Correcting techniques - overwhelmed by too many variables

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

Hello everyone

Long time lurker , newcomer member.

What's keeping me from picking up a machine is basically following :

"Dose less coffee OR Grind coarser OR Tamp lighter"

or a combination of these

:oops: :shock:

Then there's also extraction time!

Too many variables for me!

Obligatory cafe dwelling photo!

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#2: Post by sanzrobinson »

In my opinion the effect of tamping are often vastly overrated. As long as the tamp is flat and repeatable, it is relatively negligible compared to the other variables. I would just settle for a repeatable, comfortable tamp with an intermediate pressure.

Dosing and grinding fineness play a far larger role in the cup. When dialing in a blend I find it helpful to keep the dose constant (15g to 16g are good values for a lot of blends). I would highly recommend buying a digital scales for this, since once again repeatability is essential.

The main independent variable I adjust is the grind fineness. You can tune in the grind roughly by looking at the flow rate, and measuring the ratio of weight of beverage to weight of beans as discussed at length in many previous posts. The ultimate grinder tuning, however, comes from adjusting according to taste.

HedonisticBeans (original poster)
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#3: Post by HedonisticBeans (original poster) »


I guess I should keep the extraction stable too. Leaving grind as the main variable.

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#4: Post by another_jim »

Yep, forget fancy tamping; just find a method you like and stick to it. You will also need to learn how to prepare the puck in a consistent way that doesn't result in channeling and squirting -- use a naked PF to learn these basic techniques.

Once you have that down, the next step is to make dose and grind together your single main taste control variable. The finer the grind, the more the coffee resists flow, so the less you must dose. This makes it a single variable, not two; since once you have the grind setting, the corresponding dose is mandatory. The taste rule is simple: if the coffee is too in your face, grind finer, and dose less; if it is too blah, grind coarser and dose more.

This technique requires a 0.1 gram scale for weighing the dose. For instance, on my Elektra, I use 14 grams, 15.5 grams and 17 grams in a standard double basket for my finest, medium and coarsest grind settings. Other machines require different grind-dose combinations; for instance, on my Strega, with the same basket and grind settings, I have to dose at 17, 18.5 and 20 grams, i.e. 3 grams higher than on the Elektra.

Once you have all that down, you can do finer controls on the taste by playing with temperature, pressure, and flow rates. But these will not work well for you until you have the puck making and dose/grind setting skills down pat.
Jim Schulman

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#5: Post by Peppersass »

From your post, it appears that you don't have a machine yet. Is that correct?

If so, I admire your trying to understand the interaction of the variables before getting a machine, but my experience has been that espresso preparation is very much a learn-by-doing craft.

Yes, it's good to understand in a general sense how grind and dose affect flow rate, but there's no substitute for choosing the parameters, pulling a shot, watching the flow, tasting the result, changing one or more parameters and trying again.

Trial and error is a big part of learning to make espresso, and I'm sure that few baristas are able to avoid this. I also believe that it takes pulling quite a few shots before the dynamics really sink in and before one gets good at certain critical tasks like choosing the coffee, dialing in the grind, dose and brew ratio, distributing the grounds properly in the basket and understanding how to make subtle changes to the flavor by varying temperature or pressure.

If you start with a good grinder and a decent machine, you can get to reasonable shots within a few months, maybe earlier if you're very talented and have sensitive taste buds. But the learning never stops, especially if you want to understand the differences between varietals, blends, roasting methods, etc. I've been at it for five years and I'm still learning, still improving my shots. I don't think that process will ever end, and while I do a lot of reading on the subject, the cornerstone is the act of pulling and tasting shots.

Everything Jim has recommended is good advice. Now get a good grinder and a decent espresso machine and try it!

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#6: Post by BenKeith »

I started my espresso adventure about 14 years ago, and didn't even drink coffee, figure that one, just so my wife could have a cappuccino. There was nothing like the readily available information available then there is now.
Yes, anyone saying there's not a learning curve would be lying, but the main thing is going to be the personal part. Most any good machine with a proper grinder will make espresso for the person with the skill set to use it.

I live in the middle of nowhere, there was no place to go for help, so I had to learn from the school of hard knocks and it was probably a year before I got it right. After all, I started off thinking I was going to Wal-Mart and by one of those $100 things, and my "wife" would be able to make her a cappuccino. That went back for a refund rather quickly. After that initial fiasco, I ended up with a Livia 90 and a Rocky grinder and roasting my own beans I was making pretty good cappuccino's about a year after the initial mistake and things rocked along just fine until a few months ago, when I ended up having to learn all over again because everything I did went the hell in a hand basket.
In my relearning during the past few months, I got into trying every voodoo trick, tamp, and method known to man. I was spending five minutes doing all this techniques stuff trying to work out my extraction problem.
When I finally threw all that stuff out and went back to doing as little as possible and a flat tamp, life is good now.

Here's my technique I use now. Since I don't do that many shots I weigh out 18 grams of beans, dump them in the grinder. I grind directly into the porta filter using a special funnel I made to keep them contained and it makes a tall pile in the middle of the basket. I lightly tap the porta filter down once on the counter to settle the grounds a little and make them drop off the funnel I use. I weigh it and adjust it to 17.5 grams by taking just enough off the peak. I weigh it because my machine seems to be extremely sensitive to dose, it doesn't like much variation from that 17.5 grams. I level it working with a cupped hand and then my finger, without pushing any grounds off, tap it down one more time and tamp it, ensuring it's level to 32 pounds. Again, since I don't do enough to stay consistent, I built a tamp with a spring in it so when I feel the handle float, I know I have 32 pounds.

My shots are extremely consistent, and I rarely have one that channels now. Totally opposite from what I was getting a few months ago and while going through all that screwing around with the grounds.

So I would just have to say, don't be afraid to get into it and just keep it as simple as possible. If you can find someone that already has the skills that can give you hands on training, You could be pulling great shots in no time.