The Italians invented espresso. If you love the drink and bought a home espresso machine to make some every day, you’ll need to do more than just pay for the expensive machines. You have to learn technique.
The most important thing and the biggest impact on flavour is of course going to be the beans. Sourcing them from reliable places is top priority. Here’s what you want to look out for.
The ideal window for espresso is between 4 days after roasting and 2-3 weeks depending on the bean. This is why you shouldn’t buy in bulk but rather get smaller amounts that can be used up faster and within this window. You can usually tell old beans after you pull a shot because there will be little to no crema, because the gas has already been released from the beans.
Our golden rule is to only buy beans with a ‘roast date’ and never a ‘use by date’. You won’t find great beans for espresso in your supermarket, so either go to a local coffee shop you like and buy speciality beans from them, or if you’re in the UK you can order fresh from us by clicking the link in the description.
Light roasts tend to have more sour flavour when not dialed in correctly, but can be really interesting if you are able to dial in the shot well. Darker roasts tend to get a richer and more chocolatey flavour, and are usually easier to dial in on coarser grind settings, but they lose a lot of the interesting characteristics of good speciality beans. Different roasts will also require different grinder settings, which we’ll get into later.
Beans grown in different places and with different varieties have different flavours. Go with what you like, and try lots of different kinds of coffee. Don’t just pick beans from a certain country, as two beans from different farms in Ethiopia might have very different processes and care taken over them. If you’re buying roasted beans then pick a roastery that tells you about the source of their beans, starting with the country, but where possible if they mention the farm, the altitude and the processing of the beans that is always a good plus. It shows that they consider that stuff, but is by no means a guarantee of an enjoyable flavour and isn’t a necessary, just a nice to know.
Pulling the Shot
The classic method says that we are looking for:
- 1:2 ratio of coffee in the portafilter basket to espresso in the cup.
- The espresso should be pulled between 20-30 seconds.
This is an overly simplistic explanation, but it is a good starting point.
One of the easier variables to get down is the dose. The best thing to do with the dose is to learn what the recommended dose is for your basket and stay consistent. My Rancilio Silvia double basket is 15g, and the Gaggia Classic one is 17-18g, and it should say on the manufacturers website what the recommended dose is, and if you buy third party portafilters like the bottomless one I have, they will usually tell you what dose you should use. If not, then what you want to do is get as much coffee in the basket as possible before you see an imprint of the shower screen on the coffee puck after you’ve pulled the shot. This is hard to do if you’re eyeballing just based on how much coffee is in the portafilter, so use weight rather than volume when measuring beans. A good set of coffee scales will help you get the bean weights consistent, and if you want to pick up one of those I’ll leave a link in the description to a good one that I use.
Don’t adjust the dose to change flow rates or shot timings. If your coffee is coming out too slowly and you have the right amount of coffee in the portafilter basket, adjust other variables, not the dose. You only change the dose to make more or less espresso, and use a single, double or triple basket depending on how much espresso you want to make. It’s as simple as that.
Once you have the dose right, let’s get a consistent tamp pressure. Tamping compresses the puck and creates resistance for the water to push through.
What you’re really looking for here, whatever tools you use, is even and consistent pressure. Obviously make sure you use the right tamp size for the portafilter basket you use, and get used to tamping the same way each time. Some people put their portafilter on a bathroom scale and go for 30 pounds of pressure once or twice to get used to how it feels like, but that’s unnecessary.
I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more noise about distribution tools as an alternative to tamping, as I’ve found it much easier to get consistently good shots using mine without a tamp at all. We did a full video on it that you can watch by clicking the link at the top now.
The grind is probably the thing you will adjust the most when dialing in your espresso. Simply put, if your shot is coming out too fast, grind finer, and if it is coming out too slowly, grind coarser.
I start at a grind setting that looks a little finer than table salt and then try pulling a shot. If the coffee comes out too fast I reassess what is going on. It might be that I need to grind finer, but it could also be my tamp pressure.
The distribution can also be a factor, especially if you notice blonding (where the coffee becomes a lighter brown) or swirly tailing, which is when your mouse-tail starts to twist and turn, which indicates a low amount of coffee solubles in the extraction.
