Dialing In: Basic Espresso Technique

You made the plunge! You bought a sweet new espresso machine, a great grinder, a highly accurate scale, and killer beans from your local shop. 

Now you just need to know how to make espresso. 

Espresso isn’t a specific type of coffee- it’s a brewing method where water under high pressure is forced through finely ground coffee beans to make a highly concentrated shot. 

Your goal as a home barista is to make a “recipe” that gets you a great shot of espresso every time with only two ingredients: water and coffee beans. 

Your Ingredients

The Water: Espresso is 90% water. Use good tasting water, and your coffee will taste good too. Most espresso machine manufacturers recommend testing your water, or checking with your local water treatment plant, to find out the mineral content. For the most delicious espresso, and to prevent limescale build up, use soft water in your machine. 

The Coffee: Historically medium to darker roasts have been the go-to in espresso, as they are a little more water soluble, and easier to brew. They have that classic flavor profile of caramel and chocolate notes, and run on the sweeter side.

The coffee world has embraced using lighter roasts and single origins too, which are more associated with brighter, fruitier flavors- they require a little more work to get a good shot, but if that's the kind of coffee you like, you should use it. 

The rest of your recipe is all in the technique, and it’s where endless discussion can be had about tamping, baskets, distribution tools- take your pick. But when you’re getting started, you can focus on just a few things: ratio, dose, grind, brew time, and temperature. 

Ratio

Ratio is the weight of the dose relative to the weight of espresso you get out for each shot. This is where having a scale that measures within .1g makes your life easier, so you can accurately measure what’s happening. A volume measurement, such as aiming for 2 ounces for each shot, can be greatly affected by the amount of crema you have. So live by the scale. 

The amount of ground coffee you use is known as your dose. Your dose will be limited by your basket size, and sometimes they even print it on the side- it may also be in your manual, if it isn’t printed on the basket. Generally keep your dose within a gram of your basket size. 

We can refer to these ratios using traditional Italian terminology: ristretto (restricted), normale (regular), and lungo (long). 

1:1 (ristretto)

1:2 (normale)

1:3 (lungo)

18g ground coffee

18g espresso

36g espresso

54g espresso

21g ground coffee

21g espresso

42g espresso

63g espresso

A lower ratio, like 1:1, makes for a richer, more viscous espresso (great for those darker roasts); a 1:2 will give you a middle ground, with some viscosity and body, but a bit brighter; and a 1:3 will have more clarity, pulling out a lot of individual flavors, but with a lighter body (higher ratios are recommended for single origins and lighter roast coffees). 

Although it’s really up to you and what you think tastes good, 1:2 is a good starting place for most coffee types, and then you can adjust it up or down as you prefer. 

Dose

Your ratio depends on your dose- and your dose depends on your basket. Simply put, pick a dose based on how much espresso you want to make, and then keep that the same throughout. 

Want a lot of espresso? Use a bigger basket.

Want a little espresso? Use a smaller basket.

Prevailing coffee trends in the US, Europe and Australia are towards drinks with milk, and that means making more espresso in order to balance out the flavors in your drink. Shops in the US, Europe, and Australia will use anywhere from 16 - 22 grams of coffee. You can always use a larger basket for a smaller dose, the puck will just be a little wet and may not knock out as cleanly. 

If you prefer to drink your espresso as a shot, you may want to scale back your dose. For a point of reference, espresso in Italy (or un caffe, as they call it) is traditionally a quite small dose of coffee- about 7 grams- and is downed as a shot at the coffee bar. So if you want to channel your inner Italian, make a small espresso and drink it standing up at your kitchen counter.

Grind

The classic way that baristas are taught about grind size is with rocks and sand. Water will flow quickly through the bigger rocks (less resistance), but slowly through the fine sand (more resistance). 

