Help with pulling decaf espresso shots

Beginner and pro baristas share tips and tricks for making espresso.

#1: Post by hundcafe »

Hi - I'm fairly new to espresso but have done lots of reading on here and elsewhere - and also watched a fair number of videos (particularly from Clive, where I bought my machine from). I feel like I have the basics - I'm sure I have plenty of room to grow, but I can get shots to pull within the basic parameters I've seen (1:1.5 - 1:2 ratios in 20-30 seconds, depending on the bean).

I'm willing to try regular beans to learn / troubleshoot, but I can't drink caffeine regularly so would like to figure out how to pull good decaf shots. I've had good decaf espresso (usually cortados) - however I've been practicing with straight espresso. I know the flavor will be more intense, but I figure if the basic shot isn't good, a little milk isn't going to fix it. I feel like no matter what I do, I'm not quite getting closer - is it me - the beans - or both?

My journey so far:
1) Verve Sermon (regular) - dialed it in around ~5 on my grinder - got one pretty good shot. Balanced, with a bit of sweetness before I ran out.
2) Local roaster (decaf, medium roast, unsure what process) - I learned my lesson, but I was playing with too many variables and not taking notes. The vast majority of these ended up too sour and bright - lots of lemony acid and very intense. I admit I went through about ~24 oz. of this and couldn't figure it out. None of the shots tasted "smooth" - they all seemed messy to my palate.
3) Portola decaf (Swiss water process decaf) - I went from 5 down to 4 on this - settled around ~4.25 and got an OK shot - was able to finally taste some better notes. Brewed at 1:2 (just under the roaster's recommendation of 20 g -> 45 g) - but still felt the bitter notes were overpowering. But some of these shots were finally smoother.
4) Lavazza Dek (decaf) - I found this via one of the threads here as a decaf that you could brew more like regular espresso. I've read the quality is less consistent on these, so it could be the beans (though since I'm new, I'm thinking it could just as well be me) - I've gone from a 4 to 6. The coarser end (6) finally got rid of bitterness but tended to result in a mess and extracted way too fast - so I went finer. But despite dropping the brew temp to 192°F, it's still really bitter.

I try to reduce the extraction, but even the more drastic changes (lower brew temp, coarser grind) doesn't get rid of the intense bitterness some of these shots have (particularly the Dek). I KNOW good decaf is possible, though - I've had some heavenly shots (ok, cortados, but none of them have the underlying bitterness I tasted with most of mine - when I add milk to mine, the bitterness still comes through) at Intelligentsia and Portola.

Any recommendations from those with more experience, particularly with decaf (which seems very limited)? I've read everything from "some beans you can treat like regular" to "you have to grind finer/preinfuse longer, etc.". Are there good decaf beans that tend to be roasted more consistently so would be good to learn with?

I have some Intelligentsia Black Cat decaf arriving later this week - if anyone has experience with that, it would be appreciated as well.

Team HB

#2: Post by baldheadracing »

I've pulled decaf daily for a few years now. My only experience has been with Swiss Water Process.

The one thing that stands out is that the decafs have benefited from a finer grind than a non-decaf, sometimes much finer. The resulting extraction time may be longer; don't worry about that. You might also want to extract more; at a minimum, I am typically at 1:1.75 with dark roasts; 1:2 with light roasts - and I don't stray too much higher.

Good luck!
-"Good quality brings happiness as you use it" - Nobuho Miya, Kamasada


#3: Post by BruceWayne »

I've been drinking Verve Vancouver in the afternoon recently. On a 1Zpresso J-Max, I've been grinding at around 100 clicks while most of my regular bean shots have been at 110-115 clicks.

The blend itself tastes like straight chocolate.

Supporter ♡

#4: Post by walr00s »

Interesting stuff here. I'd say that most of my experience leans away from the advice you've received.

I find most decaf espresso to be less palatable at longer ratios. I've assumed it's due to pulling out unpleasant compounds from the coffee that you avoid by pulling short.

I do generally grind finer with decaf and/or updose. Usually this is a product of being unable to reach even 6 bars when sticking to my grind range and dose for normal coffee, and not driven by flavor exactly (obviously a 3 bar "espresso" shot at 1.5 in 10s doesn't taste good). I'd say that when I do grind too fine and am forced to resort to a longer preinfusion, my results aren't typically that great. I tend to aim for ~10s of preinfusion and ~10-20s of shot time, and any time I go over 30s I'm nervous to taste the result.

I generally drink my decaf espressos with an equal amount of milk (25ml coffee, 25ml milk). I find that with a good shot, that little bit of milk will cover up the faint astringency that I always seem to get a hint of otherwise. With low quality decaf coffee, that flavor/experience I associate with decaf is much stronger and can't be hidden (or tolerated really).

