Littlecoffee's list of obvious yet not obvious tips

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

#1: Post by LittleCoffee »

I'm coming up to my anniversary of starting out on my espresso journey. Over that time, I've watched countless videos on technique which have left me a bit disappointed at how many "obvious" things are left out of the vast bulk of videos for you to figure out for yourself. So, I thought I'd write LittleCoffee's list of obvious but not obvious tips to try and help absolute beginners progress quicker than they would figuring it all out from YouTube and this forum. This isn't a complete guide - there's plenty of better sources for that - just helpful things I don't think are readily available.

Most of these are somewhere on the scale between objective truth and personal opinion, so not all will agree. Please read in the spirit of my writing it - to help absolute beginners get better quicker with advice I've figured out for myself which I haven't found readily available.

Espresso Tips

1. Buy a notepad and keep it next to the machine. Write every shot down.
Espresso is about perfecting consistency. Unless you're doing 100s of shots a day I think you'll really struggle to improve quickly unless you write everything down. Coffee beans literally age every day and the path to getting consistently good espresso day in day out requires you to get a feel for how much you need to compensate with your grind setting for this process. I can't imagine how one could do that without a notepad. You can write as much or as little as you want down. Personally, I write the date, days since the beans were roasted and unfrozen if relevant, the grind setting, extraction temp, coffee dose in grams, espresso weight in grams, extraction time and my taste of extraction on a scale of 1-5 (1 being very under extracted, 5 very over extracted).

2. Print and paste these two pictures in the cover of your notepad.
Learning to taste whether a shot is over or under extracted is a key skill.

Even a year in I still pull this diagram out and refer to it.

Also making adjustments in order to achieve a desired change in taste is non-trivial if you're starting out. I still look at this second diagram almost daily.

3. Decide what's more important - improving technique or tasting variety
When you're starting out there are lots of parameters to play with and you won't even know which make a big difference and which a little. Only time and experience will give you a feel for that. I think the single biggest decision you can make to help you improve quicker is to only buy a single type of bean from a single roaster. That way you take out a huge source of inconsistency. So, find a bean you are moderately happy with and then stick with it until you feel confident enough to change. Of course, if you'd rather have fun exploring you should, but I think that will come at the expense of speed with which your technique will improve and you'll likely pull a lot more foul shots in the process. And when choosing a bean as a beginner, my advice would be to simplify it to:
- If you don't like acidity buy an Indonesian or Brazilian dark roast.
- If you like acidity buy something from Africa

Dark roasts are fundamentally easier to extract and so I would stick with a dark roast until you get the hang of it - you'll have an easier time I think. My expectation is that you need to brew EDIT: 10-20kg [15-30kg] of a single bean before you'll get to a level of "feel" for it to make sense to move on IF improving technique is your priority.

4. Dialling in is a daily task
Lots of info out there on how to dial-in new beans. Nowhere have I found anything which says you really need to dial-in every day for the same espresso beans, even though that's absolutely true. In theory you will be using the same beans the same number of days from roast every day. In practice however, that's impossible. As beans age in the fortnight from roasting, they need grinding finer and finer every day to achieve the same result. It took me a fair amount of time to realise that. Learning consistency requires you to build a feel by how much you need to adjust your grind setting every day to achieve the same extraction result for your aging beans. Dialling in is therefore a daily, not a new coffee only task. With experience, and using the same bean is very helpful here, you will learn how many grind settings you need to adjust by each day.

Another not entirely obvious tip here is that unless you're grinding and discarding a mass of coffee equal to your grinder retention every time you change grinder setting, you will see some "lag" in how extraction time changes if you make big grind setting adjustments as a result of the retained grounds being ground at the old grind setting. You will need to take this into account when dialling in.

Finally, new grinders have a period of breaking in - and you need to grind finer and finer as a result of the burrs bedding in, all else being equal. This process comes to an end within the first 1-2kg of coffee beans.

5. Avoid volumetric tampers
There are two types of tamper - the classic tamper which looks like a stamp (potentially spring calibrated for consistent tamp pressure) and the newer type of cylinder which you press down onto the outer rim of your basket. I can't understand why you would want to use the latter type - it fundamentally tamps your puck to a fixed volume which I think makes consistent extraction very hard. The volume you're tamping to changes every day as the beans age and become less fluffy, while if you're playing with dosage you also need to adjust the tamper in a way which is far from obvious. Use a classic tamper, and you're struggling with consistency get a spring loaded one to take one potential source of variability out of the equation.

