italian speaking English. So, Italy rubbed off a bit, eh?
    I really prefer a lungo, never milk.
    Macchiato actually means spotted or stained, which describes very well what happens either direction, because some sickos do like hot milk macchiato di caffé.
    My little after dinner trick is to put a liqueur into a warmed cup and make the espresso on top of it. Frangelico is tasty. I don’t need dessert after that.
    Oh, the California thing. In Italy most people see the US as NY, Miami and California. They have no need of much else, other than the few with relatives in Chicago, which is, of course, almost in California.

  • I don’t like espresso.

    There, I said it. It has nothing to do with the taste–which I acknowledge is superior to café américain–and everything to do with the size. I like to nurse a cup of coffee over several minutes, and I like it to stay warm the whole time. Espresso fails on both counts. It’s often cold by the time it gets to my table, and if you let it sit for more than a minute, it certainly will be cold. But I drink it anyway. What else are you going to do, be caught red-handed in a Parisian Starbucks? I think not.

  • Nice post. Thanks for publishing it.

    I wish I could buy Illy’s “pressurized for three years of fresh fall-out shelter storage” argument. But empirically, I’ve found no evidence to support this claim. The difference between making a shot with an unopened can of Illy exported to the U.S. and locally-roasted fresh beans is, without fail, a night and day comparison — in terms of freshness and the richness of the crema on the espresso it produces. I commend Illy for their amazing quality controls and standards, but unfortunately they cannot seem to stop time and overcome space no matter how much nitrogen they inject.

    The “Starbucks in California” references are pretty amusing. My guess is they discriminate between Washington and California the way Americans don’t discriminate between, say, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. But if they’re really being clever about it, they would know that Starbucks got their start by consulting visits with Alfred Peet in California. Alfred being the founder of, of course, Peet’s Coffee & Tea.

  • Such a great post! I love the international, educational field trip!!

  • Really informative, thanks. I was always taught that Gaggia made the best machines. What do you think of them?

  • HAHAHA!! I only today figured out that Illy is your way of writing Italy. I’m a little slow sometimes.

  • Addendum – And there are days like today when I should just stay in bed. Illy does not mean Italy! Sorry about that.

  • great post! i love espresso and used to have a pavoni (one of those beautiful machines with a lever) and always used illy… nowadays i make my coffee in a jura impressa, less attractive, but the coffee is decent and ready at the push of a button. my favourite coffee is a musetti at the moment.
    people always think espresso is bad for you because it’s strong, but in fact, it’s better for you as with filter, the water stays in contact with the beans for longer and picks up more toxins on the way, that’s what i’ve heard anyway. can you confirm that?

  • I love a well-made espresso, but I have to admit that my husband got me this plastic device:

    http://aerobie.com/Products/aeropress_story.htm

    …and it seriously makes the greatest espresso. It’s my secret to making coffee at work now without having to use the industrial-grade coffee machine and equally industrial grade coffee.

    I was feeling kind of embarrassed about my love for this thing until I saw that Jeffrey Steingarten likes it too.

  • The most amazing espresso experience I ever had was in Koh Lanta, Thailand. I was walking along the beach when I saw this random coffee bar parked right on the beach. Out of curiosity, I ordered an espresso. While waiting for it, I noticed that the beans used are this brand called Doi Chaang which hails from Northern Thailand, with roasting done in the US.

    The man who made the espresso took so much care with the work that it was all rather touching for me when the cup finally arrived. The espresso was surprisingly good. Definitely better than those served at the run-with-your-coffee chains. Till that day, I had no idea that Thailand’s coffee beans actually had some standard and never did I expect to find on a beach in Koh Lanta.

  • Very informative post! Did they say anything about Expresso having LESS caffeine than regular coffee as someone told me recently…
    Also they mentioned that the bottom inside of the cup should be rounded so you can fully taste the “fruits” of the bean..Hmmm

  • It’s funny that you mention the difference between pure Arabica and espresso made with a Robusta blend. I’ve got a coffee-roaster friend and he’s always complaining about how the Italians still add a little Robusta (apparently it helps the crema at the expense of flavor). But it’s nice to know that at least Illy leaves it out.

  • “Because Italy never colonized coffee-growing countries”

    What about Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Libya? I think they produce coffee.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_empire

  • KT: Another reader recommended that device, although I haven’t used it.

    …and Trig and Kevin: I did set up a page of links to the Aeropress as well as other espresso-makers and coffee accessories here that I like and one’s that coffee-loving readers pointed out to me.

