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The espresso is an amazing drink. It is a key component of an ever growing list of specialty milky coffees.
Making espresso yourself though? It’s often left to the pros in the coffee shops.
Well no more! Now espresso know-how is here for the masses. In this guide you will find every trinket of coffee lore that all leads up to that dark, rich, syrupy goodness.
We are going to start at the beginning of espresso, everything that goes into making that little bean, and exactly how to pull that elusive espresso shot.
We’re going on a journey!
The Meaning of Barista
The title of barista first emerged as a description for someone who makes coffee around 1938. In the Mussolini era of Italy, the old word for someone who prepares coffee, bartender, was supposedly considered too American for Italy at that time. Barista was then substituted as a more Italian-sounding name.
Barista is simply the Italian word for bartender.
Today, if someone is a barista; they are a skilled coffee maker.
Often, barista is a job title for people working in a coffee shop. But it’s not limited to a job. You don’t need to be employed in coffee-making to be a barista.
The term barista is particularly someone who is good at making coffee. Whether you’re paid to do it, or are just trying to make an Above Average Coffee at home, if you’re good at making coffee then you are a barista.
Barista. a person who is specially trained in the making and serving of coffee drinks, as in a coffee bar.
Barista. Pretentious sounding word used by dejected art history and drama majors that describes their employment in order to make themselves feel better about serving coffee.
– Urban Dictionary
It’s All In The Preparation
It’s no secret that every step in preparing coffee, from plant to cup, has to be just right. It does make coffee-making very finnicky. But when it’s right, damn, it’s good.
Most bags of coffee are a blend of beans which were grown in different parts of the world.
There are so many factors that contribute toward the final taste of a coffee bean and one of the strongest aspects is where the coffee was grown. The soil, altitude, air, and geographical location, among many other factors, all affect the final result.
Because coffees grown around the world can have such distinctly different flavor profiles, coffee beans are often mixed, blended, with beans from a different part of the world. The aim of blending beans is usually to try to create a more rounded and fuller flavor by combining beans which the blender thinks will compliment each other.
One of the most famous styles of coffee blends is the Mocha-Java which attempts to recreate the taste of the coffee blend which was first imported into Europe.For more on Mocha-Java, and why coffee is even called Java, check out our article on exactly that.
Alongside coffee blends there is Single-Origin Coffee</i> which is either not blended at all or a blend of coffee from a particular location. Often, single-origin coffee can be from one particular farm.
I think single-origin coffee has a very important role in bringing the consumer closer to the producer. It also gives a great opportunity to direct more of the money you pay with toward the original farmer.
The Species of Coffee Bean
While there are hundreds of different varieties of coffee plant, they can be grouped into four particular species of coffee plant.
Arabica (Coffea Arabica)
Arabica is this most common of coffee bean species and, famously, the tastiest. In the vast majority of cases you will want your coffee to be a strain of the Coffea Arabica. If you’ve had a coffee from a coffeeshop then you have definitely tried Arabica.
Unfortunately, alongside being the tastiest of coffee species it is also the most difficult to grow and most susceptible to disease. Coffee Leaf Rust is one of the most problematic coffee-plant diseases.
Because Arabica are more susceptible to disease and trickier to grow, some coffee farmers feel inclined to grow more resilient species.
Robusta (Coffea Caniphora)
Robusta is the second most commonly produced coffee species in the world.
As the name hints, Robusta is robust. It is far less susceptible to disease and is much easier to grow. As if by some natural trade-off for being robust, it is not as tasty as Arabica.
The main reason why this species is so robust is because it has twice the caffeine content of the Arabica species. Caffeine is one of the chemicals in the plant which acts as a natural defense mechanism against being eaten.
Because the Robusta variety is a tough plant it is sometimes grown in less than perfect conditions which gave given it the reputation of a poor-quality bean.
Robusta has a stronger, darker, flavor. It’s a particularly good choice if you plan to be mixing your coffee with milk and sugar or even making Vietnamese Egg Coffee.
Liberica (Coffea Liberica)
Liberica is one of the least common species of coffee, accounting for about 2% of coffee worldwide. It was Indonesia’s go-to species at the end of the 19th century when coffee rust killed off almost all of the Arabica coffee plants.
