Sour/bitter espresso... is it my grinder?

Grinders are one of the keys to exceptional espresso. Discuss them here.

#1: Post by RRaider »

Ok, I have a Saeco Aroma and a *$'s Barista grinder with the mod to enable finer grinding. No matter what I do my espresso is sour/bitter. I have ordered fresh beans, temp surf, different grind settings and no matter what I do my espresso is nasty. I am currently using the pressurized portafilter and will buy a non ppf and tamper but if I can't even get an espresso worth drinking even mixed with sugar and milk from the more forgiving ppf I think at this point that will only add more variables to the equation and complicate things even more. Also, even mixing with milk and sugar it has a bad after taste to me.

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#2: Post by HB »

The more likely answer is no, it's not your grinder. Or more accurately, it more likely that your grinder is not the sole cause. Typically sour = brew temperature too low or extraction is too fast, bitter = brew temperature too high or extraction too slow. So what to make of sour/bitter? Well, it's hard to say what's going on with a pressurized portafilter, but it's possible that the coffee is both under and overextracted, with a falling temperature to boot.

I know, I know... not very helpful.

You might start by paying attention to the boiler cycles. Small espresso machines often have large temperature deadband (*), leading to unpredictable brew temperatures unless you engage in "temperature surfing" (i.e., timing the start time of the extraction dependent on the heating cycle) or other trickery like flicking the steam switch to force the brew temperature up. These machinations are sometimes necessary to get the correct brew temperature, and unfortunately they're highly machine-dependent, so I cannot give you cookbook instructions. If you're lucky, someone else has figured it out and published their findings; if you're unlucky, you get to map it out yourself with a stopwatch, a fast thermometer, a Styrofoam cup, and a lot of time to kill.

Getting back to the basics, you'd be well served by reading Jim's The Home Barista's Guide to Espresso, especially the section Diagnosis of Extraction Problems. It covers the gamut of problems, but keep in mind that his diagnoses assume non-pressurized portafilters.

(*) Brew temperature deadband = the difference between the thermostat's on and off temperature.
Dan Kehn

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#3: Post by drdna »

Your problems:
1. The espresso machine
2. The grinder
3. The portafilter
4. Your technique probably

You can optimize your espresso, but you must be systematic and methodical, keeping notes about what you do each time and what the result is.

Adjust one variable at a time, find the best setting and move on.

Be OBSESSIVE about the distribution of the grounds in the basket.

Try water with a higher mineral content, or add a TINY pinch of a mixture of black salt and baking soda to your grounds in the basket.

Try DIFFERENT coffee bean blends. Try Kenya AA, Ethiopian Harrar, etc.

Try pre-infusing your grounds with hot water, by starting your brew cycle, shutting it off for 3 seconds and then re-starting it.

That is a good start. Hopefully that gives you some ideas and you can go from there. Those are just some of the things I explored when I had a similar "budget" espresso set-up in the past.

Good luck!

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#4: Post by peacecup »

I made very good tasting espresso with a lower-end Saeco and a hand grinder for years.

So it is NOT the machine (unless the thermostat is seriously out of whack).

It could be the grinder - are you getting about 2 oz of espresso (including crema) in about 30 secs? If its any faster than that its too fast. You can grind finer, tamp harder, or put more coffee in the basket (dose more). Worst case I used to grind TWICE with the cheapo Pavoni grinder I had before I saw the light of hand grinders.

AND YOU NEED GOOD BEANS - get some from a local roaster who also makes espresso, and that you know you like, and be sure its freshly roasted.

All that said, the plastic pressurized PF is not the best tool for making good espresso. If everything else is right it will allow you to do so, but it will make it difficult to diagnose problems. You can disable it by taking out the pressure parts inside. The real brass PF that Saeco sells does help.

AND, all that said, the machine has a small boiler, and is not a Vivaldi. But you should be able to make very drinkable espresso until you decide which way your future lies. Although you'll find few HB members who will agree with me about this.

LMWDP #049
Hand-ground, hand-pulled: "hands down.."

RRaider (original poster)

#5: Post by RRaider (original poster) »

I have done the styrofoam cup, stopwatch, thermometer process and if I pull a shot right after the boiler turns off it runs about 190 degrees through most of the shot. So I use the steam switch to bring the temp up a bit, timing it each time to see what gives a better result.

I have read the Diagnosis of Extraction Problems and still can not seem to work this out that's why I'm thinking it might be the grinder. I've been experimenting with this for about a month with little to no improvements. I'm thinking maybe the grinder is producing too much dust.

Anyway, I went ahead and ordered a non-pressurized pf. Hopefully that will help me with figuring this out.

We only have one local shop that roasts their own beans and they roast them until they are black and covered with oil (way over roasted) so I have been ordering online.

I was using RO water but have started mixing in some of our local hard water and that did make a small difference.

RRaider (original poster)

#6: Post by RRaider (original poster) »

Well I found a large part of my problem. Some of the beans I have been using are a little oily and I wasn't cleaning the grinder often enough nor was I cleaning it thorough enough. After taking a long bristled brush and a can of air to it my results were MUCH better.

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#7: Post by drdna »

Use fresh beans!
Try different blends of beans!
When was the last time you cleaned the machine out?

RRaider (original poster)

#8: Post by RRaider (original poster) »

I clean the machine quite often, even removing the grouphead screen and cleaning it a couple times a week. I was just holding the grinder upside down and hitting it to jar the leftovers out, that wasn't enough.

I still have a non-pressurized portafilter on the way. I think that will help me dial it in even more.