Calm down. I know you may be frustrated and confused. I know you’re tired of bad espresso.
Trust me, I’ve been there. I know.
I was a barista for three years at a specialty coffee shop. For the third year, I was the manager and trainer. I know what it’s like to have trouble brewing delicious espresso. I also know some solutions to the issues you may be facing.
Let’s walk through some ways you can approach espresso troubleshooting. I’m confident that by the end of this blog, you’ll have a few more tools in your toolbelt for the next time you face your espresso machine.
Here are five things to try when you find yourself struggling to control espresso extraction and flavor.
First, Diagnose Your Problem
Before you hop straight into the tips below, you need to make sure you know how to diagnose the problem. If you can’t identify the issue, you’ll just be guessing when you’re trying to fix it.
Here are a few questions you should ask yourself to identify the problem.
Pull a shot. Taste the shot.
- Is it bitter and dull (over extracted)?
- Is it acidic and sour (under extracted)?
- Is it too concentrated or intense?
- Does it taste weak?
Record what you see and taste.
Now, very briefly, let me lay out a roadmap of espresso extraction that you will follow to make your espresso shots obey you.
An Espresso Extraction Roadmap
Don’t skip this section!
Understanding espresso extraction will help so much in espresso troubleshooting. In fact, I think it’s a requirement if you don’t want to just end up more confused later.
I’ll make it quick and easy for you.
Extraction always happens like this:
- The first things to be extracted are bright, sour, flavorful acids
- Next come the aromatic oils, sugars, and most flavors
- Lastly come the lower notes and bitter tannins
Perfectly extracted espresso is flavorful, aromatic, and has a pleasant balance of bright acids and deeper bitter notes. It should taste like a symphony of flavors in harmony. This happens by extracting just the right amount of solids, oils, acids, and other things from the grounds.
If you don’t extract enough from the grounds, the result will be coffee that’s still overpowered by those bright acids. We call this under extracted. To find balance when you brew next time, you need to extract more to pull out some lower notes.
If you extract too much from the grounds, the result will be coffee that’s overly bitter and dull. We call this over extracted. To avoid the scratchy bitterness next brew, you need to extract less.
All of the following strategies are aimed at helping you find that point of balance and harmony, where all the flavors are present and pleasant.
Remember to only change one variable at a time so that you can easily see which changes produce which results. Otherwise, you may just confuse yourself even more.
1. Change Your Coffee Grind Size
It all starts with the grind size. Small changes will have dramatic impacts.
This is one of the easier changes to make and it’s normally where I start.
Coarsen (increase) the grind size if your shot pulls too slowly or it tastes over extracted.
- Coarsening the grind allows the water to flow more easily between grounds
- This makes the shot pull faster - so it takes less time to brew a shot
- While the shot size stays the same, you end up extracting less
Fine (decrease) the grind size if your shot pulls too fast or tastes under extracted.
- Fining the grind makes water take longer to flow between the grounds
- This causes shots to pull more slowly, prolonging total shot time
- More water-coffee contact time to pull a shot means more extraction
Again, these grind size adjustments need to be very small. It may take a couple times, but you’ll be able to “dial in” the shot and find that sweet spot of flavor and balance.
If that doesn’t do the trick (or if the perfect spot is in-between two grinder settings), try one of these next options.
2. Adjust Your Wet Dose (Espresso)
This is a great way to adjust the flavor of your shot without having to worry about finding that perfect grind size. Wet dose refers to the final yield of your shot.
Many people just fill a shot glass when they pull espresso shots, but I strongly suggest using a gram scale. It’s much more consistent, insightful, and empowering.
A good starting ratio for coffee to wet dose is 1:2. This means that for every 10g of coffee in the portafilter, you pull 20g of yield.
However, every bean pulls a little differently, so adjust according to taste. You’ll probably want to stay between a 1:1.5 and 2:1.5 ratio.
Increase the wet dose if your shot is too concentrated or if it tastes under extracted.