Both the Liberica plant and bean are larger than other varieties, and the bean is oddly asymmetrical.
While Liberica beans have a similar taste to Robusta, dark, chocolately, but also woody and tobacco-like, their aroma can be quite unpleasant. They smell sickly sweet, something similar to durian, yet tasting nothing like durian.
Don’t let that put you off trying a cup. Liberica can still make a delicious brew.
Excelsa (Coffea Excelsa)
Technically Excelsa is not a separate species of coffee plant. In 2006 it was reclassified as a variant of Liberica. It is still worth talking about.
Like Liberica, unsurprisingly, the plants are particularly taller than Arabica and Robusta. The beans are also larger than other species. Interestingly, it’s more common than Liberica, making up 7% of coffee produced worldwide.
It has a bold, tart, sweet, full flavor and is often used in blends to give an extra boost of flavor. It’s flavors are quite typical of a light roast.
The Growth Climate
For the most part, coffee is grown at latitudes within the earth’s equatorial zone. That is, south of the Tropic of Cancer and North of the Tropic of Capricorn. Coffee has to grow in a warm, tropical, climate.
The latitude which coffee is grown at is said to have a significant impact on the final flavor. Coffee grown more Northernly, like near Ethiopia and Yemen, typically have light fruity flavors. Coffee grown more Southernly, such as in Indonesia, can typically have bold and earthy flavors.
Among latitude, other climate factors which influence the final flavor of coffee are the altitude which it was grown at, the soil conditions, the water which it was exposed to, the air it was grown in, and even how much sunlight it was exposed to.
Preparation For Roasting
Once coffee cherries have been grown and are ready for harvest, they have to be processed into green coffee beans before they are ready to be roasted.
- Once coffee cherries have been picked, they have to be sorted. Any twigs, stems, and rocks are removed. Ripe coffee cherries are separated from unripe ones. (unripe coffee cherries float.)
- The outer fruit around the coffee bean has to be removed.
- Beans then need to be dried until their water content is between 9% to 13%.
- Once the beans have been dried, the outer husk of the beans, the endocarp, has to be removed. The beans are then also polished to get rid of small husky fragments.
- The beans are then ready to be packaged and sent off to roasters for, well, roasting. They are now called green coffee beans.
When roasting beans, there are two factors which are played with; the temperature of the roast, and how long it is roasted for. Although once they’re roasted, there is really only aspect we talk about, the roast color is mostly all that’s of interest.
While the amount of roasting the bean has had does create a genuine spectrum from an almost white color to an oily black, with every shade of brown in between, there are usually only three particular points throughout this roast spectrum that we talk about. That is light, medium, and dark roasts.
Because heat actually destroys caffeine, a light roast will have a higher caffeine content than a dark roast.
Coffee can be roasted at temperatures beginning anywhere from 356°F up to 482°F (180°C to 250°C).
- Light Roast. A light roast has been roasted at a relatively low temperature, 356°F to 400°F (180°C to 205°C), for less time than other roasts. The lightest roast possible is known as white coffee. Read all about white coffee in our article about exactly that. A light roast tastes sweet, light, and acidic.
- Medium Roast. A medium roast has seen temperatures from 400°F to 437°F (205°C to 225°C). It is the classic rich-brown coffee bean. This is the most common roast; it’s likely what you will be served in a coffee shop or have with your breakfast. It has a lovely bold and well-rounded flavor.
- Dark Roast. As roasts get darker, the acidity of lighter roasts is exchanged for a more oily bean. They are dark brown and black beans with an oily sheen. They are roasted from 437°F to 482°F (225°C to 250°C). Dark roasts tend to have harsher, bitter, flavors. Flavors can still include chocolatey, smoky, and woody hints.
Freshly roasted coffee will usually taste best between 7 and ten days after their roasting.
Storing Coffee Beans
Because coffee beans taste best when they are brewed immediately after grinding, you will want to store your beans just right until you’re ready to smash them up.
The ideal container for coffee beans is something airtight. A big glass Kilner jar is ideal.
