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How to make a perfectly balanced coffee

Five Senses CoffeeJeremy Hulsdunk 28 May 2010

As Australia’s appreciation for espresso culture grows, so does the popularity of home espresso machines. For some people, attempting to create the same balance of flavour that their favourite barista produces can seem extremely difficult. Actually, the secrets aren’t as clandestine as they seem to be. If you follow a few simple rules, it’s easy to make great coffee at home.

The first rule is simple; never use the single portafilter basket! The single basket is shaped in a way that encourages the water to travel around the coffee. This is called ‘channelling’, and it leads to weak, watery and often bitter coffee. You should always use the double portafilter basket. The double basket is square-ish in shape, which encourages the water to travel evenly through the coffee, giving your cup depth of flavour and sweetness.

One of the most important things to master is the length of your shot. This topic is covered in depth in our barista training classes. As water flows through a shot of coffee it undergoes three main colour changes. Initially, the shot is a dark, rich brown; this part of the extraction produces all of the sweetness and body of the coffee. This gives way to a lighter, caramel colour; this part of the extraction provides the balance. The third colour is always the no go zone. It’s the white/ blonde colour which contains nothing more than a thin texture and very bitter taste. Never let your shot turn this colour!

Remember, the first part of the shot (the rich, dark brown) gives your coffee all of its sweetness and body, so for the perfect cup of coffee, use only this part of the pour. This will ensure that your coffee is sweet and rich in flavour, rather than being thin with some bitterness creeping in. You will need to pull this shot as a double to achieve the correct depth of flavour. This method of making coffee using a short double shot rather than a longer single espresso shot is considered best practice for espresso based drinks.

Another major contributing factor in producing a perfectly balanced coffee is cup volume. One of the most common mistakes home enthusiasts make is using a cup that is too large. The perfect cup size (in my opinion) is a thick-walled 150ml cup. The standard cup at home (and, unfortunately, at many cafés) is between 170ml and 200ml. Mugs are even larger, easily 250ml, which is far too big for an espresso based coffee! If you’re following the rules and not extracting your coffee past the second colour change, using a cup that’s too big means you’ll be putting way too much milk into the coffee, diluting it and creating what is essentially a weak coffee. If you run the shot longer to achieve more volume and flavour, all you’ll be doing is making the coffee more and more thin and bitter. Find a cup that has the correct volume — it’s a worthy investment.

For the perfectly balanced coffee at home, the best method is to get a cup that has a volume of between 150ml and 200ml with a base shot that contains only the short double shot before adding your steamed milk. This should give a result that will be comparable to the barista at your favourite café!

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