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5 Barista-Approved Tricks To Better Espresso
Written by: Anne Mercer
We’ve all experienced the utter disappointment and frustration that comes with brewing espresso at home for the first time. You spend money on a brand new espresso machine and a top-of-the-line coffee grinder, only for your espresso to taste nothing like it does at your local coffee shop.
This leaves you wondering where you went wrong. Did you buy the wrong grinder? Is your espresso machine a piece of junk?
Not at all.
It doesn’t matter if you’re training to work at a cafe or learning how to brew at home, understanding how to make great espresso takes time and a lot of practice.
Of course, having a few tricks in your back pocket will make the process easier!
We’ve compiled everything you need to know about brewing better coffee at home, including:
- What constitutes “good” espresso (+what espresso is not!)
- 5 barista-approved tips for brewing espresso at home
- What type of coffee to use for the best tasting espresso
Let’s give this a shot, shall we?
What is “Good” Espresso, Anyway?
First and foremost, let’s clear up the mass confusion around espresso.
Espresso is not a type of bean or a roast style. It’s a brew method!
This means all of the variables (grind, time, dose) can be adjusted to meet your personal preferences.
The Specialty Coffee Association defines espresso as:
“...a 25–35ml (.85–1.2 ounce [×2 for double]) beverage prepared from 7–9 grams (14–18 grams for a double) of coffee through which clean water of 195°–205°F (90.5°–96.1°C) has been forced at 9–10 atmospheres of pressure, and where the grind of the coffee is such that the brew time is 20–30 seconds.”
But, the majority of specialty coffee professionals use a slightly different recipe, more along the lines of
- 18–20 gram dose
- Output of 36.5 grams
- Extracted in 25–30 seconds
- 9 bars of pressure
Summed up, espresso is coffee brewed by using pressure to force hot water through super-fine coffee grounds. This creates a flavorful, viscous beverage with a golden or dark brown crema.
Read: What is Espresso?
Great tasting espresso should balance the flavors with its acidity and body for a well-rounded drink. Ultimately, it’s up to you to brew the espresso that suits your tastes!
Do you prefer your espresso on the syrupy side with nice deep chocolate notes? Or, do you enjoy lighter espressos with surprising flavors like lavender and lemon?
Either way, you’ll know exactly how to extract the flavors you want from a coffee when you put these espresso tips to good use.
5 Barista-Approved Tips for Brewing Better Espresso at Home
Before You Begin:
For this guide, we’ll assume you know how to brew espresso and you’re looking to improve your craft. If you’ve never made espresso at home, use our Ultimate Guide to Espresso to start your brewing journey.
1. Take Extensive Notes in a Brew Journal
The trick to brewing better espresso at home is to not make the same mistake twice.
Taking consistent notes will help you become an espresso expert and understand the brew method on a deeper level.
Record everything about your brew, like:
- Coffee roaster, origin, and roast level
- Roast date, if available
- Dry coffee (input) weight
- Wet coffee (output) volume
- Brew Time
- Grind Size
- Flavor Notes
“Making the grind finer resulted in a sweet strawberry taste with notes of vanilla, but the shot took far too long to extract.”
“Added five seconds to the extraction time to reduce sour notes.”
“When the grind was slightly coarser, the floral notes are more pronounced.”
Extensive and detailed notes will help you “become one” with your espresso machine and hone your brewing skills.
One little trick I like to do is write down what adjustments I recommend for the next shot. This way, I know exactly what I need to do the next time.
2. Adjust One Variable at a Time
When learning to “dial in” espresso, it’s all too tempting to fix everything as fast as possible so you can enjoy that sweet shot of caffeinated goodness ASAP. But this doesn’t lead to great tasting espresso.
All this does is make you frustrated and overly caffeinated from poor espresso shots. Not a fun experience, trust me.
Adjust one variable at a time.
Doing so will make the brewing process far more relaxed and enjoyable. And, 9 times out of 10, a small adjustment like a longer extraction time can make a world of difference.