6. Start with a lower dose, but not singles
Single doses are incredibly hard - avoid them as a beginner.

There is also a large amount of literature out there suggesting a double these days is 18g+, with some going as far as 21g. I think the bigger the dose the easier it is to get channeling - as the dose increases the puck needs to be more and more perfect to avoid channeling. Meanwhile drinking smaller doses means you can get more shots before you over caffeinate. And your taste buds over time will adjust to anything. Finally, if you're using dark roasts as I suggest to make your life easier as a beginner, you are likely to get a better tasting shot at a lower dose. Personally, I dose 14g and with an Indonesian dark roast have had a wonderful time. I'd really think about whether higher doses are making your life easier or harder - I strongly suspect the latter through increased risk of channeling.

7. Ridge vs. ridgeless basket is more important for a beginner than competition vs. stock.
Lots of literature out there expounding the benefit of IMS/VST type baskets. Meanwhile the ridge vs. ridgeless debate is really only focused on how easy it is to get rid of the wet puck. I think both of these miss the point completely.

The reason I think every beginner should be using a ridged basket is to easily see how canted (i.e. at an angle) your prepared puck is. The ridge provides a neat visual guide against which you can compare your puck all around. It will be really obvious if the gap differs at one side of the puck vs. another and you should adjust before pulling the shot. And if you can't see the ridge, that's probably because you've ignored the "use a low dose" tip, but it's also a high likelihood you're not helping yourself on the channeling front - the ridge needs to be in the water gap above the puck.

On stock vs. performance basket, I'm sure you can get better espresso with a performance basket. But as a beginner, there are lots and lots of other more important parameters to focus on. If you have a stock basket which works, stick to that - changing basket potentially requires a new tamper and is really a bigger change than most realise. Do that when you don't consider yourself a beginner.

8. A naked portafilter is no substitute for being able to taste channeling.
This one I'm sure is going to be controversial. I've deliberately not bought an open portafilter because that has forced me to pay attention to the taste more and develop a feel for channeling. In so doing, I think I have developed my understanding of what the shot needs to look like during extraction (dwell time, blonding etc.) and how it should taste has developed quicker than had I spent my time watching pretty patterns under a naked portafilter. An added side benefit is a cleaner machine as a result.

9. Plumbing in Is not for beginners
If you're starting out, I don't think plumbing a machine in is a good thing. You can introduce hard to diagnose problems with mains pressure variability and interaction with the pre-infusion spring if you have an E61. Plus, there are a bunch of servicing habits (e.g. backflushing) it's good to get into the habit of doing every time your water tank empties. Once you feel you have the technique nailed down go ahead and optimise by plumbing in, but as a beginner I think this is an unhelpful distraction.

10. Flow/pressure profiling is not for beginners
I knew I'd struggle to get me to spend the money on a flow profiling kit once I'd bought an expensive machine, so I made me buy it up front when I was less sensitive to sticker shock. I've spent a year not using it - there is so much to get right before details of pre-infusion become important and I'm still not really there. It's safe to ignore everything to do with flow profiling while being a beginner.

11. Freezing beans is fine if done right, but within limits
I've found that freezing beans 1-2 days after roasting for up to 2-3 weeks doesn't affect flavour enough for me to taste. Any more than that though and I think I can start to taste a staling effect, though it's not dramatic. When freezing, seal with as little air as possible, freeze and unfreeze while sealed to avoid moisture getting to the beans. Only unseal once back at room temperature with no condensation on the storage container.

12. Espresso Extraction has lots of parameters - keep them in perspective
One of the hard things when starting out is that there are lots of parameters but you don't have a feel for how important they are relative to each other. Here is my classification of the importance of different types of parameters.

Class 1 - Absolutely Critical. 10% change makes a big difference
Ground coffee dose.
Extraction ratio (i.e. mass of espresso divided by mass of ground coffee beans)
Extraction time - though that is an output, if it's varying by more than 10% it's a sign something big is off.
Days since the coffee was roasted. There is a golden fortnight after which beans degrade quite noticeably.
Grind Setting.
Puck cant. Make sure the puck is level.
WDT. It's really not optional when you're starting out.
Dwell time. 6-7 seconds is a must.
Time spent stretching the milk.

Class 2 - Important but not critical - focus only after you've nailed above
Steam boiler pressure when steaming milk
Extraction temperature. Simple rule of thumb - extract dark roasts at 88C and medium's at 92C and you're unlikely to be making a big mistake.
Total dissolved solids (TDS) in your water - don't go above 85 mg/L (otherwise your machine will suffer over the medium term) and below 35 md/L (coffee taste starts being impacted).
Tamping pressure - although not ideal some variability in tamp pressure provided you're tamping properly won't make a big difference.
Extraction pressure. Stick to 9 bars while you consider yourself a beginner, but some variation won't make a massive difference.
Tamper/portafilter fit. While this is important, a half mm of play doesn't make all the difference.