    (There are some excellent tips here as well.)

    Someone I know who roasts his own beans swears by the Gaggia, which costs less than $200US, although there’s also a DeLonghi that’s half of that.

    Johanna: Toxins? Good God, woman.
    What do they put in their coffee in England?

    Elise & Matt: Thanks and glad you liked the photos. Coming from you both, that’s quite a compliment.

    Jeff: *sigh* I wish someone could explain why the coffee is Italy is so much better than it is here. A reader pointed out one reason in a previous post and he has a very informative coffee blog that’s full of great info that I’m going to delve into myself.

    Carol: Espresso does have less-caffeine that coffee brewed in other ways. In the previous post, I gave an appoximation.

    Kate: That beach in Thailand would be pretty good right about now…and the coffee sounds like a very good benefit. But there are some cultures that really take coffee seriously and spend the time to produce a terrific cup. Sounds like paradise….

    hmmm, are you free next week?

  • This is the post I’ve been waiting for, thanks now I feel fully briefed. If only someone would buy me a Gaggia for my birthday….

  • This is an excellent post, very informative. I just wish there was pdf button to print it for future reference.

    Excellent job and beautiful pics.

  • Excellent post!
    We exclusively use Illy coffee at home with our Francis!Francis! X5, to great effect. Maybe not *quite* as excellent as the brew in Italy, but a hell of a lot cheaper than airfare.

    We got the machine by subscribing to Illy a Casa, which nets us not only regular home delivery of the good stuff for less than retail, but a substantial discount on the machine itself.

    If you are in the US and seriously into espresso, this is the way to go: Illy a Casa home delivery.

    Interestingly, last I went into A. G. Ferrari as we were out of coffee, and asked whether they carried Illy. The manager’s response was that they don’t, because Illy’s American blend is different than their Italian blend, and they (Ferrari) aspire only to sell the most authentic Italian goods they can. Illy evidently will not export the Italian blend, period. Still, having never tasted them side-by-side (and clearly never will), I don’t notice enough of a difference to care. The American blend works just fine for me.

  • I like my little moka pot. I know technically it isn’t really espresso, but it comes pretty close without all the expense.

    I buy Blue Bottle coffee (yes, from here in CA!), grind it myself, and brew up a mighty fine cup. Somehow I don’t think pre-packaged, even Illy, would be as good.

  • Diane: I use a Bialetti pot at home for my morning coffee. It makes good coffee, but not a tight, syrupy espresso. That Aerolatte contraption other poster mentioned sounds intriguing and would be interested in seeing how it worked.

    Brian: In the morning, I still like a big steaming bowl of Cafe au lait too…although now that I’m a Euro-dude, it’s espresso the rest of the day for me.

    Monika: You can cut-and-past blog entries into Word then print them out. Or just bookmark the page to come back and visit me! : D

    Sean: Yes, a friend in the US told me about that coffee club and it’s a good deal, especially since that machine does a great job of making espresso (and it looks pretty cool too!)

    Didn’t know that there was a different blend for the US, though. Will ask Illy next time I get in touch with them about that. I know companies like Lavazza and Segafreddo make different roasts and blends for their French market.

    I always stock up on coffee (and pasta di farro) when in Italy, courtesy of my strict adherence to the second-(Empty) suitcase I always bring along.

  • Coffee… wooo what a loaded subject. And here I am going to confess that I love my Magimix and those little capsules. How embarrassing and ecologically incorrect. Well at least I only ride in a car once or twice a month. And PS: if someone wants to take me to Italy…oh well, sigh, it is hell getting old and ugly.

  • Sean: PS: I sent your inquiry to the Illy folks in New York, if there’s a difference between what’s in America vs in Italy, and their response was, “…that’s not valid at all.”

    So perhaps we’ll have to have a taste-off in June!

  • I use a Gaggia Carezza with Lavazza inBlue, which comes ground. I already blew $200 on the Gaggia, so I couldn’t see spending another $200 on a burr grinder. I’ve had great success so far, for almost a year now. I was able to get the inBlue around the corner at a market for $5 a can (cheaper than the Illy, at $12 a can). I’ve tried beans from Peets and Starbucks, but I could never get them to grind it the right way, and the shots were always very bitter.

  • I have the same espresso machine you have, David, and I had a lot of trouble until I upgraded the grinder I had (it was an inexpensive burr grinder) to a Rancilio Rocky grinder, bought through Illy. Thanks for a great post.

  • Jeff, about Italian colonies:

    I think that the climate of Eritrea and Somalia (hot and arid lowlands) is hardly ideal for coffee growing; for what concerns the former, see:here.

