Espresso. When you want your coffee strong, with the richest and most complex flavors you can get out of the beans, and you need it fast, nothing beats this express brewing method. So you buy yourself a shiny new espresso machine – and now you’re wondering why you’re making monkey pee.
But don’t take a sledgehammer to your machine and leave a scathing review of it on Amazon just yet! Like so many of the devices we now use, up to ninety percent of the problems we experience are due to user errors or ignorance – and so easily fixed.
Espresso is the most complex method of making coffee, with a lot more variables than your pour-over cone or French press. The end product is also very different from other coffees: not just a solution of coffee extracts in water, but a solution, a colloidal suspension of coffee solids, and an emulsion topped with a polyphasic colloidal foam – the crema. What a mouthful!
In a nutshell, to fix the espresso shots, use the fresh quality medium to dark roast coffee beans. Also consider correct grind size, pressure, temperature, extraction time, flow, and most of all, technique. Do it right, and you’ve got ambrosia guaranteed to kickstart your day right.
Do it wrong, and you get monkey pee. The good news though is that the technique is a skill anyone can learn and refine.
Let’s go over the things you need to do to fix your espresso shots.
Not even the best baristas in the world can make a drinkable coffee with badly-handled, stale, or utterly carbonized beans. To make a decent espresso, you need beans that have been roasted right for espresso extraction, fully degassed but fresh, and ground right.
How to Fix Espress Shots
Use Fresh Beans
This one’s a no-brainer, whatever method you’re using to make coffee. Good coffee starts with fresh beans. There’s just no way you can make a decent drink from old garbage!
When buying coffee beans, look for the roasting date on the label. This is the surest way to know your coffee is really fresh, and a better indicator of freshness than a best-by date. Espresso is best made with beans between 4 to 21 days after roasting, when they are at peak freshness but sufficiently degassed.
Coffee beans that have just been roasted and not given enough time to degas will produce espresso with weak, quickly dissipated crema because they contain too much carbon dioxide. If you notice this in your espresso, try waiting a day or two before brewing again with those beans.
If for some reason you end up with expired beans, they’re not a total waste. While you don’t want to make any kind of coffee with them, they’re still useful as garden fertilizer, pest repellent, deodorizer, or skin exfoliant, or you can even use them to make coffee paintings.
Use Medium to Dark-Roasted Beans
As a rule of thumb, lighter roasts are best for pour-over or cold brew coffee, while darker roasts are better for espresso. Medium and dark roasts give you the lowest acidity, make the beans’ aromatic essential oils easy to extract, and gives a full, rich body to your espresso.
If you make espresso with beans roasted too light for the method, you’re likely to get a flat-tasting shot that lacks the smoky richness and velvety finish of a good espresso.
However, you don’t want to get over-roasted beans either. Over-roasted coffee can taste bitter and ashy, while their oiliness can gum up your grinder.
Another reason to avoid the darkest dark roasts is that these are often inferior beans. These are often blends of the cheapest beans from lower-altitude, quantity-over-quality farms. By roasting these very dark, the producer hopes to gloss over the worst qualities.
Store Coffee Beans Properly
Coffee beans have four environmental enemies: heat, light, oxygen, and moisture.
To preserve the quality of your beans longest, you want to store them in a way that blocks all four problems. This means an opaque, airtight, and well-sealed container kept in a cool, dry place.
Avoid refrigerating your coffee, especially in the bag it came in. While refrigeration in itself can prolong the life of coffee beans, the problem comes when you take the coffee out of the fridge.
As soon as that coffee is exposed to warmer air, water condenses on the beans. This moisture taints and alters the flavors of your coffee, and can encourage the growth of molds. And moldy coffee is just plain gross!
It’s even worse if your container wasn’t wholly airtight, as along with moisture your beans will pull in the aromas and flavors of whatever else is in your fridge. Got raw salmon in there? Yup, get ready for amateur-chef’s-sushi-flavored coffee. Leftover garlic-and-anchovy pizza? Say Buon Giorno to espresso that’s a little too Italian!
If you find yourself with an oversupply of coffee beans, you can freeze them – but make sure to do it properly. Divide your coffee beans into small batches that you can use up with a week or less and transfer them into airtight containers.