Class 3 - Irrelevant for beginners - safe to ignore and focus on once you're not a beginner
Performance baskets
Weighing things to sub 1g accuracy
Timing things to sub 1s accuracy
To freeze or not to freeze, provided you're freezing properly and for not longer than a month.
Exact breakdown of mineral content in the water provided your TDS is right.
Flow profiling.

Latte Art Tips
1. Depower your steam wand
Foaming milk well is far harder than making good espresso. You have lots of things to get very nearly right in a very short period of time. Ultimately the time you have to get these things right is set by how quickly your milk heats up. The quicker you heat it, the less time. So, ignore all those "my Decent puts out 2 bars of pressure through a 17-hole tip and my milk is ready in 3s". You're a beginner - give yourself the maximum possible time. Use the lowest steam pressure which gets acceptable texture. Get the tip with the smallest number of holes - I use a single hole tip and still find the time goes really quickly even a year in.

2. The number of seconds spent texturing is very very important
I must have seen 10s if not 100s of YouTube videos on steaming milk and every single one of them glosses over how important the number of seconds folding/texturing milk in the first phase is. Even on my low pressure, single hole tip wand a 1-2s difference in how long you spend in "paper-tearing" mode makes the difference between milk suitable for latte art and milk which isn't.

Make it easy on yourself. Don't steam milk while pulling a shot as a beginner. There's enough to watch and learn while pulling the shot. Pull the shot first and then steam the milk after. But do get a clock which shows seconds while you're steaming and make sure you count and write down how many seconds, you're texturing the milk for. Small changes here have a huge impact.

3. Pick the right cup
Not seen this mentioned in many latte art videos, but as a beginner, the single most important helping hand you can give yourself is to pick the right cup and stick with it. It makes a huge difference. Check out the cups used in the Barista World Championships - clearly that's a pretty good definition of optimal.

4. Weigh the milk every time
Again, 10s if not 100s of videos out there saying "pour milk till it's near the bottom of the spout". I can't wrap my head around that - I think this is plain bad advice for a beginner. I know for a fact that the number of seconds spent texturing milk is really really sensitive for the output. Well, then if the mass of milk you're heating with your wand varies because you're eyeing filling "just near the bottom of the spout" then you can easily be adding a 10-15% difference to the mass of milk you're foaming, and therefore adding this variability to the optimum time you need to fold/texture the milk.

To me the right way of doing this once you've picked your cup figure out a mass of cold milk which when foamed right fills the cup for the espresso dose that's gone in, write it down and then always measure that mass of milk in before you start - one less variable to worry about.

5. 10-15% added water by mass during steaming is about right
It's quite hard to find data on how much water mass is added during steaming, but 10-15% by mass is a decent ballpark. Any more than that and you're either not purging enough steam to clear the wand, or your boiler is overfilling and sputtering into the steam wand.

6. Practice steaming with cold water
The better latte art videos suggest foaming water with dishwasher liquid but that's overkill, I think. Build muscle memory by foaming plain old cold water. You need to perfect:
- Getting the water spinning as quickly as possible (i.e. stretching with the paper tearing sound) from starting to steam
- Counting out a consistent number of seconds spinning/producing paper tearing sound
- Dropping the wand in to get a vortex which then stays constant until the jug heats up to the right temperature
This takes 10s if not 100s of goes to get all three of these parts consistently right.

7. Fix the wand, work on the jug drip and try both spin directions
I haven't seen a single video mention this, but it seems really obvious and for me it made a big difference. Most machines have a moveable wand. There is so much going on during steaming to get right, a wand that moves is really unhelpful. Fix it by gently resting it against the limit of its motion before starting steaming. That way you have something rigid to lean on which should restrict the wand position from adding variability to how you steam the milk.

There are lots of ways you can hold a jug, and again most videos don't focus on this enough. Use a forefinger under the spout tip to pull up and fix the wand against its movement limiter. Then you can use your forefinger to gently slide the wand down into the milk when moving from folding to texturing.

I personally found spinning milk clockwise to be a lot easier than anti clockwise - no idea why. But if you're struggling, give the other way a whirl.

8. Practice pouring with cold water
Pick a shape to pour and stick with it - it's hard enough to learn one shape never mind trying lots at the same time. Watch a few videos and then again, just practice pouring cold water into your cup to build the muscle memory. The shapes require you to finish pouring milk with an empty jug and a full cup - that's quite a hard constraint and you will know whether you've achieved it just pouring tap water into your cup.