Variables to adjust include:
- Grind size
- Dosage (Brew Ratio)
But before you begin making changes, take the time to understand the different flavors that occur throughout each stage of the brewing process. Understanding espresso extraction will help you select what specific adjustments need to be made. Use this barista-approved technique to start.
3. Start By Adjusting the Grind
Speaking of adjusting one variable at a time...
When dialing in your espresso recipe, always start by manipulating the grind size. Often, this tiny adjustment is all you need for better tasting espresso.
Grind finer if your espresso…
- Brews in less than 20 seconds
- Has a watery or too light mouthfeel
- Tastes sour, acidic, and under-extracted
Use a coarser grind if your espresso…
- Takes way too long to brew
- Has a sludgy or chewy mouthfeel
- Tastes unbearably bitter
As you adjust the grind size, make tiny changes. You don’t want to rock the boat by switching the grinder to a super coarse grind—you’ll only run into more problems.
Go slow, make small changes, and you’ll find your ideal grind size for mind-blowing espresso.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Think Outside the Box
Brewing espresso isn’t a linear process.
Coffee is an agricultural product and every coffee blend or single origin bean you brew as espresso will be different. Between the roasting process, the varietal, the farm-level practices, the quality of your water, and so much more, there are endless factors that go into pulling a delicious shot of espresso.
This means you can get creative with your espresso recipes.
There’s no secret formula that’ll guarantee great espresso every time. Mess around with the different variables like grind size, time, and dose and see what you can create!
If you enjoy a lighter body espresso with super aromatic notes, try grinding a little coarser than normal or letting your shot run slightly longer than usual. If you want to brew a sweet espresso that shines when combined with steamed milk, try aiming for a 1:2 or even 1:1.5 coffee-to-water ratio.
Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things as you learn more about brewing espresso. After all, you won't know what it tastes like until you try it!
5. Only Use Freshly Ground Coffee
Have you been using pre-ground coffee to make espresso at home? If so, no wonder you’re having trouble!
Pre-ground coffee sold at the grocery store is ground for a drip coffee maker. Meaning, the grind size is far too coarse to brew espresso. And, you don’t have the opportunity to make precise adjustments and optimize your espresso recipe.
Plus, pre-ground coffee is often stale.
When making espresso, always use whole bean, specialty-grade coffee ground right before brewing.
Freshly ground coffee can taste like grapefruit, blueberries, brown sugar, marshmallows, and everything in between! Dull and stale pre-ground coffee can’t compete with exciting flavors like those.
If you don’t have a coffee grinder at home, here’s your sign to invest in one! But, be sure to purchase a grinder built specifically to grind for espresso.
What Type of Coffee is Best for Espresso?
Remember, espresso is a brew method, not a type of bean or roast.
As you’re looking for beans to brew espresso with, you can stroll on by those “Espresso Beans” and “Espresso Roasts” at the supermarket. Specialty-grade coffee is the best type of coffee for brewing espresso.
Best of all, you can use any type of specialty coffee you desire. From exciting single origin coffees with intriguing citrus notes to comforting sweet and nutty blends, the choice is yours.
Coffee Fun Fact: Traditionally, Italian espresso blends contained 80% Arabica and 20% Robusta beans. While robusta isn’t desirable on its own, its characteristics contributed to the production of crema and a heavier body.
Improve Your Espresso & Discover Coffee from Around the World
As you become more proficient in brewing espresso, venture outside of your comfort zone and start exploring coffees from other parts of the world.
You can enjoy the fruity and vibrant qualities of a natural processed coffee from Ethiopia or a smooth and sweet coffee from Guatemala. Some coffees may taste exceptional as espresso, while others shine as a pour over. That’s all part of the fun of specialty coffee.
And, the best way to do so is through a specialty coffee subscription!
Our coffee is expertly curated from family-owned farms around the world and is roasted 2 hours before being sent to your doorstep—preserving the fresh natural flavors you want when brewing espresso.
With a subscription, you’ll try exciting coffees from a new coffee-producing country every month without ever leaving your home.