1.5 years and very little success - espresso is astringent, dry, and hollow

Beginner and pro baristas share tips and tricks.

Postby reemas » Jun 05, 2018, 2:31 am

I am consistently pulling espresso shots that are astringent, dry, and hollow. I've used all kinds of beans, even from award winning shops where I've enjoyed the drinks and the results are poor. I primarily drink them as cappuccinos but they are difficult to finish (according to most people that have tasted them). As they cool, the astringency gets even more pronounced. That being said, every now and then, I'll pull something drinkable, but for someone who makes 2 cappuccinos a day, the last one that was better than a 5/10 was maybe 3-4 months ago!

Baratza Vario
Astra Pro
VST 20g naked / bottomless basket
1hr+ warmup

flush machine -> grind beans -> distribute, tamp -> flush and rebound machine -> lock in portafilter -> extract
(my machine seems to rebound quickly)

I tend to flush about 6oz on a machine that has been on for 1-2 hours. Then prep my shot come back and flush about 5-10 seconds, and rebound about 5-10 seconds, before locking in and extracting. Usually an extraction takes about 20-22 seconds at which point it is blonding a decent amount. My biggest frustration is that it feels like no matter what I change, all shots are somewhat astringent.

I read that astringency is a result of over extraction. If I cut the shot very short, say 15 seconds, I have very little yield. And sometimes these shots still seem quite off to me.

I know my machine uses a large boiler and has a lot of pressure, could that be adversely affecting it? Could my grinder be bad? I am so lost and starting to get dejected. But I am persistent as hell and really want to figure this out.

If anyone is in the LA area and willing to meet up to discuss or teach, I'd be willing to make it happen and would be tremendously grateful. Also please ask me questions, I'm going to be as responsive as possible and will provide as many photos, videos, etc. as needed.

One note, I do see recommendations for scaled measuring a tenth of a gram and other precise instruments and techniques. Let me just say, my espressos are so bad, I assure you a tenth of a gram or even half a gram, isn't the issue. That might make my coffee go from a 7/10 to a 9.5/10. I currently just want my coffees to go from a 2.5/10 to a 7/10.



Postby sluflyer06 » Jun 05, 2018, 9:46 am

I don't see anything about you weighing your dose and weighing beverage to control your ratio which is a critical first step in eliminating variables, dont' overlook this, there is a reason everyone has switched to doing everything by weight.

Another note, if your struggling I don't know why you'd make things harder on yourself by using a VST basket, they are harder to work with than standard OEM baskets, go back to a generic basket and get comfortable with it before using VST.

What kind of beans are you using, light SO? house espresso blends? ? How many days post roast? Where are you getting beans from? I'd suggest that because you are having such a tough time you find a shop house espresso blend that is known to be easier to work with and figure that out and build some confidence.

I wouldn't bother doing anything else until you get scale(s) and start controlling your ratio, you need to be pulling the same ratio every time and then adjust grind for extraction time and taste, the less variables you are working with the better your chance of success until you get to the point where you can consistently make great shots.

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Postby russel » Jun 05, 2018, 10:55 am

Identify a mechanical problem...
First, you need make sure that you're not stuffing from severe channeling. You should be able to see evidence of this in the puck. When you disengage the portafilter, check the top of your puck for holes, like someone poked it with a pencil. If you have these, you have channeling. This could easily be caused by poor dosing technique or a clogged shower screen. Start by popping out your screen/gasket and making sure that everything in clean including the underside of the group. When prepping the PF, try to keep things simple and short, doing just enough to get an even bed of coffee. Do give the PF a gentle downward tap on a hard surface to settle the grounds. Don't tamp them like you're the Hulk. The less you do, the easier it is to repeat consistently.

Moving on to making a espresso...
If you can get over to the UCLA area, I would hit up Espresso Profeta to buy some Vivace Dolce or Vita beans (I can't remember which they'll sell you). While you're there, have a shot and a cap, and ask the baristas what their in/outs are and what their shot time is - however, I think they are sufficiently old school such that they might not be doing things by weight, so get whatever info you can and observe how much espresso is in your cup before giving it a stir. If you like it, great now you have a goal. If you don't like it, take a moment to reflect on what you don't like about it. Espresso is not easy, and most baristas are happy to talk about it if you tell them that you're struggling with it at home.