Doubled ziplock bags have worked for me.
When you need to use your frozen coffee beans, defrost them to room temperature before opening their packages and make sure to wipe off the condensation on the package before opening. This prevents moisture from getting to the beans. Use the defrosted beans quickly.
Use Whole Beans
Unless you really have no time to do your own grinding, always start your espresso-making with whole beans. Whole beans stay fresh and preserve their flavor much better than pre-ground coffee, and doing the grinding yourself allows you to fine-tune flavor by altering the grind size.
Grind size is one of the major factors controlling extraction, which in turn is one of the major factors in determining flavor. Too coarse, and you get under-extracted espresso that is too acidic. Too fine, and you get over-extracted espresso that’s too bitter.
Grind Just Before Brewing
To get the full, freshest flavors from your coffee beans, grind them just before you make coffee.
This applies to all methods of making coffee.
Once coffee beans are ground, you expose them to chemical changes caused by oxidation, contamination from other odors, moisture, and carbon dioxide depletion, changes that cause the flavor and aroma to go off or flat.
To avoid this degradation of quality, grind your beans just before making espresso.
If your espresso machine doesn’t come with its own grinder, it’s best to get a burr grinder. While you can grind coffee in most food processors if you don’t have a dedicated coffee grinder, these blade-type machines tend to produce an uneven grind and spin at high speeds that can raise the temperature of the beans too much.
Uneven grind size will give you inconsistent results, over-extracted at times and under-extracted in others.
Heat also starts the chemical changes that you only want to happen when you’re extracting the espresso, which can give you coffee that tastes off when you brew it, and too much heat can act like the extra roasting time that gives your coffee a burnt and bitter flavor.
Another disadvantage of many blade grinders is the lack of precise control over grind size. Because blade grinders chop the beans rather than milling them, the only real control you have for grind size is the time spent grinding. However, the longer the beans are ground the higher their temperature will go.
If you have no choice but to use a blade grinder, grind only in short pulses, giving your beans time to rest and cool between pulses, and have a sample espresso grind you can compare your results to so you can achieve the desired grind size.
Troubleshooting Your Espresso Shots
Now we dig into what went wrong with a bad espresso shot and how to fix it.
How to Fix Acidic Espresso
Acidic espresso is the result of under-extraction. If you were watching the gauge when you pulled the shot, you’ll notice that it didn’t hit the gray ‘espresso’ range.
This can happen as a result of:
- Insufficient coffee in the portafilter. Solution: use more coffee.
- Insufficient tamping. Solution: make sure you distribute coffee grounds evenly and tamp them until packed.
- Your grind was too coarse. Solution: adjust your grind size one or two steps finer (lower number).
- Your water was too cold. Solution: let the machine warm up longer, or adjust the temperature.
- Your shot time was too short. Solution: pull a longer shot, until you get blonding.
How to Fix Bitter Espresso
Bitter espresso is a sign of over-extraction. This is often accompanied by an unusually slow flow of fluid into your cup. This can happen as a result of:
- Too much coffee in the portafilter. Solution: reduce the amount of coffee.
- Over-tamping. Solution: reduce your tamping pressure.
- The grind was too fine. Solution: adjust your grind size one or two steps coarser (higher number).
- Your shot time was too long. Solution: stop the shot as soon as you see blonding.
How to Fix Burnt-Tasting Espresso
An espresso with burnt flavor can result from using over-roasted beans, or from water that’s too hot. The latter comes from over-extraction and is usually a result of using a grind size that’s too fine. Check your beans. If they’re not the problem, then adjust your grind size a step or two coarser.
How to Fix Watery Espresso
A watery espresso can come from a combination of too coarse a grind and too much water – that is, you pulled your shot too long, or used an insufficient amount of coffee. This is where using scales really helps – if you know you were using the right proportions of coffee and water, you can eliminate those variables and zero in on the grind.
Roasts that are too light, and stale coffee beans, can also give you watery espresso. Always check your beans – you want to see beans that are a dark mahogany color and some oil sheen on them, and they should smell intensely fragrant when you open your container.