    Lybia is definitely too arid, and none of the three countries is listed among coffee producers, cfr.: see this list.

    Of course Ethiopia does produce commercial coffee now, but probably not that much at the time of World War 2nd, during the short period of Italian military occupation.

  • I also enjoy a cafe au lait at home every morning…with ‘old fashioned’ tools! And when I am in the mood for espresso and cappuccino…I use my Bialetti and I must say I prefer ‘Kimbo’ espresso over Illy….(I know I’ll be hung for that)

  • Your post, unfortunately, contains many mistakes. Illy is not the best espresso coffee maker by far, although their marketing tries to make you believe it. There are at least a dozen Italian coffee manufacturers within the real premium quality segment, a class above Illy. Illy is good but definitely not worth its price: you can have much better espresso for the same amount of money.

    Illy has a tradition of only using 100% arabica but his does not mean, by far, that robusta has no place in a premium coffee. All premium brands have carefully selected mixtures with usually up to 30-40% robusta (good quality robusta, of course, the selection they made you taste was obviously of bad quality on purpose to mislead you) and either those or their 100% arabica blends might give you a much tastier espresso than Illy’s.

    You laugh about their geographical mistakes regarding the USA, however, you simply accept their assertions about France and Italy and their colonialization and its ifluence on their coffee quality which is just as plain wrong and laughable as mixing Washington and California.

    About the time to pull a perfect shot of espresso as well as the quality of the equipment you were presented as state-of-the-art, you better check out http://www.coffeegeek.com. There, you will find real factual information, not marketing stuff of one of the manufacturers.

  • Hi Coffee_Geek: Thanks for your message. Since I’m not an expert on coffee, I was passing on what I had learned, as mentioned. As always, I expect and hope that readers will do their own research and find what they prefer to drink. My goal was to learn the secrets of good espresso since I have a large, heavy-duty machine and haven’t been able to pull a great shot out of it. Illy’s University of Coffee seemed like a good place to start. Now I’m on a quest and am interested in learning more. I’m pretty immune to most marketing pitches, having been in the food business for the past 35 years.

    I do buy and use Illy espresso pods at home as a result of my visit, which are about twice the price of other coffee pods, and I wouldn’t do it unless I thought the taste was worth the extra expense. Which it is. And I will say that the Illy Espressamente store here in Paris is one of the few places where the espresso is always excellent since 99.9% of the espresso served here is vile.

    Your site is a terrific source of information and I am hosting a guest post by someone who knows a lot more than me about coffee shortly. Stay tuned…

  • It’s not my site, I’m just a regular visitor there but thanks, anyway, in their name… :-)))

    All premium brands like Molinari, Vergano, Musetti, Bonomi, Hausbrandt, Lucaffé and the others do use robusta. It helps the crema as one of the posters said but certainly not at the expense of taste. The body and the aftertaste of the coffee is usually richer that way. But, it’s also a question of personal preference. All these brands do offer 100% arabica as well, so it’s your choice.

    Learning is always good. If you have the proper equipment (the grinder is even more important than the espresso machine), try to experiment all right but don’t limit yourself to Illy. Try these premium brands as well and you’ll find out which one you will like most. I’m almost sure it won’t be Illy…

  • I’ve been paying a lot more attention to the Illy brand lately. Up until now I wasn’t even aware that they made coffee, just the coffee makers. They are gaining a lot of attention right now as the creme de la creme.

  • Great article! I picked up the espresso habit while in Milan on business years ago and was hooked, but although I tried it wasn’t until the combination of Illy and Gaggia that I was really happy with what I could produce.

    Also, you’re right about grinding, it’s something I’ve given up on. Even with a burr machine the grains were too course and the resulting coffee NOT espresso. Apart from Illy, I also like Alto Grande from Puerto Rico and always buy pre-ground now.

  • I have always wanted to go to coffee school… great post. I emailed Illy already for a schedule. =) Will continue my research.

  • Hi David, Thanks for all your fantastic post, love all the information and pictures, i love il perfetto espresso but here in México Most the time perfection does not mean anything (sad but True) and the chains make coffee experience just horrible so i´m looking and trying different mixes in my Krups espresso machine (cheap there but very expensive here about $ 500 US Dlls) i try to do my experience with espresso better day after day and your post helps a lot.

    Some people complain or try to make u look bad but if they´re not happy with it they can create their own post.