Next, get a scale and start doing things by weight, grams in / grams out. It takes skill and experience to do things by taste and intuition. If you don't have those, you need measurements to make sure that you're consistent and to know what it is you're actually pulling. If you're using a 20g VST, you should commit to dosing in 20g and trying to adjusting your grind to get the shot you want. That of course means that you need to have an idea of what you want. If you liked the shot at Profeta, you're probably going to want to shoot for close to a 1:1 brew ration, i.e 20g of grounds into the portafilter : 20g of espresso into the cup. If the volume and intensity of a 20g:20g shot seems to you're liking, move forward with finding a shot time that tastes good to you. If you need a place to start, start with a 25sec shot. There should be almost NO acidity in Vivace Dolce or Vita...if you're shot is sour, it's under extracted and you need to make it take longer by grinding finer (still 20g in).

1. Vivace Dolce or Vita Beans
2. 20g in = 20g out in 25sec
3. Adjust: find a brew ratio that's acceptable, then adjust grind to control extraction time

If you can't slow down a shot to hit 20g:30g in 25sec, you have a problem with your technique, your machine, or your beans. If you're using Vivace purchased from Profeta, it's probably not the beans.
russel at anacidicandbitterbeverage dot com
★ Helpful


Postby ArchieCoffee » Jun 05, 2018, 11:34 am

I just sent you a PM, as I'm in LA and would happily get together. Another suggestion for beans would be Klatch (their World's Best Espresso or Belle Espresso blends), Counter Culture's "Big Trouble", or even better, order beans from Trystero, which is local to LA and does deliveries. I've been using Trystero's "Lot 49" for a while now and love it. But any of those beans are big, chocolatey blends that are easy to dial in and- just as importantly- a LOT of people are familiar with them if you want to ask around about how they're brewing them (brew ratios, etc). I tend to to 1:1.7 or 1:1.8 with all those blends, but 1:2 works fine, too. I would start with an 18g basket (I use VSTs, but you can use stock baskets) and put in 18g of coffee, using a scale. Then try to get 32g of espresso in around 30 seconds. Once you have that, then adjust by taste. There are lots of articles on HB about adjusting taste via grind. If you just go to the search tab, you'll find a wealth of info available.

As far as your point about the scale-- I totally get it. The thing about a scale, though, is that it allows you to get repeatable results. If you're not measuring, then you can't be sure that you have exactly 18g or 20g in the basket, and actually a .5g can make a difference in brew time, which will change the rate of extraction.


Postby happycat » Jun 05, 2018, 9:37 pm

I would say you have under extraction. Your shot is fast.

I struggled a bit until I started 7nder dosing and grinding fine.

I underdose my 18G VST with 16.2g and grind very fine.

I preinfuse 2 secs then soak 5 secs

My pull is 27 or so secs.

I have a 1:2 or so ratio

Rich, delicious.
LMWDP #603


Postby lagoon » Jun 05, 2018, 10:13 pm

You tasting your straight shots, or only in a cappuccino?


Postby MNate » Jun 06, 2018, 12:23 am

My biggest improvement came when I started weighing everything (with a cheap .1g scale), both the beans and the yield in the cup. Recently I was without a scale and my espresso was really bad almost all of the time. I don't think any other advice will help until you do this one. Even if weighing isn't the issue it is at least one less variable (two, really), so when you make other changes you know it's that change that made the difference.

Easy beans that you know (really others on HB know to be good) is next. Beans you know you like but also ones that are easy to hit the target with. (For me it was Red Bird espresso that was just hard to get wrong no matter what I did. I've moved on but it is still my wife's favorite I think in part because it was so consistent for what I got out of it).


Postby fdehlvi » Jun 06, 2018, 2:59 am

I'm also in the LA area and would be happy to meet and work together to dial in your setup. I can bring my scale so we can use it for the session, even if you choose not to use it as part of your routine going forward. I'll PM you


Postby zfeldman » Jun 06, 2018, 10:32 am

I had an astra pro for about 5 years before upgrading to a double boiler.

A few things that may help:

1) Try a standard double basket. I never had good luck with a triple basket.
2) If you can rig up a way to test the pressure (pressure gauge and needle valve) you can see if you're running the pressure too high. My machine had an adjustable OPV, but I think the later ones did not.
3) What boiler pressure are you running? I found the machine a little more manageable at lower boiler pressure (around 1.1 bar instead of 1.3).

Finally, flush routine. I had success with 2 different routines.
1) Flush until the spitting, sputtering overheated water stopped and turned into a slightly more even flow, then immediately pull the shot.
2) Flush until the spitting, sputtering overheated water stopped and turned into a slightly more even flow, then keep flushing for a few extra seconds. Prep your shot then pull without any additional flush.

I used a thermocouple in a portafilter to test and found that (1) it took a bit more flushing than I realized to get the temp down and (2) it was very stable once I hit the right spot (though you can over shoot if you're not careful).

It is only one data point, but with my Astra Pro I tended to dose 16-17 grams in a double with a 1:2ish ratio in a slightly longer time (35-38sec).