Breaking Through to Fine Espresso at Home

Beginner and pro baristas share tips and tricks for making espresso.
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#1: Post by drgary »

Early Frustration with Good Equipment

About 1 1/2 years ago I acquired my first very capable espresso machine, an Isomac Amica. I paired it with capable grinders, a Le'Lit PL53 and a Rio Super Jolly. I soon had it PID'd (computer controlled) for better temperature regulation but was frustrated with inconsistent results. Then I stumbled upon a home lever machine for a price I couldn't refuse and found it remarkably easy to get more consistent results. I wondered whether an E61 pump machine was just too demanding of puck preparation techniques compared to a home lever.

Although nowhere near the end of the journey, I've recently broken through to making consistently fine-tuned shots at home, using different coffees, and I'm doing this on the Amica. So I'm writing this to encourage those just a bit earlier in the journey. I'm not providing a laundry list of other threads here because I want to focus on the high-level view. I'll just say the best way to achieve consistency is to read as many of the FAQs and favorites as you can on this site, and practice until it all comes together.

You Can Probably Trust Coffee from H-B's Recommended Roasters

Fairly early I learned to trust good coffee. If I have fresh-roasted beans from one of the specialty roasters recommended here, and I'm not getting acceptable shots, it's probably not the coffee. This occurred to me a few times when after pulling some barely drinkable shots I made an adjustment that brought much more flavor out of those beans that had frustrated me earlier. To hone my palate, I've frequented the best local cafes to sample "reference shots" that would tell me what I'm looking for.

Learning to Trust Your Kit

If you've bought decent equipment that's recommended here and it's working properly, there's probably a threshold where one's knowledge is sufficient and technique (mano) consistent enough to reliably dial in a coffee at home. For me it's been a trial and error process. But if I stumbled frequently enough into really good shots, I figured that like the coffee, I could trust the kit and was probably lacking in knowledge and skill. I've found that an essential piece of gear for refining puck preparation has been a bottomless portafilter. Without that I could not diagnose faulty extractions.

Refining Knowledge and Technique

So I kept learning and experimented with which techniques actually worked for me. Along the way I tried a few that were recommended and have let some fall away that duplicated each other. For instance Weiss Distribution Technique (WDT), stirring the grounds with a pointed instrument, is effective, but distributing the coffee evenly can also be achieved in other ways. I've settled on a combination of the Stockfleth's move for spreading the coffee in the portafilter along with a nutating tamp (wobbling the tamper to pack it evenly around the edges). I settled on this combination because for me it's faster.

Although I've allowed some procedures to fall away, I've found other techniques recommended on this site essential for consistent results. For instance, with a pump machine especially, I now use a gram scale to weigh grounds. Perhaps once I've dialed in a coffee on that particular day I can dose by volume but only after fine-tuning the weight needed for my grind setting. Jim Schulman's suggestion to adjust dose once grind is close enough has really helped me quickly hone in on the fine adjustments needed for consistent results.

Question Upgradeitis

Before you look at your gleaming equipment and decide you must get something better because this just ain't good enough, consider whether you've done your homework here, practiced with good, fresh beans and occasionally had really good results. It takes a while to get to know your gear and use it well because so much is involved if you're really trying to create espresso comparable to what you're tasting at the better cafes.

Breaking Through to Fine Espresso at Home

Recently when my knowledge, skills and gear unexpectedly converged I was stunned to find that what's sitting on my counter really is more than good enough to make espresso that my palate finds comparable to the best local cafes, and there are very fine coffee bars in San Francisco.

The point here is not to toot my horn but to say that if you've got prosumer-level gear, and you're using excellent coffee and preparing it consistently and carefully, this isn't rocket science. It's just good cooking. For my morning espresso I'm probably more consistently careful than many professionals serving long lines of people without tasting the coffee and perhaps missing a needed adjustment.

I'm not about to win any barista championships nor do I aspire to that goal, but at a certain point I believe the increments gained with top-notch commercial gear get smaller and smaller until you may find yourself quite happy with what you're making at home. That's why you're reading this site, isn't it?

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

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#2: Post by pizzaman383 »

And when you achieve enough consistency to replicate the same shot again and again, these tips can help you achieve the taste you want:
Espresso 101: How to Adjust Dose and Grind Setting by Taste
LMWDP #551
“Taste every shot before adding milk!”

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#3: Post by drgary (original poster) »


That was the gem that got me to where I'm consistently getting the taste I want. Please read all the FAQs and favorites you can, because that's where you'll learn what you need. Although many threads enumerate those, I purposely didn't offer a laundry list of FAQs because I want to emphasize the big picture. (I've edited the initial post to indicate that.)

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

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#4: Post by zin1953 »

Bravo, Gary -- I think you "got it in one," as they say . . .
A morning without coffee is sleep. -- Anon.

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#5: Post by mitch236 »

It's really cool when it all comes together. This happened for me just recently, after my trip to Chicago. Jim was kind enough to give me the grand tour of the major cafe's (and brew some coffee himself). Up to that time, I had no idea what was possible. Since tasting how good it could be, I went on a quest to achieve that same quality at home. It has taken me quite a while but I feel my coffee is the best it has ever been. I've said this before, and I will repeat it here, most people (and unfortunately many people here too) have no idea how espresso should taste. Your favorites may differ from mine but good espresso is still good. Whether its highly acidic (what I love) or its heavy chocolate comfort, when its done right, it tastes right.