This is where having a bottomless portafilter really comes in handy. If the coffee just comes out of the spout looking a bit blonde too early you might think you need to change the grind, but it could also be channelling – a bottomless portafilter will show you this where it wouldn’t be apparent just coming out of the spout.
However even without this tool you can still diagnose your extraction by weighing the espresso coming out and the time it takes to get to the desired weight.
Take note, unless you have a no-retention grinder, you’ll want to purge a second or two of grinds whenever you change the setting, as most grinders will still retain some grinds from the previous setting.
Alternatively, work with an empty grinder hopper and only but in the correct weight of beans per cycle. So, 18g of coffee into an empty hopper should equal 18g of ground beans in the portafilter.
If your machine lets you control this, temperature has an important effect on flavour. Your temperature should be in the range from 92C to 98C. Once you get to boiling water you run the risk of scolding the beans and getting horrible burnt flavour coffee. This is one of the reasons why I always brew first and then steam the milk after.
As a general rule, the denser the coffee bean, the higher the temperature you’ll need to extract it ideally. This is where knowing what altitude the coffee is grown at can help, as the beans grown at higher altitudes tend to be denser, and as such might do well with a slightly higher temperature.
Also lighter roast coffee does better with a higher temperature as well.
Of course many entry level machines don’t always have much control. The Barista Express can adjust 2 degrees either way, but for many other machines you’ll need a PID to control this. I have one on my Rancilio Silvia and it makes a big difference, but I honestly use it much more for knowing when to start steaming milk. If you don’t want to play around too much with temperature then you can just leave it at an even 93 or 94C (Look up F to display in text) and focus on the other variables.
If you don’t have a temperature controller then it’s highly advisable for you to purge some of the water before pulling the shot directly as many machines overheat the water a little, so if you purge until there’s no more steam coming out from the group head, then wait a few seconds for it to heat back up and go, then you’ll get a fairly consistent temperature.
If your machine doesn’t have a pressure valve, you won’t have much control over this from shot to shot. If you do then you’ll be looking for about 9 bar of pressure, and if it is in this range that will usually be enough. You can use pressure to diagnose where your other variables are out of whack.
If the pressure is too high then you might have ground too fine or overfilled the basket. If the pressure is too low you’ll want to grind finer.
TASTING AND TESTING
Even if you get everything right and have a beautiful looking shot, it might still taste awful. You have gotten the look, but your variables might be out of whack if you get certain flavours.
In general, bitterness is due to over-extraction, the shot is coming out too slowly and the grind needs to be coarser to extract the coffee solubles properly. Sourness comes from under-extraction, so you need to grind finer to extract more solubles.
Lighter roasts are harder to dial in, and you might find that the first few shots you pull while dialing in are over-extracted which means there is a low percentage of coffee solubles in the cup, and therefore tastes sour. For this you’ll need to grind finer. This is where controlling the grind and the dose in proportion is important – if you need to grind finer but you already have a good shot timing and weight, then you need to change the dose and the yield to adjust for those variables.
For example, you have 17g in the basket and a grinder setting of 12 and your timing is perfect at 34g yield in 27 seconds, but it tastes sour. You’ll need to adjust finer, but at that dose you risk choking the machine and getting a slow shot. In this case you’ll lower the dose as you adjust the grind, so taking the grinder to 11, you could lower your dose to 16.5g, and therefore the yield to 33g at the same timing.
It can be hard to get this part right, and you’ll get a lot of bad shots trying to get something .
drinkable as espresso. If you want to learn what each part of the extraction tastes like, you can try separating each part of the extraction and tasting them separately – I line up 6 cups and change them every 5 seconds, then try the coffee step by step. Usually the second and third steps taste the best, and the final steps taste watery.
It might be handy to keep some notes on what you’re doing – your settings for a lighter roast coffee today are likely to be a better starting point for another lighter roast in the coming weeks.
I hope this helps you. Did you buy a new espresso machine? How have your shots been? Comment below and check out our video of this on YouTube.