The bitterness you're describing sounds like a roast choice. Darker roasted coffees are going to be inescapably bitter and no tinkering with brew parameters will change that. Decafs tend to be roasted darker to cover up deficiencies in the beans created during the decaffeination process, or at least I believe that's the old school justification. I think many modern roasters are moving away from that thinking...not always to great results.

You may benefit from taking a look at this thread that I posted previously: Recent sampling of decaf offerings as espresso

Struggling to find consistently good decaf eventually led me to buying a coffee roaster. I'm having a lot of fun roasting and if you have the space and time, I'd recommend it. I'm drinking this right now: ... 6295257177 Finding that I like it on the darker side of medium, where I'm getting a vanilla flavor with the darker sugar borderline cocoa flavor that it seems to have at all roast levels.

Team HB

#5: Post by baldheadracing »

walr00s wrote:Interesting stuff here. I'd say that most of my experience leans away from the advice you've received.

I find most decaf espresso to be less palatable at longer ratios. I've assumed it's due to pulling out unpleasant compounds from the coffee that you avoid by pulling short.
Sorry, I didn't word that right and have edited my post.

Regardless, the root issue is a decaf has to cost more than the same quality non-decaf coffee, but consumers don't want to pay more. In addition, the cost of decaffeination has a large fixed component, so decaffeinating a smaller lot, which is often higher quality green, results in an even higher cost difference.
-"Good quality brings happiness as you use it" - Nobuho Miya, Kamasada

hundcafe (original poster)

#6: Post by hundcafe (original poster) »

Thank you all for the tips and recommendations.

With the Lavazza Dek - I managed to get some borderline drinkable shots (to my palate) by trying the coarser grinds again - the mess was due to bad technique on my part. The roast was definitely darker, so this wasn't surprising. The closest workable recipe for me is ~1:1.5 with an 18g dose and about ~20s shot time. I once even once able to get some sweet notes, but I'm able to taste some sour and fruity notes at least with this recipe. The only issue I'm getting is pinhole channeling - just the tiniest bits.

The Portola did require a finer grind than the one regular coffee I had dialed in so far. My guess so far is that Swiss Water vs. other processes may make a difference, in addition to roast.

I'll update as I try the Intelligentsia - and I've added the Verve Vancouver to my list as well. Thanks again, all!

hundcafe (original poster)

#7: Post by hundcafe (original poster) »

As promised, an update...

With the Intelligentsia - I feel like I got it to a good spot - I had trouble getting the chocolate notes, though I was definitely able to get the fruit, especially with the early shots. I didn't do any fancy preinfusions for the most part (to keep things simple).

I did the same for Metropolis Red Line Decaf (with is EA/sugar process I believe) - and found it fairly forgiving. As the beans aged, though, I found that I did have better success by running the pump for a few seconds, turning the knob on the Bianca down, and then ramping it back up after 5-10 seconds.

I'm just starting a bag of the Metropolis Xeno Decaf - which is a medium roast. I got nutty notes after my second shot and have found my shots to be more balanced overall. I think my challenge now is getting more of those subtle notes (nut, fruit, chocolate, etc.). I get hints of them in some shots - some more than others. Would like it to be more consistent.

Overall, for those trying to learn - what has worked for me: start with grinding finer, be more meticulous about distribution/tamping (especially tough with fine grinds, in my limited experience so far), and focus on what flavors you like and don't like. Get fancy with preinfusions and such once you have the basics down. Oh, and take lots of notes. I had paper with my brew temps, dose, yield, time, and tasting notes - and when shots channeled. And if you feel like you might be at a sweet spot with a grind setting, try it a few times before adjusting it - I'm realizing how my distribution and tamping can affect the extraction as well.

I did notice that as the beans aged, some of those fruity notes and nutty notes were harder to get. That may be where I hit a point where the grind would have required a really long pull time and or messy/difficult extractions - and perhaps preinfusion was warranted in those instances. I just discovered that the last few days so will play around with that with other beans in the future.

In reviewing this thread, I think I may be pulling some shots on the long side (I've tended to 1:2 and long extraction times). Interestingly, Intelligentsia recommended 18 to 45 g - but maybe their decaf would benefit from a different ratio? I can try shorter to see if the flavors standout more as well. Otherwise, I'm not sure what's causing some of those nicer tasting notes to get washed out, even when the beans are fresher. Any tips?


#8: Post by cgibsong002 »

What's the max pressure you have the Bianca set at?

hundcafe (original poster)

#9: Post by hundcafe (original poster) » replying to cgibsong002 »

I didn't change it from when I got it - the pressure is set to 10 on the pump I believe. I have the paddle mostly open, so the pressure at the group head goes up to 11 or so (on really fine grinds) but is generally between 9-10.

Supporter ♡

#10: Post by PIXIllate »

Extracting espresso beyond 9 bar is ALWAYS going to be a bad time. Extracting espresso BELOW 8 bar is often a really good time.
You might want to try setting the OPV lower and see what happens.