Coffee beans should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place. A kitchen cupboard or dark pantry is ideal.
Are you planning to store coffee beans for a longer period of time? Read our article about how to freeze coffee beans.
The coarseness, or fineness, of grind you want depends entirely on the brewing method you are going to use. While this article focuses on espresso in particular, we absolutely have to talk about which grinds you want for which method.
The rule of thumb is this; if you are going for a slower brew where the grounds are to be immersed for longer periods of time, like with a French Press, then you want a coarser grind. If you are going for a faster method, like espresso, then you want a finer grind.
- Super Coarse. This grind looks something like rough ground peppercorns. This grind is ideal for very long immersion times. Perfect for cold brew coffee. To learn how to make cold brew coffee, like a pro, check out our cold brew article. It’s super easy to cold brew.
- Coarse. This grind is what you want for brewing with a French Press.
- Medium. A medium grind is what you want for drip, Aeropress, Chemex, and pour over methods. It resembles fairly rough sand. If the method involves water slowly falling through coffee, usually involving a paper filter, then a medium grind is the way to go.
- Fine. A fine grind is exactly what to use for an espresso and when using a stove-top moka pot like the classic Bialetti.
- Super Fine. The finest possible grind is what you use in methods where coffee is boiled. The Turkish Pot is a prime example.
Remember to only ever grind as much coffee as you need. That way you have whole coffee beans ready for whenever you want them in the future.
The Best Coffee Grinder
There are two main types of coffee grinder: a blade grinder and a burr grinder.
A blade grinder will just chop at the beans. If they get in the way they get sliced. This produces either a very inconsistent grind with big chunks and tiny bits, or a fine powder. It’s really a very uncontrolled method of grinding your beans.
The best kind of coffee grinder is a burr grinder. The burrs will crush the coffee beans down until the bits are so small that they fall between the burrs. So a burr grinder gives a reliably consistent grind. To change the size of the grind, the mechanism just moves the burrs further apart or closer together.
Do you not have a coffee grinder? Read our article about different ways you can grind up coffee beans without a grinder.
Dosing Your Ground Coffee
The perfect coffee to water ratio is known as the Golden Ratio of coffee. This ratio is 2 tablespoon of coffee to 6 ounces of water. This golden ratio is mostly a rule of thumb and varies to people’s particular tastes.
In an espresso however, this ratio gets tipped toward 1:2.
7 grams of coffee should do the trick but don’t be afraid to use as much as 10g per shot. Usually using more coffee will need you to put a larger basket into your portafilter.
Tamping Ground Coffee
Tamping coffee is where you press fine espresso coffee grounds down so they’re compacted into the espresso machine portafilter.
Tamping is really very simple, the idea is to create a consistent density throughout the pressure by crushing it all together. There is a strange amount of folklore around tamping. The truth is that you cannot really press the coffee grounds down too hard. They only compact so much by hand.
Simply put, it needs to be pressed down pretty solid. Push the tamper in hard and you’re golden.
Understanding The Espresso Machine
Before you can ride the dragon, you need to tame it. To tame it, you need to understand it.
Types of Espresso Machine
You’ve definitely heard of an espresso machine before. Did you know that there are different types of espresso machine?
The Manual Espresso Machine
Manual espresso machines are also known as lever machines. These things are old-school; some of the first espresso machines were lever-arm machines. If you like getting as hands-on as possible then these are for you.
The reason we say, pulling an espresso shot, goes back to these machines.
Making espresso with a manual machine means that everything is in your control. You control how water is injected through the grounds with the speed you crank the arm.
The Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine
This is the typical kind of espresso machine you will find in a coffee shop. You might even call it a traditional espresso machine.
These machines automatically heat up and pressurize. Aspects like temperature, pressure, how much water to use can be pre-programmed depending on the particular machine you are using.
You control when the extraction begins and how long it runs for.
Automatic Espresso Machines
There are two particular types of automatic espresso machine.
There are automatic espresso machines, which are really very similar to semi-automatic machines except the extraction is automated too. You grind your beans, put them into a portafilter, tamp them down, then the machine does the rest. Espresso pours out.