How to Fix Lack of Crema
An espresso with too little or no crema is a sign of stale coffee beans. Check the roasting date on your beans – if they’re more than a month old, they’re likely stale. Also check how you’ve stored the beans – if they’re not in an airtight container, or got exposed to heat, sunlight, or moisture, they may have gone stale prematurely.
Lack of crema can also be caused by insufficient heat. You may not have allowed your machine to preheat long enough – remember to allow a bit longer for really cold mornings. If you lack crema and there’s a funny taste in your espresso, your cups may have some residual detergent from washing.
How to Fix Disappearing Crema
Crema that is very bubbly and dissipates quickly is a sign you’re using beans too soon after roasting. These beans haven’t fully degassed yet, and their excess carbon dioxide is what’s blowing bubbles in your crema. Allow the beans to rest a few days before using them.
How to Fix Minerally Espresso
Does your espresso have a funny, minerally flavor?
If it does, and you’re also noticing slower flows than usual, your machine needs descaling. How frequently you need to descale varies with the water you use. In some areas the water can be highly alkaline, creating lime buildups in your espresso machine much faster than usual.
You can descale your espresso machine with citric acid, vinegar, or a commercial descaling solution.
Basics of Making an Espresso Shot
Let’s review the typical process for pulling an espresso. We’ll use the process for the Breville Barista Express, one of the most popular home espresso machines, as the procedure for other machines will not be much different.
You may find that the root of your dissatisfaction with your espresso shots among these basics. I know mine improved a lot when I started giving my machine sufficient warm-up time.
Here’s the process recommended by long-time Breville users:
Read the Manual
As with any modern device, the absolute first step before use is RTFM:
Read the, um, fabulous manual!
If you’ve never used your machine before, do this now. If you’ve been using your Breville for a while but never perused the manual, do this now. You may discover something lacking in the way you’ve set up your machine, or find out it’s due for cleaning already.
Check The Water Level
Some espresso machines will warn you if there’s insufficient water in the reservoir, but the Breville Barista Express doesn’t have this feature.
So before you turn on the machine, always check if there’s enough water in it for your desired amount of espresso plus another cup or two for a preparatory run and flushing, especially if you’re planning to steam milk for a cappuccino or macchiato.
Pre-Heat the Espresso Machine
While the Breville Barista Express is technically ready for use 30 seconds after switching on, an espresso shot pulled immediately will be inferior. This is because the water and the nozzles haven’t reached the ideal temperature yet. Give them time to do so, at least 10-15 minutes, 20 if it’s a cold morning.
You can also preheat your coffee cups by placing them on the tray on top of the machine. Breville’s designers designed this specifically to serve as a warming tray so your espresso doesn’t go into a cold cup. Pulling espresso into cold cups will cool them too fast, causing a quicker loss of flavor.
Add Coffee Beans to the Hopper
If the hopper above the grinder is empty, add some coffee beans to it. You don’t need an exact measure, just pour in enough for a cup or three. As you gain experience using the machine you’ll learn how much beans to put in for your daily caffeine requirements.
Set the Desired Grind Size and Dose
Grind size and amount are vital factors in determining the quality of an espresso shot. They are your first and most important controls over-extraction. Fortunately, the machine’s default settings are already calibrated to an average that works with most coffee beans. You’ll only need to adjust these if they don’t work for the beans you’re using.
The Breville’s default settings are Grind Size 5 (from a range of 1-16) and a medium amount of grounds. You want a texture that’s a bit finer than your regular table salt granules, but not so fine that it feels like flour. Want to be really precise?
Here’s a grind chart you can use: https://www.homegrounds.co/coffee-grind-chart/
If you’ve already made espresso before using these settings and weren’t satisfied, you can try fine-tuning the settings a little at a time. If your espresso came out acidic, set a finer grind. If it came out bitter, set a coarser grind.
Prepare the Portafilter
Select the correct filter basket size for your desired amount of coffee.
The Breville Barista Express comes with two filter baskets, one for a single shot and one for a double. Make sure your filter baskets and portafilter assembly are clean and completely dry before filling them with coffee.
If you leave any moisture on the filter basket before filling it, this moisture can encourage channeling which results in uneven extraction.
Grind and Weigh the Coffee
Just like in baking, you get ideal results by following an ideal ratio of solid to liquid ingredients.