    Here´s a link where u can find some information about il Caffé Espresso
    http://www.espressoitaliano.org/index.asp (Italian)

    http://www.espressoitaliano.org/index_en.asp?lang=en (English)

  • I am new at making cappuccino at home and I have no taste for espresso at all. But I would at least like to learn how to make decent espresso if only to make my cappuccino be all it can be. Thanks for the great info.

    The machine I have said not to grind your beans very powdery and not to tamp too hard. So I have been doing neither and have been getting what amounts to drip coffee. Surprise surprise. I am not grinding the beans enough nor am I tamping anywhere NEAR hard enough! So now I am excited to go home and try again with what I have learned.

    BTW- I live in Georgia. I would really hate to hear what the Italians think of the state of coffee here! If they think California is bad…ha!

  • For what it’s worth I read this article while drinking a cup of espresso made with Illy’s new Francis Francis x8, which uses pods. I have noticed that the cannisters of pods are extremely well sealed compared to the packaging of other companies. Now I know why. This machine is my third (I also have a Lavazza and Nespresso) and it’s the best of the bunch (the others are no slouches though). The espresso has all the chracteristics you describe. I just thought I’d mention pods as a foolproof alternative.

  • Their “Map of Taste” is wrong.
    See: Smith, D. V. & Margolskee, R. F. Making Sense of Taste. Scientific American, 2001, 284, 32-39

  • Not sure I understand the comment on using NO MORE than 7 grams of coffee for the single espresso, which I assume would be about 1 ounce. I have always read, the perfect espresso should be 8 grams – any less and you will have weak espresso, any more and you can have over extracted espresso. Am I wrong?

    I have been using 8 grams and am starting to think if I should try less.

    Also, people should always use fresh roasted and fresh ground(immediately before brew!).

  • Hi Rich: The industry standard seems to be 7 grams although I’m sure there are variations and if you’re getting a good pull from your machine at 8 gr, I wouldn’t stop.

    As far as freshly-ground espresso is concerned, many people I spoke with said that unless you’ve paid about the same price for the grinder that you paid for your espresso machine, it’s unlikely you’re going to get the nice, fine grind that espresso requires. So it’s a task that’s best left to the places that can grind the coffee fine enough. Italian food expert Faith Willinger was the first person I heard that from, although since then, I’ve heard that repeated elsewhere.

    I’m totally with you on the incomparable flavor and aroma of fresh-roasted and ground coffee, but don’t have the space for a good grinder, unfortunately, so I get mine from Italy pre-ground and vacuum-packed.

  • Hi David!

    So, 7 grams is the standard? Is that to produce one ounce of espresso? Thanks!

    I guess my issue with the grinder is that I like my espresso ground immediately before brewing otherwise I find a lot of flavor can be lacking. I don’t find that packaging can save the coffee once it has been ground. That is just my experience though. :)

    Rich

  • Trig: “Really informative, thanks. I was always taught that Gaggia made the best machines. What do you think of them?”

    Over-priced for what you get. Gaggia are a big brand so have a lot of money to spend on their marketing. Are they the best?…in my opinion, no they aren’t.

    Personally, I prefer Fiorenzato. Not as high profile as Gaggia by any means. But their internal parts are well put together, they are easy to access, they don’t have too many fancy (needless) gadgets and they create a fantastic espresso.

  • Rich, scientists in Trieste believe the correct amount of coffee for a single shot should be 7 grams, however I believe to get the body of the espresso just right it should be around 7.5 grams. So anything between 7-7.5 will be perfect…obviously providing the grind is not too fine or too coarse.

    The grind is the most important part of the process and if you have a budget to spend on a coffee machine and grinder, i’d suggest you always make sure you have a good grinder before you have a good coffee machine as most coffee machines do their job where as grinders are hit and miss (Compak’s are fantastic).

    It should take between 20-30 seconds to extract the coffee, again coffee scientists believe it should be 25 seconds but as long as it’s somewhere between 20-30 it should be great. The espresso when extracted should look like a mouse’s tail. Of course if you have an automatic machine you can set it up to filter the water for exactly 25 seconds in conjunction with your grind. Whenever you change your coffee beans for another brand you will have to change the settings on your grinder as different coffee grinds…well…differently!

