Explore: These tips are for pulling better espresso shots on a semi-automatic home espresso machine with a pressurized portafilter. You can do it!
Step 1: Terminology
Portafilter - the handle that holds the filter basket where you place the ground espresso.
Brew Head - the exposed part of the espresso machine that the portafilter filter locks into. Also called a brew group, especially on commercial espresso machines.
Pressurized Filter Basket - a filter basket that has fewer holes, smaller holes, and/or a mechanism that increases the pressure in addition to the bar pressure of the espresso machine.
Burr Grinder - a grinder suited for espresso because the whole beans are ground through two adjustable discs instead of revolving blades resulting in a finer and more uniform grind.
Espresso Fine Grind - espresso requires a grind size finer than what is used for drip coffee. Your fingertips can assist. Does the grind feel coarser than flour but finer than table salt? Some say powdered sugar is a good correlation for an espresso grind.
Tamper - the chess-piece looking tool that fits just on top of the filter basket with enough room to press the espresso grounds down evenly.
Step 2: Routine Preparation
These seemingly small and fussy details give your espresso shot a head start to delicious town:
• Use fresh filtered water in your machine’s reservoir.
• Turn your machine on in advance. Depending on the size of the machine’s boiler, it takes 15-30 minutes to reach optimal internal temperatures.
• Insert the pressurized double basket into the portafilter and preheat it in the brew head.
• Preheat the shot glasses and cups if your machine has a passive warming feature on top or by adding boiling water and letting them sit on the counter until needed.
• Nice to have-- a digital timer, kitchen scale, two measured shot glasses, a stainless steel frothing pitcher to discard practice shots and a bar towel for inevitable spills.
Step 3: Troubleshoot Your Espresso Shots With a Taste Test
WEAK - Not enough coffee dosage or too coarse of a coffee grind, or both. Each portafilter basket is a little different in terms of size and shape. Your machine includes a compatible single and/or a double basket. A double basket holds somewhere between 14-18 grams of ground coffee. This is about 4 teaspoons. A kitchen scale comes in handy. You can experiment to find the amount you think tastes best with your coffee and your machine and be able to repeat the same dosage in the future.
STRONG - Just because you love a strong shot of espresso doesn’t mean you need to fill the filter basket up and tamp it so tight that it barely locks into the brew head. Select a darker espresso roast instead of a lighter Italian-style espresso roast to get the extra-strength goodness you crave. Pressurized portafilters (generally) do not need tamping down. Brush the edges of the filter basket off so there are no stray coffee grounds to get into the threads of the brew head. I like to smooth the basket down with a light tamp to make sure the grounds are even within the basket.
BITTER - Temperature or grind size could be the culprit. Too fine of a grind will result in a slow, over-extracted shot that can taste bitter. Check your grind size and try again. If you want to lower the temperature, run water through the brew head and try your shot again.
SOUR - Temperature or grind size could be the culprit. Too coarse of a grind will create a fast, under-extracted shot with a weak and watery consistency and sour notes. Check your grind size and try again. If you want to increase the boiler temperature, wait and make sure the machine is good and ready before you pull another shot. Some people even discard the first shot of the day as a warm up to the main event.
FLAT - This may seem elementary, but in order to make the best tasting coffee you need to use the best tasting water. If you regularly drink a glass of your tap water and think it tastes fine then it is okay to brew with it. The water should have no funny color, smells or tastes. Run fresh tap water through a water filtration pitcher if your water quality is less than optimal. Don’t let it stand overnight in the pitcher though, water can absorb funky kitchen smells. Also, refill your machine’s water reservoir with fresh water before you start each time. Don’t use water that has been previously boiled or distilled water.
NO CREMA - Crema comes from fresh roasted coffee. Coffee is a perishable product. As it ages, the natural oils oxidize and the beans become harder as they go stale and they will not produce crema. Darker roasted coffees go stale more quickly than lighter roasted coffees. This makes a difference in how you set your burr grinder. Beans ground on Day 3 may require a different grinder setting on Day 30. We recommend using all beans within 30 days of opening the sealed package for best flavor. Only grind what you need for each espresso session to keep the crema coming!
STALE - Could be the beans or it could be your equipment. First try a new bag of beans, if that doesn’t fix a stale note in the shot then it could be a dirty machine. Make sure you use an espresso machine cleaner once a week and descale on a monthly basis. Oily residue, or worse, can taint the taste of your otherwise great espresso shots.
UNBALANCED - Fresh whole bean coffee that you grind with a burr grinder will yield better tasting results. If you do not have a burr grinder it is better to use pre-ground coffee rather than a blade grinder. A blade grinder makes inconsistent particles and the espresso shot will taste unbalanced because some particles will be under extracted and some will be over extracted.
WRONG COFFEE - Some coffees and some machines will not get along together no matter what you try. Experiment with another brand and keep pulling shots. If you purchase pre-ground coffee make sure it says it is suitable for espresso and that it is a fine grind. Espresso coffee uses a finer grind than what is used for drip coffee.
WRONG TEMPERATURE - You may not be able to control temperature. Single boilers can fluctuate up to 20 degrees, enough to change the flavor of the espresso shot. More expensive single boiler espresso machines add a PID electronic device to control internal temperatures within one degree. During experimentation, if one shot comes out really off it could be the espresso machine, not you! Hopefully this is just a fluke and not an internal boiler malfunction on your machine.
Step 4: Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself
Coffee - When was it roasted? Is it compatible with your machine?
Water - Fresh filtered and tank filled just prior to use?
Grind - Espresso fine?
Dosage - Between 14-18 grams?
Tamp - Not as important with a pressurized filter basket. Keep it groomed clean and even.
Time - How long does a double shot take? Remember a pressurized shot will be faster.
Step 5: Finally, Hit Your Stride
Finding the right combination of coffee, water, time and temperature is not as easy as it looks. A pressurized portafilter extracts espresso much quicker (in the 10-20 second range) so a taste test is a better gauge of a good shot than a timer in this case. Letting an espresso shot run long (lungo) or short (ristretto) is okay--after you have mastered your machine. For initial experiments, stick with a taste test and a timed double shot.
Be patient, practice and don’t be afraid to pull multiple shots in a row for comparison purposes. Have a frothing pitcher nearby to discard shots since the drip tray will fill up quickly and always have a towel handy for accidental spills.
The reward for your patience? Better espresso shots that you made yourself! Need more information? We have other awesome online tutorials in the Seattle Coffee Gear Learn Section.