WRITTEN BY: ZOE DUMAS
For starters, you’ll want to get to know your way around your espresso machine. You should have a pretty good understanding of your specific machine from reading the manual, but the portafilter and the group head are the heart of any espresso machine and thus the most important to remember.
Portafilter: A basket that holds coffee for espresso-brewing that is attached to a plastic or wooden handle. Many have a double spout on the bottom, but professionals tend to prefer a bottomless portafilter to perfect their espresso shots.
Group Head: The part of the espresso machine that the portafilter attaches to. Hot, pressurized water is forced through the group head and into the portafilter to brew espresso.
Espresso is a small but mighty beverage. A single shot is about one fluid ounce and has three distinct parts. On the bottom is the heart, the deep brown base that has the coffee’s bitterest flavors. Above that is the caramel-colored body which makes up the majority of the shot’s volume. And, finally, is the top layer, the crema. This thin, golden foam is where the coffee is sweetest and most fragrant, making it key to any great shot of espresso. When brewing, it’s important to remember that espresso can be finicky. The slightest changes in grind, dose, water temperature, and more, can all influence the final brew. Be sure to keep notes of your espresso making so you know what works best for you, your machine, and your favorite espresso beans.
To get started, you’ll need a recipe. I generally start by using 19g of coffee for a 60ml doppio that takes about 20-25 seconds to brew. These are the parameters I’ll refer to going forward, but feel free to use any recipe you see fit.
Grab your portafilter and weigh out your dose. With that done, it’s time to distribute and groom. Distribution is simply that: redistributing the coffee in the portafilter so that the grinds are spread out uniformly. There’s a lot of debate about the proper way to distribute and groom a coffee puck, but beginners are best served by some basic techniques. To distribute, lightly tap the portafilter on the counter to collapse any large air pockets. Grooming is rather like dosing, but it usually involves only the top layers of the coffee bed. The NSEW (North-South-East-West) method is easy and effective. With the portafilter held in front of you, gently push the piled-up grounds toward the farthest edge (north) and then back toward you (south). Now, push the grounds all the way to the left, and then all the way to the right. Gently wipe down the edges to get rid of coffee that’s gathered on the rim of the portafilter basket.
Now, let’s tamp! This is where that prior distribution gets locked in for brewing. Most tampers are designed kind of like a doorknob, and that’s precisely the way to think of it when perfecting your tamp technique. Hold the tamper out in front of you as you would with a doorknob, your thumb and forefinger closest to the flat end. Bend your elbow and set the tamper onto the bed of coffee. Before applying pressure, take a close look at the way the tamper sits in the portafilter basket: tamping lopsided will negatively affect the outcome of your espresso. Grip the handle as before and firmly press down on the tamper, compacting the grounds. While you may have heard people reference a required “30 pounds of pressure” be applied, don’t stress it: numerous studies have shown that higher tamping pressure has little to no effect on the final brew. Instead, just focus on keeping your tamp level and consistent.
Lock the portafilter into the group head and get brewing! This will obviously differ from one machine to another, and you’ll want to follow the manufacturer’s instructions here, but the result should still be a delicious shot of espresso. It’s at this point that you’ll really be honing your barista chops. It’s one thing to get the motions down; it’s another to be able to adjust those motions to bring out the best in your espresso, aka “dialing in.”
Dialing in is the process of analyzing the shots we make and working to improve them as much as possible. This process is very similar to a scientific experiment in that it’s important to adjust one variable at a time. There are three variables that we want to pay attention to here: dose, grind size, and brew time. Finding the right balance of these three factors is what’s necessary to truly dialing in your espresso shots.
Before tasting, look at how your espresso came out of the machine. Were you able to get the expected 60ml/2oz yield within 20-25 seconds? If not, you need to increase or decrease your dose, usually only by a few tenths of a gram. Decrease the dose if the yield is too small and increase if the yield is too large.
And now, to taste! Just as with cupping, you want to slurp to effectively taste the breadth of flavors the coffee contains. I’d also recommend giving the espresso a quick stir before you sip, so that you aren’t only tasting the crema. How does it taste? Typically, unpleasant bitter tastes in espresso are a product of overextraction, while unpleasant acidity is from under-extraction. To counteract these, you’ll need to either increase or decrease your grind size, respectively.
The easiest way to think about this is the popular rocks and sand analogy taught to many an amateur barista. Imagine water pouring over a bed of pebbles, quickly descending through the sediment to the bottom. Now imagine the same scenario, but instead with a bed of sand: the water will move significantly slower because it has less space to navigate through the fine granules.
Bringing this back to coffee, water will flow quicker or slower through the espresso bed depending on the size of the grounds. This in mind, you should be able to quickly determine how you need to change the grind size depending on the taste. Is it bitter? Sour? What unpleasant tastes, if any, can you identify? If your espresso is over extracted, you should increase your grind size. Conversely, if the espresso is under extracted, it should be finer. After changing the grind size, pull another shot and taste it. How did the taste change? Is the shot better or worse than the one before?
Continue doing this until you have a shot of espresso you’d be happy to serve, and then take note of every variable so you can recreate this to the best of your ability next time. Espresso is incredibly fun to play with, but it can also be daunting to make if you don’t have any training. Even experienced baristas struggle sometimes with dialing in, so know that it’s OK if the process is difficult. Just like with any skill, practice and dedication are absolutely necessary when trying to make café-quality espresso. But, one day, you’ll slurp that amazing espresso you just brewed, and you’ll know it was all worth it.