Now that you know what mistakes to avoid when brewing espresso at home, let’s talk about how to dial-in!
Dialing in is the process of making espresso taste as delicious as possible. It’s finding the magic balance between dose, yield, time, and grind size. Each coffee will have its own recipe or set of numbers that will make it taste good. This is due in part to the coffee’s origin, variety, processing method, how long ago the coffee was roasted, and equipment. We don’t have any control over almost all of the factors listed, what we can control is what we do with our espresso machine!
Let's start with the dose. The dose is the amount of coffee grinds you put in your portafilter. Having a scale at home is really important when dialing in espresso — this keeps you consistent. In a typical coffee shop setting, the dose can range from 18 to 21 grams of ground coffee. Your espresso machine will determine the size of your dose via the size of your portafilter basket. For instance, if you have a 22-gram basket, you should dose around 22 grams of ground coffee into it.
Once you have the correct dose, you then need to distribute and tamp your coffee bed. Water is lazy. If you leave your coffee unleveled, the water will take the path of least resistance wherever there is less coffee. This will result in an uneven extraction of your espresso — no one wants that!
There are many different ways to distribute your coffee bed. There are even fancy distribution tools that have arrived on the scene in the past few years. If you want to go simple, you can gently tap your full portafilter on a solid surface. The goal is to create an even surface so water can move through the coffee evenly. Once your coffee has been distributed, give it a flat and firm tap with your tamper.
Now pop your portafilter into the grouphead and brew that espresso! This is where yield comes into play. Yield refers to the total output of espresso from the machine, or how much finished espresso is in your cup. There are two properties of yield that can be measured: volume and mass. The preferred method for measuring yield is weighing the espresso’s mass for ease of measurement and consistency.
Most baristas start to time their espresso shots once they press the brew button. Keep in mind how long it takes espresso to come out of the portafilter or “drops”. You want to aim for a drop within four to five seconds from starting the brew. The longer the coffee is in contact with the water, the more extracted the espresso will be. Brew too quickly and the coffee is underwhelming in flavor but also overwhelmingly acidic and jagged. This unbalanced acidity is often associated with a perceived intense sourness. Brew for too long, and the espresso will be bitter, strong, and dry.
Brewing time is largely influenced by your grind size – how coarse or fine you grind the beans. As we mentioned previously, water is lazy — you want the right grind to provide water with the right amount of resistance so it can move and brew just how you like it. The coarser the coffee, the faster the espresso will brew. When we go finer, the shot will take longer. When should you make your grind finer? If your espresso takes less than 25 seconds to brew, drops in less than three seconds, or tastes sour. If your espresso takes longer than 35 seconds to brew, drops past five seconds, or tastes bitter, time to go coarser.
Personally, my recipe is 18 grams of coffee for my dose, 25 to 35 seconds range for my shots to brew, and a final weight of the completed shot of 30 to 40 grams. These parameters have granted me the most consistent and delicious-tasting espresso.
Keep in mind that espresso is a very fast and concentrated brew method and small changes will make a big difference when dialing in. For best results, focus on one aspect of dialing in at a time when making changes. If you try to make changes to grind, time, and dose all at once, you’ll never know which change affected the espresso shot. So first focus on the grind size and only make the grind coarser or finer by one notch on the grinder before moving on to dose and time.
Don’t have a grinder at home? You can still dial in your espresso and make changes to get your shots tasting just right! Start with your time — is the coffee tasting too sour? Brew for a second or two longer. If it needs a bit more help, add a little more pressure to your tamp. Bitter? Stop the shot a second or two sooner than before. Tamp slightly lighter if it’s still giving you trouble.
With some time and patience, your dial in process will become faster and easier. Along the way, the best way to know if you’re properly dialed in is by taste! Trust your tongue — if you like how the espresso tastes, you are dialed in and ready to make espresso drinks for friends and family!