Espresso Epicure: Understanding the Coffee House Lifeblood

There is only one perfect espresso-based beverage: two shots of Ethiopian Sun-Dried Espresso tamped and layered with 2 teaspoons of raw sugar, infused with 3 ounces of fresh aerated milk and finished with a ½ inch of foam laced with strokes of caramel. Sorry, Starbuckians—those automatic machines aren’t capable of making this drink—for this one, you need to control the tamping in the portafilter.

This might not be your perfect cup, but until you spin a few miles on an espresso machine’s odometer, it’s hard to know which drink is your favorite. For those of us who don’t have the time, or patience, to discover your perfect drink, the first step is to understand espresso basics; after that, the rest is easy.

The most important part of the espresso shot is the quality of the crema—you know, that beautiful rim of golden sunshine resting at the top of the shot glass. This is where the magic happens. If you’ve experienced ordering the same drink and having it taste five different ways, nonexistent or underdeveloped crema is likely the culprit. Finding a superb barista is a challenge within itself—and for that reason, I only order my perfect cup of coffee when I know my barista is good, so when you find one, tip them well!

Jaxsen Layton of Salt Lake Roasting Co. is my barista of choice. He understands what it takes to pour excellent espresso, “For a good espresso shot, it’s extremely important to have all aspects just right, from the coarseness/fineness of the grind, the amount of pressure when tamping and the ratio of water to coffee. Once those are just right, the last thing I look for is a good consistent crema throughout the whole shot. This is my indicator of the quality of my espresso shot.” 

Having located a go-to barista like Layton, you have a decision to make. Do you prefer the good ol’ roasty mc-roasted beans the corporate giants have accustomed us to or do you gravitate toward a blonde roast? If you want things sweet and creamy, go for the darker roast; if you prefer your coffee black, take a walk on the lighter side. Knowing your preference is a game changer, so order a demitasse the next time you stop in to see your favorite roaster. 

Cappuccino vs. Latte

Don’t be the dud demanding a cappuccino with little foam, no matter how satisfying it is to say the word. If your favorite drink is only topped with an inch of foam or less, next time do your barista a favor and order a latte.

Feeling Too Timid to Try Straight Espresso?

Here are a few less-intimidating options:

Espresso Macchiato

A shot with a scoop of foam on top, also great with a bit of caramel or mocha on the top if you like it sweet.

Espresso Con Panna

A shot with a generous dollop of whipped
cream on top.

Undertow

Pick your favorite syrup flavor and cross your fingers your barista knows how to make this. A layering of two pumps of syrup, topped with 1 oz of half and half, with a shot of espresso floated along the top. If your barista can’t float the espresso, it isn’t worth your time. The key to this one is to drink it all at once.

Espresso Affogato

A shot of espresso poured over a scoop of ice cream, usually vanilla.


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