I'll make this short, and bitter. Or a series of mostly short and bitter little shots, anyhow.
All true cyclists drink espresso. It has negative calories, the work required to make it burns off more than it puts into you.
Like a brutal crit or difficult roadrace, it is demanding, pure, and strong. The phrase "it's not everybody's cup of tea" was probably coined to describe bike racing and espresso at the same time.
Properly made espresso is the distilled essence of coffee. It is to coffee what cask strength bourbon is to corn, the ne plus ultra expression of the screaming demon at the heart of the grain that makes it what it is.
Like bike racing, espresso is simple to execute - in theory. Like bike racing, it is extremely difficult to do to perfection. Bike racers, even the best ones, have a lot of DNFs. Espresso afficionados do too. They're called "sink shots." Or maybe "I made a cafe Americano for my wife this morning."
Like bike racing, it's a little pricey to get into but you can find a good machine, particularly a good refurbished used machine, for a couple hundred bucks. Then it's up to you to make it work.
Like training to race bikes, a good espresso shot isn't about high volume; it's about quality and consistency.
Like bike racing, pressure is what makes a champion shot. A good machine needs to put steam through densely packed grounds at about 15 atmospheres of pressure. Too much pressure and it's bitter. Too little and the results are weak.
Just as there is an efficient way to train yourself, there is an efficient way to produce a good espresso shot. Start with really fresh good quality espresso ground beans - fresh ground is best but no more than a few days old store-ground works okay. Put 14 grams - or 3 level tablespoons - into the microfilter. Churn the grounds a little with a toothpick to fluff them up and even out the consistency. Tamp them down with a properly sized tamper, pressing fairly hard. Insert the microfilter, then hit the steam valve. The espresso dribbles out.
Just as in training to race, less is often more. The best tasting shots are Ristretto, about 2 ounces of espresso per double shot (14 grams) worth of beans.
My preferred bean is from Caffe Pronto in Annapolis, also available at Whole Foods in Georgetown.
For all the press that Murky Coffee used to get, Caffe Pronto serves a better shot than I ever got at Murky, and their roastery produces better tasting beans, particularly their Cafe Vincente.
The Vincente has just the right balance of bitterness and a dry sweetness to it, with very potent dark chocolate notes, and occasionally, if the atmospheric conditions are just right, a hint of melon in the finish. It produces a lot of crema, and the texture is somewhat silky on the palate.
Their Espresso 49 also produces a very good shot, but it is a less exotic, more straightforward espresso with less crema and fewer unusual notes. When you drink Espresso 49, all you really taste is coffee - the way all you taste when you drink Brandy is grapes. Really densely, super distilled, straightforward coffee flavor. It has a bit more bitterness, less crema, and a slightly thinner texture, but it is quite good - just an honest, traditional tasting shot of espresso.
The bottom line with espresso is that like bike racing, it reveals the truth. Race results tell you where you are in terms of talent+fitness+ability+desire, and maybe you need some luck to get it right. Espresso tells you what a particular type of coffee bean is about, how skillful the roaster is, whether the grinder was set properly and working right, and whether the barista has the skillz to pay the bills.
I can produce a good shot consistently on my Starbucks Barista machine (a rebadged Saeco purchased used for about $80), and once every week or two, I produce a shot that is transcendent. The beans are essential to this; you simply can't produce transcendant shots, or even good ones, with mediocre beans.
There is no faking it with espresso. You have to know what you are doing. If you don't, the shot is a disaster.
If you get used to good espresso, you will realize that most coffee shops you walk into, maybe 90% of them, are utterly half-assed, and their shots are disastrous, just awful to drink - the most common error being that they run 4 or 5 ounces through beans sufficient only for a double shot (2-3 ounces, normally).
Maybe 6 or 8% of the shops kind of know what they are doing, and they produce good shots consistently. These shops are excellent and deserve your patronage.
Perhaps 2% of shops produce really great, consistent shots of espresso, and sell topnotch beans. It's worth going all fanboy over such shops, and going out of your way to patronize them and talk them up.
Caffe Pronto is one of those places, and their Cafe Vincente beans, IMAO, is their home run product - though their new triple basket (21 grams of beans) ristretto shot is unbelievably good as well, worth the trip to Annapolis.