This is a great guest post from Bryan, from The Coffee Maven, which was inspired by an earlier guest post – and provides some great tips for improving your Espresso.
Like most people who frequent this site, I drink an absurd amount of coffee. Part of that is because caffeine is my fuel of choice, but an even larger reason why I consume so much coffee is because I absolutely love it. A smooth, vibrant cup of coffee in the morning really sets the tone for a great day.
And the same goes for a bold espresso.
A few days ago I read a post here on Coffee Blog called “5 Ways to Up Your Coffee Game” providing several great tips for improving your daily cup.
In that post Matt Meinzer laid out the following five ways to make better coffee:
- Drink fresher coffee with fresher beans
- Grind before you brew
- Brew differently (such as AeroPress or French Press)
- Preheat your cup
- Get your water right
In this post I want to follow up with another set of tips for you espresso drinkers out there.
And to keep it fresh — as Matt suggests! — I’ll come up with five new tips that you can use to take your espresso to the next level.
1. Run a water-only cycle to preheat all components
Water temperature is so crucial for espresso, and you’ll probably get slightly different suggested extraction temperatures across various online resources.
But one thing is for certain: A cold espresso machine will prevent your water from getting anywhere near the desired temperature range, giving you an under-extracted shot.
Use this awesome guide by Five Senses to dial in the temperature that suits your espresso style, and then make sure you run a water-only cycle to get all internal components preheated to the desired temperature.
However, you may want to leave the portafilter out if you don’t feel like you can quickly get it 100% dry before adding coffee for your actual shot.
2. Switch to a non-pressurized portafilter
There are two types of portafilters (the things you put your ground coffee into):
2. Non-pressurized (or bottomless)
The image above shows the difference between the two.
Most low-end espresso machines — those designed for novices or intermediates — come with pressurized portafilters, but you can really step up the quality of your espresso by switching to a non-pressurized portafilter.
Or you could make it worse.
Let me explain.
The difference between these two portafilters is in the bottom of the basket. Pressurized portafilters have a second wall on the bottom with a single hole in the center. During extraction the espresso builds up between the first wall (with all the holes) and the second wall (with the single hole). Only with enough force does the shot push through the single hole and into your cup.
Think of this second wall as a quality checkpoint. It creates a floor for how bad your shot can be; it’s tough to pull a really weak shot with a pressurized portafilter. Unfortunately, it also places a ceiling on how great your shot can be.
Non-pressurized portafilters lack this quality checkpoint and give you much more control over your final shot. That additional control means another variable you can tweak, and that means your range of espresso outcomes is much wider. You can pull some truly weak shots with a non-pressurized portafilter, but on the flip side you can get a truly bold, vibrant espresso.
3. Distribute ground coffee evenly in your portafilter
As soon as you lock your portafilter into your espresso machine and hit the brew button, hot water will begin flowing towards your coffee grounds. Pressure will build up, and that water will look to escape into your cup by any means necessary!
If your grounds aren’t evenly distributed, water will seek the path of least resistance and create a channel. This phenomenon is called “channeling” (I know, shocking) and leads to uneven extraction. Some grounds will get hit with excess hot water and become over-extracted whereas other grounds won’t get enough water and remain under-extracted.
Another great post by Five Senses explains some easy ways to ensure an evenly distributed bed.
4. Practice controlled experimentation
There are a ton of different variables you can modify to tweak your resulting shot. Here’s a shortlist:
● Volume of ground coffee
● Volume of water
● Water temperature
● Grind size
● Tamp pressure
● Type of coffee bean
● Extraction time
I encourage you to test all of them!
But test them one at a time.
Let’s say you brew a pretty good shot. B+ effort. Next time you increase the water temperature, add more ground coffee, and tamp a little firmer. The ensuring shot is grade-A espresso.
Do you know which variable was responsible for the improvement? In reality it’s all of them, but each modification from your B+ shot to your A shot changed the resulting espresso in its own way. That’s why it’s recommended you adjust variables one at a time.
First increase the water temperature while leaving all other variables constant. Note the resulting shot.
Then add more ground coffee and run it again.
Then do it a third time while changing only the tamp.
This way you can better understand how the different variables impact the final product.
Coffee doesn’t have to be a science, but nerds like me choose to make it one anyway.
5. Keep things clean!
I know, I know, this isn’t a revolutionary tip.
(And it’s coming from the guy that hasn’t cleaned out his burr grinder in a month.)
A dirty grinder and espresso machine leaves rancid coffee bean oils left behind, which can lend a sharp, unpleasant taste to your espresso. Unclean portafilter baskets also may not seal as well, preventing your machine from reaching the desired pressure and impacting your extraction.
Wipe all of the components down after each use, clean out your grinder every couple weeks, and descale every 1-3 months depending on the hardness of your water (hard water needs more frequent descaling).
And there you have it! Five ways to take your espresso to the next level.
(Actually 10 if you heed Matt’s five tips from the coffee post mentioned in the intro.)
Some of the tips are things you can implement right now, such as preheating all elements. Others will require some time and practice before you can master them, such as using a non-pressurized portafilter.
If you’re new to the wonderful world of espresso, don’t be overwhelmed. There are a ton of great espresso guides out there for you to learn the basics, and you can implement the above tips without owning one of the best espresso machines on the market.
Do you have any tips or suggestions to share? If so, comment below!
Thanks Bryan – great post! Bryan writes for The Coffee Maven and is dedicated to creating compelling coffee-related content for coffee lovers of all experience levels.