Above all remember to enjoy the journey for what it is - an endless quest for impossible perfection! Don't obsess too much over the results!

Hope this helps someone!

Supporter ♡

#2: Post by DoubleR »

this is great. The one comment I question is the need to spend up to 30kg with a single bean/roast to get proficient. That seems like an insanely long amount of time. Using 15 gram doses you need 2000 shots to get through that weight. If pulling 3 shots a day, every day, it will take 2 years to go through that amount of beans. That's a long time. In addition, you have to assume then roaster can get those exact beans each time and that they are not seasonal.

LittleCoffee (original poster)

#3: Post by LittleCoffee (original poster) »

Good shout - you're probably right - 30kg is too much. I've edited to 10-20kg - for me i definitely don't feel like i've mastered it by the time I got to 10kg but maybe I'm a slow learner :D


#4: Post by TallDan »

Can you provide examples of tampers that you are saying to avoid in #5? I suspect that you have a misunderstanding of how some tampers work.

LittleCoffee (original poster)

#5: Post by LittleCoffee (original poster) »

I mean avoid things like these two. They tamp to a fixed volume and I don't think that is something you want to be doing every day with the same beans as the results won't be consistent. Also the distributor side of them is no substitute for WDT and it also makes no sense to use the distributor in addition to WDT. So just no.


#6: Post by InfamousTuba »

It is nice to see a summary of thoughts by someone starting out in the hobby, and it is good that you are putting in a lot of work and getting ideas down. I do have some suggestions for the tips that might be useful:

#1: you could also use an app like beanconqueror to keep track of things and allow easy comparisons and statistics (and if your note taking is as poor as mine was initially it keeps things in order).

#3: I think picking a single origin and sticking with it for a while can be good, but difficult depending on your choice because not all origins are available all of the time. An espresso blend from a local roaster that you have tasted before and like would probably be my recommendation.
For sure 10-20kg of the same coffee would be far too much for most people to stick with, after 2kg (~140 14g shots) you should have a good enough knowledge of the coffee to try something new, I do commend you sticking wth the same coffee for so long but I think that is not something most people will do.

#5: Volumetric tampers like the push tamper are good in cafes that have to loads of shots day to day, ergonomically it is much nicer and it the push tamper has an adjustable volume. I don't think for a home user it is all that useful and a spring tamper would honestly be the easiest starting point.

#6: I think 14-16g dose works well, although I don't think pucks being deeper leads to more channeling, 54mm baskets seem to have less channeling with deeper puck beds and the 25g VST basket we used to use in the cafes hardly ever channeled although it would depend on specific grinders and WDT technique

#8: I wouldn't say a naked portafilter is a bad thing, and how can you know if it would have helped if you don't use one. But for sure it will keep your machine much cleaner :lol:

#12: Class 1
Days post roast also heavily depends on roast level and rest time, lighter beans will need to rest longer but won't degrade in taste as quickly.
Tamping cant, again I think a spring tamper is a good idea to eliminate it.
WDT is definintely optional if you use dark roasts and have a grinder that doesn't produce too many clumps but obviously everyone starts out with different equipment and bean preferences.

Class 2
Water in your machine is definitely something that should be incredibly important to prevent issues with taste, scale or corrosion with your machine further down the line, possibly the most important thing that beginners underestimate.
Tamping, again a good calibrated spring tamper would eliminate all of these problems easily.

Class 3
Weighing grams in and out to 0.1g accuracy is a much better starting point, of course deviations of 0.1 won't really be noticeable but it is good to have the measurements (especially if you are recording all of the data).

Latte art tips
#1: It depends on the machine you have, and having more steam power allows for better incorporation, so you can start low but don't forget to keep increasing the pressure until you reach full.
#2: The reason you don't see it mentioned that much is that it is very variable depending on how fast the machine steams milk, but yes a couple of seconds can make a big difference.
#3: Cups from companies like loveramics, acme, inker, notneutral etc. are all good options and sticking to one size also helps with learning.
#4: Another option is to get a pitcher with measurements inside so you don't need to eyeball and you can measure how much the milk has been stretched. The reason for the milk being just below the spout (or just above) is to allow room for the stretching. Too much or too little milk in the pitcher makes it much harder to create nice microfoam and a pitcher that i very full will be hard to pour from. You do usually want a little bit of leftover milk in the pitcher after your pour to have a nicer finished pattern.
#5: Again this is variable between machines, some output drier steam than others.
#6: For sure a drop of dish soap is highly recommended, otherwise you don't know how well you are creating the microfoam.
#7: Lance hedrick's video on milk steaming for sure mentions this and all of his latte art videos are almost essential viewing for beginners