Super-Automatic Espresso machines are also known as Bean-to-Cup Machines. They do the entire espresso-making process for you. You load whole beans into the hopper, put water into the reservoir (if it isn’t plumbed in), press a button and espresso pours out. Simple as that.
These are by far the easiest espresso machine to use. Zero skill involved. It’s a perfect option for an employer who wants to provide fresh coffee for their employees, but really not ideal for a coffee shop.
A pod machine is all about fast and easy coffee at home. You keep the water reservoir topped up and all it takes is popping a coffee pod into it and coffee pours out. You might consider these a variant of super-automatic espresso machines.
While these machines can produce a nice espresso, like super-automatic machines, you have zero control over the brewing process. Pod machines are for people who want coffee fast.
One real downside to pod machines is that they need coffee to be prepackaged in pods. Coffee pods can be bought at just about any supermarket but they are certainly more expensive than coffee beans and they can be wasteful. That pod is used once then thrown away.
There are some varieties of pods which are either recyclable or biodegradable. Another solution to pod waste is using reusable coffee pods which you fill with ground coffee yourself and empty afterward.
A moka pot is probably the cheapest option for making espresso at home. Better yet, you are able to make more espresso at once by simply choosing a larger pot in the first place.
These funny little jug-like things are used on your stove. Although there are electric varieties.
They have two chambers and a final cup-like chamber at the top. You put water into the lowest chamber (don’t fill it up beyond the little valve). Coffee grounds go unto the chamber above it which looks like a strange funnel-like basket. The brewed coffee end up in the top cup-like chnmber.
Moka pots work purely by heating them up. As it heats, the lowest water chamber gets warmer. As it heats; pressure builds up. The pressure wants to escape and the only place for it to go is up through the coffee grounds in the middle and into the cup-like top part. The brewed coffee will siphon into the top cup part with a glurgle and a snarl. Take it off the heat immediately once it has brewed.
Some people who are fussy about espresso might say that a moka pot does not produce a true espresso because the pressure does not build up as high as other espresso machines. A moka pot can build up about 1.5 Bars of pressure whereas manual, semi-automatic, and automatic espresso machines can produce pressures well beyond 9 Bars. Despite that, moka pots still make some delicious coffee.
Getting To Know The Different Espresso Machine Parts
The kind of espresso machine we are focusing on here is the conventional semi-automatic espresso machine. Although we will talk about the slight variations that come in when you use a manual and automatic machine.
A grouphead, often just called the group, is the part of an espresso machine which the portafilter and portafilter basket connect to. Water flows from here at pressure onto tamped ground coffee in the portafilter basket.
Your portafilter is the part where all the espresso magic happens. It holds a little metal basket of ground coffee, you press the ground coffee firmly into this basket, connect the porta filter to the group and you’re ready to pull a shot.
Spouted and Naked Portafilters
Portafilters typically have two spouts on their underside. The two spouts allow you to split a shot into two cups. There are also single spouted portafilters but if you’re looking to pour into only one cup you’re far better off using a naked portafilter.
A naked portafilter, also known as a bottomless portafilter, has no spouts underneath and leaves the basket inside exposed. Naked portafilters are what are used to get those classic amazing pictures of espresso flowing down into a cup like an upside-down volcano.
The benefits of a naked portafilter are:
- It’s obvious if it’s not right. You can see the espresso pour out, it would otherwise be hidden by the spout. For example, if the coffee has not been tamped firmly enough, or unevenly, it won’t pour from the center of the basket. It’ll be a drippy uneven mess.
- More Crema. Because your espresso isn’t rolling down a metal spout, it holds on to more of the little bubbles. You can seriously have about 50% more crema.
- You Make Better Espresso. Because you can easily see if there is a mistake and you’re making more crema, your coffee is more consistent, and better overall.
- Easier Cleanup. It’s tricky to clean the inside of a spout. It’s much easier to just clean a little metal basket. Clean equipment makes for the tastiest coffee.
Baskets are fitted into your portafilter. They are the part that ground coffee goes into. If you want to pull a larger espresso shot; you pop a larger basket in.
