Since you’re here, you probably already know what espresso tastes like—at least, you know that it’s a potent swallow of coffee, brewed hot and fast under pressure. It is luxuriously creamy, with a kiss of foamy crema and a lingering aftertaste. These things are absolutely true of espresso, the good ones as well as the bad ones. Simply acquiring a taste for the stuff can be challenging enough (it really is pretty strong!), but beyond that, you can actually use what you’re tasting to improve the espresso you make at home, as well as to discern the quality of a shot in a cafe or restaurant.
So, what are we looking for?
Just as when we’re first acquiring a taste for beer, wine, or spirits, the first thing we notice is the burn of the alcohol, or the intense bitterness we’re not yet used to. One of the great things about being human, however, is our ability to recognize that bitterness is a flavor which adds complexity and depth to food. Eventually, we begin to seek it in small amounts—like one of many colors that makes a gorgeous, complicated painting. All coffee has some bitterness in it, and in espresso—which is already a very concentrated flavor—it can be especially powerful. In some cases, it becomes the taste we associate most with coffee brewed as espresso, and even what we expect from a “good” shot.
Acidity is another tongue-twister when we taste coffee, and it’s also typically heightened in an espresso extraction. Think of acidity as the sparkling feeling a crisp green apple leaves on your tongue, or the zing that lemon juice has; those fruits have higher perceived acidity than, say, a banana, which has a fruity sweetness without the mouth-dazzle. Really fine specialty coffees are prized for their acidity, and espresso, being a concentrated extraction, can shine a spotlight on that characteristic, for better or worse: Too much acidity makes mouths pucker—like sucking a lemon wedge, as opposed to simply enjoying a squirt of juice—and too little can leave the cup seeming flat or dull.
To balance out bitterness and acidity, your perfect espresso—and all coffee, actually—should have a noticeable sweetness to it, which is easy to forget or disbelieve when you become so used to the bitter edge or the sometimes-intense tartness. Remember, though, that coffee does grow on trees, inside the pulpy meat of a tropical fruit: As fruit gets sweeter with ripening, so does the seed, or bean, inside. The roasting process is designed to enhance that sweetness even more, causing sugar-browning and caramelization reactions that are what make coffee brown and brewable.
Tasting for the Sweet-Spot
So here’s where learning to taste espresso better can help you make better shots of it, too: When you are dialing in, what you’re really doing is looking for the literal sweet spot—the combinations of variables (brew ratio, time, temperature, etc.) that wind up putting a caramelly or toffee-like liquid in your cup. For many people, even espresso enthusiasts, the idea that coffee is supposed to be sweet is baffling and impossible, probably because, well, making very good espresso is very hard. (Partially because most people don’t know to taste for the sweet spot—see? It’s a vicious cycle!)
Tasting comparatively is your best bet for finding the sweet spot, and through tweaking your technique will expose you to the spectrum of flavors that are possible in this type of brew. Keep a special eye out (or tongue out) for the bitterness and acidity of the coffee: Too much bitterness and a long, lingering aftertaste usually indicate that the coffee is over-extracted, while too much aggressive sour acidity (i.e. actual face-puckering action) is a sign of under-extraction. In a balanced pull, your shot should have a bit of all three: bitterness, acidity, and sweetness, in complementary proportions.
The best way to find this pinnacle of espresso-flavor heaven is, of course, to practice, but practicing making espresso at home means going about your extraction more mindfully and methodically than you might normally approach the machine on an early morning before work.
How to Put it into Practice
Here’s a simple guide to get you going on your first practice session:
1. Buy a bag of the beans you normally like to use for espresso, or find a blend that emphasizes sweetness in the tasting notes—something that describes a caramel, chocolate, toffee, or nutty flavor more prominently than it advertises fruitiness and acidity. This will help you get pointed in the right direction with your technique, even if it’s not the coffee you end up preferring every day.
2. Keep notes, and make sure to record things such as your recipe as you change it, and the resulting brewing parameters as they are tweaked. Of course coffee science isn’t as exact as, say, physics or high-school chemistry, but you will want to use the scientific method as you perform your experimental extractions, changing only one variable at a time. To help you keep track, you can download a copy of our recipe card here.
3. Prepare yourself for an extended tasting session: Part of what makes dialing-in espresso at home so difficult is our tendency to make ourselves a shot quickly and dash out the door, without the ability to critique the quality through comparing it with another espresso. When you are learning to taste espresso, you’ll need to taste a lot of espresso, so take the necessary precautions: Don’t pursue this feat on a completely empty stomach, drink plenty of water, and consider spitting out your shots rather than swallowing them—after all, we’re in this for the flavor and not the caffeine this time.
4. Compare, compare, compare: Good espresso only really exists in contrast with bad espresso, so comparison is your best weapon in the fight against mediocre extractions. This is one of the main reasons most people settle for subpar coffee, but you can side-step this obstacle by carving out a little time for honest to goodness comparative tasting
5. Don’t be disheartened—remember that making espresso at home is a fun adventure, not work! Though you might consider accepting tips from the other members of your household once you really get the process down pat.
Meister is a long time member of the coffee industry—currently working on the green sales team for Café Imports and one half of the hosting team behind “Opposites Extract: A Debate Podcast about Coffee.” Follow @justmeister on Instagram for photos of coffee, vegan food, and plants; and @hellocoffeeface, just for fun.
Lauren Bergman is a designer & illustrator who enjoys occasionally wandering into lettering & iconography, and has a passion for helping people and businesses tell their stories. See her work at laurennbdesign.com.
Another way to practice tasting espresso is with the La Marzocco Home Espresso Subscription—for $39 a month, we’re sending two bags of the same espresso each month that is being brewed in the La Marzocco Cafe. This is a perfect opportunity to practice tasting espresso, honing your skills, and following along with us as we walk through espresso together—each month you’ll receive tips, tricks and brew parameters from the roasters themselves, as well as in-depth case studies and white papers curated by our team, such as our recent guide on How to Taste Espresso.