The starting point for an espresso grind is much, much finer than for drip coffee. If you think of a drip coffee setting as coarse cornmeal, espresso is somewhere between table salt and fine sugar, for a couple of reasons:

1) smaller coffee grounds will compact more to create higher resistance against the water (like the sand)

2) more flavors are extracted from finely ground coffee because of the higher surface area in contact with water

Grind too finely, and you create too much resistance for the water. The coffee bed cracks under the pressure, and you end up with channeling, where water runs through more quickly in certain areas, creating under extraction, and gets stuck in other areas, creating over extraction. Generally unpleasant.   

Too coarse of a grind means not enough coffee is exposed to water (lower surface area), and it runs through too quickly, like the gravel. The delicious flavors and compounds you’re trying to unlock stay in the coffee bed, and the shot runs sour and thin. Unpleasant in a different way. 

The right grind size creates enough resistance to allow the water to be in contact with your grounds for long enough to pull out sweetness and body, but not so long that you get a bitter, harsh espresso. It’s a very Goldilocks kind of experience.

Using “smaller than table salt” as your starting point, you can start to dial in the right size for your beans. Keep in mind that some grinders will hang on to or “retain” some coffee in the burrs, so as you adjust your setting, you may have to purge the grinder for a 2-3 seconds to start fresh. 

Once you’ve made a shot that you like, grind a little extra coffee and feel the texture, so you can start to build a sense of what the right size is. That way with a new grinder, or a new type of coffee, you’ll have a starting point. 

Dialing in the grind can be frustrating for everyone, especially when you’re new to espresso. Don’t worry! Figuring out the right size never happens on the first try.

Brew Time

Brew time is less of a thing to adjust and more of a way for you to judge whether or not your other variables are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

A good place to start is 25-30 seconds. As you start to dive into pre-infusions, changing pressure profiles and other variables, your timing might start to be different- but let’s leave that alone. For now, we’ll stick to 25 - 30 seconds. 

The first few drops tell you how quickly the water is saturating and going through your coffee bed. 

If you see your first few drops collecting and falling:

Before 6 seconds: too fast! Your shot could be a little sour and thin. Adjust your grind finer. 

Between 6 - 10 seconds: Just right. Like Goldilocks. 

After 10 seconds: too slow! Your shot might be harsh or bitter. Adjust your grind coarser.

After your puck is saturated, if your shot finishes:

In LESS than 25 seconds, your water is running through the coffee bed quickly, and your espresso might taste sour, with a thin body. Adjust your grind finer. 

In MORE than 30 seconds, your water is taking a longer time to go through your coffee bed. Your espresso might have a bitter or very strong taste, and be very viscous or syrupy. Adjust your grind coarser.

Here's the important part- if you do land outside of that window, but it tastes good to you- then you don't need to change anything. But if you don't like how it tastes, start with a very small adjustment, and try again. 

Temperature

195℉ - 205℉ is where the best tasting espresso happens, with 200℉ right in the middle of the road. This will give you a pretty good shot of espresso most of the time. But if the shots you keep pulling are consistently tasting a little bitter, or a little too bright, but the rest of your parameters look good (meaning you’re getting the ratio you’re looking for in the recommended time), then you can start to adjust your temperature. 

In general: lower brew temperatures mean slightly less extraction, and will be better for darker roasts and lower ratios. Higher temperatures extract more flavor, and are normally used with lighter roasts and higher brew ratios. 

You need to have a machine that keeps a highly consistent temperature for this to be something you can adjust, for those that don't have an external thermostat there's temperature surfing.

Temperature Surfing:

Temperature surfing is a technique used in single boiler and heat exchange espresso machines where you don't have an adjustable thermostat. The temperature to make steam (212℉) will scorch your coffee and affect its flavor. To avoid this, surfing is catching the water when it hits the 195℉ - 205℉ window.

There are as many methods as there are machines, but there many groups and websites that are happy to share information in granular detail (about pretty much everything regarding espresso). 

Dialing In

Building your espresso recipe is known as dialing in. No one has their espresso dialed in from the first shot, it takes time and little tweaks to get all your variables nailed down where you want them. The most important part in this is you! Figure out what flavors you like and keep track of what changes you make that get you there. The more you pull shots and learn your own palate, the better you’ll get at adjusting your recipe, no matter what coffee you have.