  • David,
    I was reading about your adventures with espresso in your book and your great disdain for French “express”, which led me to your post about it on your blog. I am wondering what espresso machine you are using now (the KitchenAid you recommend on your site or another?) and perhaps what grinder. My wife and I had a pretty junky machine at one point that we managed to rid ourselves of, but your enthusiasm for making good espresso at home has rekindled my interest in making such a wonderful beverage at home as well. I’m debating whether I ought to wait until I go to Italy next year for a month for school and purchase an Italian machine to keep in my apartment that I can just bring home or whether I should go ahead now and just buy one here in the States. I’m thoroughly enjoying your book up to this point, you seem to have a wonderful sense of humor about life’s situations. Take care, joyeux Thanksgiving!

  • Hi James: It depends on where you live. I use a KitchenAid Proline Espresso Maker which works very well with Illy pods, but not as well with ground espresso. (I like a very ‘tight’ espresso-one tablespoon shot.) Many people like the Gaggia machines and for my morning café au lait, I use a Bialetti Moka pot.

    I put some of them together in my coffee & espresso section. I buy pre-ground espresso since you need a pretty expensive home grinder to get it as fine as the professionals do and I don’t have the room for a big grinder, like the Mazzer. If you read some of the other comments, folks chimed in with their recommendations, too.

  • This is a wonderful post, thank you!

    The best espresso I’ve ever had was in Iceland, curiously. They seem to use Illy almost exclusively, which is interesting!

    Do you have any San Francisco secrets for where to find a great espresso?

  • Very informative post pertaining to espresso. I have tried different beans and have not developed a preference.

  • thank you for this informative post. very enriching. nice pictures.

  • “Be sure to check back here in 2010, and I’ll post the results of that test.”

    So…?

  • First of all, I would like very much for MR.Lebovritz himself gets to read this. Ok, heres my sob story. My name is Bill Whitaker and I am a Disabeled Army Veteran
    and thats where my wife and I get our pay, and if you dont know it’s not much. I was put out of work in June of 07 since then we have had a great deal of cheap and not so cheap espresso makers but I have yet to make that perfect shot. I have read your tips and read them again and I think the shots are getting better. I went and bought me a Capresso model # 121and the shots got a bit better but still not perfect. So, here go’s other than the tips you have on your site do you have any non electronic magazines laying around the shop or in the library at home that you dont need any more, I would love to take them off your hands. And just case you do, I live at
    1652 Congress RD.
    Eastover, SC 29044

  • I agree that I can go to any bar in Italy and get a better espresso than ones I get her in the U.S., and that includes at Fumicino airport soon after getting off of the plane. Its my impression and a point of curiousity that I never have an issue in Italy of the caffe cooling down after stirring in the sugar (I like American coffee without sugar but find sugarless espresso nasty) but always have that issue in the U.S. and don’t even buy it here anymore.

    Another understanding that I have is that in Italy they don’t usually use any detergents to clean any part of their machines. That want the metal parts to get and remained seasoned. I know for sure that the Italians never use detergents to clean their stove-top cafetieras or “mokas” and prize their older more seasoned ones. I have heard of bars in my wife’s hometown in Italy closing down for a few days once a year to sanitize and the reseason their machines (making and tossing out caffe all day long).

    I have had coworkers here that talk about build up of oils on coffee makers that aren’t cleaned and thumb their noses at what I tell them about Italians seasoning their coffee makers. The disconnect could be that the non-seasoning camp can detect undesirable flavors in American coffee that is black and without sugar whereas espresso is so strong that most caffe drinkers take it with sugar. Also, the pressure need to make espresso precludes paper filters and requires metal which if unseasoned might impart other tastes.

  • Hi Hal: I’m not sure about them not using detergent because last time I was in Rome with an Italian friend, I had an espresso that tasted odd and she said it was because of the detergent. She always asks for her coffee in a small clear glass, which she said they don’t mind doing and since glass is less-porous than the little coffee cups, they don’t hold the taste of the detergent.

    That’s amazing they would shut down to do a clean out like that.

  • David, it sounds like the detergent is from the cup. And yes, they do use detergent for the cups and spoons. My wife is thinks that this detergent matter is as big an issue as the coffee grounds and water quality. The no detergent thing reminds me of Chinese tea afficionados not using detergents to clean the inside of their clay teapots. My wife says not all of these bars in Italy use Illy and many prefer Lavazza Bar (as opposed to Lavazza Rosso, Oro, …), and bar quality grinds of Kimbo, and Kose.

    A friend of ours from Italy that was living in Houston in the 90′s had a stove top caffetiera that seemed to have a small weighted spritzer at the top that the caffe would have to overcome when being forced out. He said this caffetiera was designed to use higher pressure so the caffe would taste closer to espresso from an espresso machine. I can’t say that I could vouch that this design worked to its desired outcome and don’t recall about any crema.