Commercial machines will be designed to accommodate almost any basket size possible. Some cheaper machines for home use might be restricted on the basket sizes which will fit.
A gasket is a ring-shaped rubber seal. The grouphead has a thick rubber ring fitted into it where the portafilter connects to it. It’s called the group gasket. This rubber ring makes sure a seal is formed between the grouphead and the portafilter basket.
The group gasket does wear out over time and ends up not holding a good seal. When this happens you’re not able to build up as much pressure, your espresso usually turns out pretty bad, and water can leak out between the portafilter and grouphead.
If your portafilter is leaking, check to see if your group gasket needs replaced.
The group screen is a round metal mesh where the water comes out of the grouphead. It’s another wear and tear part that can sometimes need replaced. If it needs replaced, your coffee grounds could be getting an uneven flow of water.
In commercial machines group screens can need replaced as often as every three months.
Most espresso machines have a steam wand, also known as a steam pipe, it looks like a funny bent pipe attached to the side of the espresso machine. The steam wand is what is used to steam and froth milk.
The steam tip is the tip at the end of your steam wand.
They can come with a number of different holes, or they could be a panarello steam wand tip. Which makes it like a practice steam wand. Super easy to froth milk.
Flick this bad boy and the whole machine will start heating up. It’s the get-ready-to-go button.
Hot Water Tap or Button
It can be a tap, it can be a button. Either way, it makes hot water flow out of the grouphead.
Either way, you want to press this only once you’ve got the portafilter slotted in and ready.
This is just the water lever indicated for the boiler. As long as it is between the maximum and minimum levels, you’re good to go.
Typically you will have two pressure gauges. One to monitor the boiler pressure, and another to monitor the pump operating pressure.
This is the grate under your grouphead that you will sit a mug on to have glorious espresso poured in. Make sure you clean this thing out often.
It’s nice to have a place to store little bit and bobs, coffee gubbins, and paraphernalia. Most espresso machines have a flat tray-like top to store things. Handy.
Making The Perfect Espresso Extraction
So, here it is. We know our coffee science. We’re ready to make the almighty espresso.
So provided your espresso machine is all warmed up, everything is clean, then we’re good to go. Let’s make a standard double shot.
- Grind 14g of coffee beans and load them into the portafilter basket.
- Gently shake and tap the portafilter to level out the grounds in the basket. Place the portafilter on your tamping surface (it could be a specialized mat or just a cloth) and grip the handle.
- Place the tamper into the basket and compact the grounds. By the book, 30 pounds of pressure is typically what you want to use to compact the grounds. After tamping, dust off any excess grounds from the rim so it can form a good seal.
- Gently connect the portafilter into the grouphead. Try not to clunk or bash the portafilter. It could damage the compacted grounds.
- When you’re ready, run the shot! It should take anywhere between 20 to 30 seconds. The best way to know you’ve pulled enough espresso is by using a coffee cup, or cups (if you’re splitting the shot) with volumes that you know. When the correct volume of espresso has poured, shut it off.
- Clean up. Dump out the used grounds, clean your portafilter, wipe and purge the grouphead.
Congrats. You’ve just made espresso.
- Empty and clean the portafilter basket after every use.
- Make sure the inside of the portafilter basket is dry before loading it up with coffee.
- When you tamp your coffee down, make sure to level off the grounds first. You’re aiming for the grounds to be as level as possible once they are compacted; best way to ensure that is by getting them as level as possible before you compact them.
- Make sure there are no excess grounds left on the rim of the portafilter basket after you are finished tamping. Grounds on the rim could cause a leak when the portafilter is attached to the grouphead.
- Double check the portafilter is correctly inserted into the grouphead.
- Pre-warm your cup before you begin the extraction.
- When you start the extraction, there should be a delay of about 3 to 5 seconds before coffee begins to pour out.
- Again, clean out your portafilter basket once you’re finished.
That’s An Espresso
So, that’s it. You’ve made an espresso.
You’re welcome to enjoy it as is. Plain espresso is delicious.
Although, now you can make espresso, you can now also make the magical milky concoctions that involve espresso shots as a key ingredient.