By letting the shot pull longer to increase the yield, you allow the grounds and water to be in contact for longer, which leads to more extraction. Adding 2-4 grams of yield is enough to make a very noticeable difference taste-wise.
This also decreases the concentration of the final shot. The longer you pull, the less concentrated with flavor each drop becomes. So this is a good way to tone down the shot a little if it’s just too intense.
Decrease the wet dose if your shot is weak or taste over extracted.
Cutting off the shot a little earlier reduces coffee-water contact time, which reduces total espresso extraction.
This also leads to a more concentrated shot, since you allow fewer of those less-concentrated drops later on to enter your final cup.
3. Adjust Your Dry Dose (Grounds)
I really like to never touch the dry dose (the amount of grounds I use). I find it’s much easier to leave this one and work with the two above. However, dry dose adjustments can be used to refine your espresso flavor.
Increase the dry dose if your coffee is weak or over extracted.
- By using more grounds, each ground will have been slightly less extracted
- More grounds and the same yield also means greater concentration
This one’s a little more confusing than the other strategies, so let me explain.
Even when you produce the same yield (40g, for example), by going from 18g of coffee grounds to 20g, you decreased the amount of yield per individual coffee ground. This means each ground is a little less extracted, which also means the yield is a little more concentrated.
Think of it this way: with more grounds, each single ground doesn’t have to work as hard (or give as much up) to produce the same yield.
Decrease the dry dose if your coffee is too concentrated or under extracted.
- Using fewer grounds forces each ground to extract more
- Fewer grounds and the same yield also means less concentration.
In this scenario, each individual ground has to work harder (and give up more stuff for extraction) to achieve the same yield. Those grounds get tired and slow down how quickly they give up stuff, so the end result is a little less concentrated.
4. Clean Everything
A clean machine is a happy machine. This cannot be overstated.
Old grounds and oils stuck in the portafilter and group head will destroy your espresso’s flavor. This is why it’s important to clean your espresso machine after every use - and then some.
Every Shot Cleaning
Do this after every single shot:
- Rinse and wipe the portafilter so that it’s completely free of grounds
- Run the water freely to knock out any stuck grounds
- Wipe the dispersion screen with a clean rag
When you’re finished for the day, you have a few options.
If your machine is outfitted with a 3-way over pressure valve, do a backflush. This cleans the whole system and all the pipes.
- Insert a blank portafilter (no holes) and run the water for 10 seconds
- Dump and rinse, then do it again 4 more times
- Run the water one last time and wiggle the blank portafilter in the group head
If your machine doesn’t have this type of valve (many entry-level machines do not), follow the cleaning instructions that came with the machine.
Every few days, give you machine some love with a dedicated espresso cleaner. It’ll break apart the oils and dislodge grounds with ease.
- Soak the portafilter, dispersion screen, and screw in cleaner for 10 minutes
- Rinse everything that was soaked and wipe with a rag
If you have that 3-way over pressure valve, do a backflush routine with cleaner in the blank portafilter.
5. Try A Different Coffee
Let’s face it: not all coffees thrive as espresso.
Overly generous harvesters that mix rip and not-so-ripe cherries on the farm can result in bags of beans that are less consistent and a little more temperamental. These don’t roast the same, creating more inconsistency.
These coffees can still be delicious as regular brewed coffee, but their flaws can be hard to overcome in something so concentrated as espresso.
I suggest trying out a variety of coffees to find the type and style you like best. One of the easiest ways to do this is to try a coffee subscription.
The JavaPresse Coffee Subscription sends you freshly roasted coffee regularly so you’re never without fresh and flavorful beans. We source our coffees from quality-centric farms with an eye for sustainability and are proud of our farm partners.
We send out single origin coffees and blends alike - all which we find suitable for espresso brewing. Check it out and learn to advance your espresso skills with a variety of coffees.
You can do this. You can learn to troubleshoot espresso and make it obey you.
Although, if we’re being honest, espresso cannot truly be tamed. But that’s part of what makes it so fun and rewarding to make.
Embrace the journey, don’t give up, and seek after those shots that blow your mind.