Espresso, being a traditional Italian beverage, has several characteristics; Parameters if you will. The true espresso (not eXpresso as most infidels like to spell it these days) extraction will take between 20-30 seconds. Tamping the espresso into the portafilter (30lbs of pressure is required. No mean feat for the limp wristed among us!) before preforming the extraction can only vary the length of the shot by one second either way. It is the grind which is most important in determining the quality of the espresso. A fine grind will compact quite easily, not allowing the water through. This causes a longer, overextracted shot. If the grind is too coarse, the water will flush through the espresso and hardly anything worth drinking will be extracted. It is important to note the condition of the grind during the day, and make constant adjustments; Changes in humidity, air pressure and temperature can affect it significantly in a short period of time.

Keeping all this in mind, the best shot of espresso one could pull would last exactly 30 seconds, be 1 - 1.25oz, have a thick, hazel coloured creme and very little or no white spots (they indicate overextraction -- a lot of white in the creme means bad news when the customer takes that first taste).

If your espresso machine is clean, properly calibrated (203 degrees F, 3 atmospheres of pressure), and your grind is correct, a nearly perfect espresso shot can be pulled rather easily. Nevertheless, there are some things that can screw up your image as a Barista if you're not careful:

  • If the portafilter is not dumped and cleaned of any remaining grounds after pulling a shot, you will have a hard time cleaning it at the end of the night. Not to mention that your shots will be substandard. The ground coffee gets stuck in the tiny holes at the bottom of the filter and is nearly impossible to remove with standard "espresso machine cleaner". The solution to this quandary is as easy as finding a toothpick. Simply hold the filter up to the light (after removing it from the handle) and use the toothpick to push the plugged holes clear... From the back to the front. Rinse and repeat until there are no plugged holes.
  • If the portafilter is not rotated into the gasket of the espresso machine tightly enough, the pressure will cause a blowout. I've seen this happen, and by God it makes a mess. To ensure this never happens, remove all excess grounds from the rim of the portafilter before inserting it into the gasket. The cleaner the rim of your gasket is, the tighter you can pull the handle. If you can pull the handle perpendicular to the front of the machine, effectively forming a "T" shape, you've got nothing to worry about.

I'm still learning the trade of the Barista, so I don't profess to know everything (in fact, I know relatively SFA). I just have a good teacher, I guess. Remember; practice makes perfect hotdogs!