Data from the National Coffee Association of the USA suggests that espresso is quickly growing in popularity year on year, with millennials particularly favoring espresso over filter coffee.
Brewing a good espresso at home is more finickity than making filter coffee.
You are brewing with smaller quantities of ground coffee and water than with filter coffee, meaning that you have less room for error with how you brew.
Here are five tips to brew better espresso so you can get the most out of the drink when you make it at home.
1. Measure Out Your Ground Coffee and Water Dose
Espresso is traditionally brewed at between a 1:2 to 1:3 ground coffee to liquid ratio.
If you brew with significantly less coffee than this, then your espresso will lack the syrupy body that defines the drink.
If you brew with significantly more ground coffee than this, then there will not be enough water to dissolve the flavorful compounds in the coffee and this will result in a very flat tasting drink.
The most accurate way of measuring out your dose ratio is to weigh both the amount of ground coffee you brew with and the amount of liquid that you end up with.
Measuring your liquid coffee by volume rather than by weight is inaccurate because espresso has a layer of crema on top of it which significantly adds to its volume without adding much liquid to the final drink.
To make the best possible espresso you will want to get your hands on a small scale which can measure accurately to the nearest gram.
Bear in mind that you want your scale to be small enough that you can fit it under your cup when brewing so you can measure the weight of liquid that ends up in your cup.
2. Use the Amount of Coffee That Your Portafilter Basket was Designed to Hold
Portafilter baskets are the small metal insert that holds your ground coffee when you brew espresso.
Portafilter with basket on the left, and just a portafilter basket on the right
Each portafilter basket is only designed to hold a certain quantity of ground coffee.
If you overfill your basket, then water will struggle to pass through the coffee and you will end up with a very bitter, over extracted coffee.
Many portafilter baskets have their maximum dose printed on its side. If you cannot find this, then you will want to look for this in your espresso machine’s manual.
Avoiding overfilling your portafilter basket is another good reason to weigh out your ground coffee dose when brewing espresso.
3. Use A Pressurized Portafilter Basket If Using Pre Ground Coffee
It's perfectly fine to make espresso with pre ground coffee, so long as you use a pressurised portafilter.
If you use a non pressurised portafilter with pre ground coffee, you have a very high chance of the espresso channelling. This creates an unpleasantly sharp espresso.
A pressurized portafilter basket, also known as a “double walled” portafilter basket, as a basket which only has one tiny hole at its bottom. All your espresso is pushed through this hole when brewing to allow for a more even extraction.
The image below shows you the difference between a pressurized and non-pressurized portafilter so you can identify them easily (image from: https://drinkycoffee.com/best-espresso-machines-for-beginners/).
Non-pressurized portafilter basket (left) and pressurized portafilter right. Red circle shows the one single hole at the bottom of the pressurised portafilter.
If you have bought a coffee grinder and grind your own beans, you should consider using a non-pressurized portafilter.
These can create a better bodied espresso with freshly ground coffee as they do not over pressurise your beans when brewing.
4. Time How Long Your Shots Take to Brew
Timing your shots is useful because it gives you feedback on whether you are tamping your espresso pucks correctly.
Espresso shots should take between 25 and 30 seconds from the time you press the brew button to the time that coffee stops running out of the machine.
If shots take over 30 seconds to brew, then you are likely tamping your coffee puck too firmly. There is not enough space between the coffee grinds for your water to run though, and this additional contact time between water and coffee will create an over extracted, bitter drink.
If shots take under 25 seconds to brew, you are likely not tamping your coffee firmly enough. There is too much space between coffee grinds, and this limited contact time will create a sharp, under extracted espresso.
More sophisticated espresso machines have built in timers. I would strongly recommend buying such a machine if you want to replicate coffee shop quality espresso at home.
5. Warm Up Your Portafilter Before Brewing
The final espresso brewing variable that you want to control, along with brewing ratio and time, is brewing temperature.
Espresso machines will heat water to your desired temperature (around 200 Fahrenheit), but if your portafilter is cold, then your water will be significantly cooler than this once it makes contact with your coffee.
To actually brew with water around 200 Fahrenheit, you will have to warm up your portafilter.
You have two ways of doing this. Either you can put your portafilter head in a cup of hot water for a few minutes before brewing, or you can brew a “blank shot” (a shot without any ground coffee in the portafilter) before you make your espresso.
Making espresso is a little bit more technical than making filter coffee, however the excellent drink you can make by putting in this effort is well worth it.
This article was written by Oli Baise. Oli has been a barista for six years and runs coffee blog Drinky Coffee.