The only other piece of the puzzle you need is steaming and frothing milk.
The Art of Steaming and Foaming Milk
As well as a perfect espresso, the key to making an amazing coffee is perfectly steamed milk.
Did you know that steamed milk and foamed milk are two different things?
Foamed milk, also known as frothed milk, is what you get when you shake, mix, or beat air into it. You will have a bottom layer of milk, and a top layer of frothy foam.
This foam is perfect for sitting on top of drink like cappuchinos.
Steamed milk is the more specialized variant.
This is where you use pressurized steam to both heat the milk and create a lovely velvety texture. The steam creates tiny little bubbles, know as micro-foam, inside the milk itself. So you don’t have two layers, it is all just homogenous light velvety milk.
Steamed milk is more what you want for a latte.
How To Foam Milk
This method is how to froth milk using a steam wand. There are other tricks to froth milk with things like a French Press, a jar, or even a handheld frother, but because this is a barista guide, we’re looking at the pro-barista foaming method.
- Pour your milk of choice into a pitcher which is approximately double the volume of milk which you are going to use. Make sure it is nice and cold before you begin.
- Insert the tip of the steam wand just below the surface of the milk, close to the inside wall of the pitcher. You should see a swirling and rippling begin to form on the milk surface. Play with the position of the tip to get a notice motion of the milk surface.
- Move the wand around, higher, lower, closer to the edge, closer to the middle, to try to break up any large bubbles and incorporate more air into the milk.
- Once the milk has doubled in volume, remove the wand from the milk, and wipe the wand clean.
Use a thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature of the milk. You want it to be between 140°F and 155°F (60°C and 68°C). If you make it any warmer, you will ruin the milk. This temperature range can be different for non-dairy milks.
How To Steam Milk
Like the name hints, steamed milk can only really be made with steam. Pressurized steam at that.
- Load your favorite milk into your pitcher. Only fill it up to about half way.
- First, begin in a similar way as you would with frothing milk, dip the steam wand tip just below the surface of the milk, near the edge. You will begin to start a rippling whirlpool.
- Next, dip the steam wand in deeper, aim to cause the swirling effect from the greater depth. Tilt the jug to get the swirling nice and consistent.
- Now, just watch the temperature. Turn off the steam when the temperature reaches between 140°F and 155°F (60°C and 68°C). Although if you’re using non-dairy milk, this temperature range can vary.
- Give the pitcher a gentle but firm whack on the counter or table you’re working on. This is to all bubble to disperse.
- Wipe and clean your steam wand. It’s also best to purge the wand into the drip tray, that’ll clear any milk out from inside it.
I recommend purging the steam wand into the drip tray before you begin. It’s possible to get some unwanted water building up in the wand, so best to blast that out first before you unload it into your milk.
While you absolutely can just load your foamed or steamed milk into your espresso, if you pour it in just right, you can make the classic patterns on the surface of the coffee that you are presented with in coffee shops.
Making latte art is much trickier than it looks. It does take a lot of practice.
When you get the speed of your pour just right, you are able to leave a milky trail in the crema.
Wobble the pour side to side, as the foam appears on the surface, and drag the pour backward across the wobble-lines to create the rosetta leaf pattern.
So you can pull a solid espresso. You can foam milk. You can steam milk.
But can you make a cappuchino? Think again, you definitely can.
Below are some of the most common specialty espresso coffees that you will find on a coffee shop menu. They really are, for the most part made of espresso, foamed milk, and steamed milk in different proportions.
- 1/3 Espresso
- 1/3 Steamed Milk
- 1/3 Milk Foam
- Usually made with a double espresso shot, so it is served as 150ml.
- 1/3 Espresso
- 2/3 Steamed Milk
- Topped with a layer of foam.
Very similar to the latte.
- 1/3 Espresso
- 2/3 Steamed Milk
Roughly translates from Italian as “marked” or “stained”.
- 1/3 of the volume of espresso, so about 10ml per espresso shot, of Steamed Milk and a tiny bit of foam on top
- 1/3 Espresso
- 2/3 Hot Water
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