An ideal espresso shot has a 1:2 or so ratio of coffee to water by weight. The Breville is set to 30 ml of water for a single shot, and 60 ml for a double shot. To get this ratio, the manufacturer recommends 10-12 grams of coffee for single shots and 18-20 grams for a double, a little over 1:2.
To measure this amount precisely, it’s best to have a digital scale.
To get a true 1:2 ratio, use the manual mode. Grind 15-18 grams of coffee into the portafilter and place your scale with a cup on top beneath the portafilter.
You can use small baking scales, or better yet a dedicated coffee scale like the Acaia Pearl, which has waterproof housing and even comes with an app to help you track recipes and time your brewing.
When you run your shot, fill your cup until its contents are double the weight of the coffee. For example, if you used 15 grams of coffee, you should get a 30-gram cup.
Make sure you’re zeroed out for the cup, portafilter, and basket by weighing them first. Most digital scales will have a tare button that tells the scale to set the weight of the empty portafilter as 0.
Now grind the default amount and weigh it. If you don’t reach the correct weight you can add more, if you got too much you can remove coffee a little at a time until you’re at the target weight.
Tamp Down The Coffee
To make sure water pressure builds then flows evenly through your coffee, you have to compact the coffee grounds in your portafilter just right. Too loose, and you’ll get under-extracted espresso, while if you pack too tight, you’ll get over-extracted espresso.
To achieve the correct density, first tap the portafilter’s sides to get the coffee evenly distributed across it. Hold the filter in your left hand (assuming you’re right-handed, just reverse if you’re left-handed), and tap with the open palm of your right hand five or six times.
Each tap should be just strong enough to get the coffee to redistribute across the full diameter of the filter basket. Hold the filter slightly tilted, and knock at its highest point so that coffee redistributes to the lower part of the filter.
Then collapse the coffee into a more compact mass by tapping the bottom of the filter flat on your counter. Make sure you’re holding the filter so that its bottom will strike flat against the countertop, not an angle, and use only just enough strength to compact the coffee.
Once the grounds are more or less evenly distributed, even it out with the tamper and apply pressure to it. Hold the filter level and bring down the tamper on it, pressing down until the coffee stops compacting. Give the tamper a twist at the end, this helps level out the coffee.
Remove Stray Coffee Grounds
You can remove any excess or stray coffee grounds from the lip of the filter basket using the Breville Barista Express’ dose trimming tool and a cloth or even your fingers. Make sure there are absolutely no stray grounds on the portafilter to ensure a good seal when you attach it to the machine.
Pull A Cup Of Hot Water
Before loading your readied portafilter into the machine, run a cup of hot water and dump that out. This step warms all the parts of the machine that water will pass through, ensuring that when you pull your espresso shot the water hitting your coffee is exactly the temperature you want and no cooler. It also warms your cup, which will help your espresso stay good longer.
Pull Your Espresso Shot
At last, you’re ready to pull your espresso! Load the portafilter and lock it in, then hit your desired shot size. Watch the pressure gauge. If you did your grind, dosage, and tamping right, after a few seconds the gauge should hit the gray espresso range.
If it doesn’t, and you used a scale to measure the proper dose, your coffee is either ground wrong or tamped wrong. If the needle never moves beyond the lower pre-infusion range, water is flowing too easily through your coffee puck, indicating either a grind that’s too coarse or insufficient tamping. If the needle moves beyond the espresso range, you’ve got a grind that’s too fine or over-tamped.
If you’re pulling a shot in manual mode, stop the water as soon as you see the espresso go blonde in color. If you go beyond this, you’ll be extracting the bitter dregs from your coffee grounds and get an unbalanced espresso. Mark the time it took. If your espresso tastes right, keep note of this time for your next brewing.
Oh, and don’t forget to inhale! Breathe in deep through your nose, half the fun of making espresso at home is savoring that magical aroma!
Making a good espresso requires juggling quite a few variables.
Reduce them and free yourself from guesswork by using good scales to precisely weigh your coffee and your yield, always get fresh whole beans and store them properly, and practice until you’ve got your technique down pat. When you achieve a recipe you like note down its details so you can repeat it whenever you wish.
Now you can be your own barista!
Read Also: How Many Shots of Espresso is Too Much?