I’ve come to realize something recently, about espresso making. You could call it a revelation, or an epiphany, or just “something I’ve just realized”, which doesn’t sound quite as dramatic ;-).
What I’ve figured out is that there is basically one main cause of bad tasting espresso at home which is often prevalent regardless of the home barista having ticked al of the other necessary boxes for great tasting espresso at home.
This isn’t an obvious one for most people, and I suspect that many people have been dogged by this issue in the past which has led them to investing in new equipment, when actually it’s an issue which can usually be fixed with just a few little tweaks to your espresso-making process.
Before we get onto this, I’ll first go through all of the more obvious necessities for making great tasting espresso, because dealing with the issue I’m referring to here is only really going to make a significant impact once all these checkboxes are ticked.
Quality Coffee Beans
If you’re buying your coffee beans from coffee roasters, or from speciality coffee websites or subscriptions, then you can skip past this section, as I’d be preaching to the converted.
If, however, you’re reading this and you usually pick up your coffee beans from a supermarket, or you buy them from a large online retailer, then you might benefit from reading this section of the post.
To the uninitiated, coffee beans are coffee beans – but that’s just not right. For a start, coffee beans aren’t even beans, they’re seeds – we call them beans, mainly because humans are daft ;-).
The first wave of coffee, which began in the 1800s, saw coffee become a commodity, and the bulk of coffee traded worldwide is still commodity coffee. This kind of coffee is just coffee, just as wheat is just wheat, oil is just oil. It’s simply priced by the market, quality doesn’t come into it – and it’s very cheap. It’s incredibly difficult for farmers to turn a profit due to the volatile and often very low market price of coffee.
If you think “coffee just tastes of coffee” this is because you’ve probably been brought up on commodity coffee, as most of us have been. This kind of coffee is usually roasted fairly dark to hide taste defects and to ensure each batch tastes the same, and it all tends to be much of a muchness where taste is concerned.
The second wave of coffee started in the 70s, when firms like Starbucks tapped into a new developing coffee culture. Second wave coffee was a lot more about the experience, that it was about the coffee itself, and the third wave of coffee came about in the 80’s starting out as a very small niche of people who were a lot more interested in the coffee beans themselves rather than the coffee culture.
The third wave of coffee is all about the quality of the coffee beans. The beans produced for this market aren’t priced by the market, they’re priced by cup quality, and this allows coffee farmers to make quality led decisions rather than price lead decisions. Where the coffee is grown, the varietals chosen, hand picking vs mechanical picking, and the processing methods used are all picked with one thing in mind, cup quality.
If you want to ensure you’re buying great quality coffee beans, it’s simple – buy your coffee from a coffee roaster or a specialist supplier of speciality coffee.
There are hundreds of small batch speciality coffee roasters in the UK, you probably have one locally if you wanted to pop in, and most of them are really cool people, friendly and helpful, and love talking about coffee. To find your local coffee roaster see:
The UK Coffee Roasters Directory
Most of them have websites though if you prefer to order online. You don’t need to ever run out of great quality coffee, either, with so many great coffee subscriptions these days including Blue Coffee Box, Pact Coffee, Dog & Hat and loads more, see:
The UK Coffee Subscriptions Directory
You could even buy coffee from me 🙂 at The Coffeeworks – which was a project created with a huge amount of input from coffeeblog readers. But the point is, there is huge amounts of choice when it comes to getting great coffee beans in the UK, you don’t need to buy commodity coffee beans. For more on that see:
Best Coffee Beans
The Espresso Machine
If you want decent espresso, you need a decent espresso machine – and while most people will understand that, most people don’t understand what is really meant by a decent espresso machine.
The cheapest home espresso machines are what are referred to as domestic espresso machines. These tend to cost from £100 – £200, and what most of them have in common is that they pull shots at 15 bars of pressure, and use something called pressurized baskets.
I won’t get into too much detail in this post, but for more see:
Why 15 Bar Espresso Machines Aren't the Best
In short, you really want 9 bars of pressure for espresso, 15 bars of pressure are not your friend if you’re trying to create great tasting espresso.
Also, while pressurized baskets are supposedly capable of producing barista quality espresso with pre-ground coffee or with coffee ground with a cheaper grinder, they really only do this when it comes to looks, as they make the espresso look the part with artificially created crema, but they don’t quite do the same where taste is concerned.
This doesn’t mean you need to spend thousands on a home espresso machine, it just means that it’s best to go for a 9 bar machine (or a machine which can be modded to 9 bars) with standard baskets.
My favourite choices at the entry level:
Sage Bambino PlusGaggia Classic Pro
For more choices see:
Best Espresso Machines
The Coffee Grinder
The grinder is often underestimated, but it really is important, especially for espresso.
What you need for espresso grinding is the ability to grind fine enough, and also the ability to finely adjust the grind size. While generally speaking you’ll get better quality ground coffee and therefore better espresso the more you spend, you can get fairly good results from around the £150 – £200 mark.
You definitely need a burr grinder. The cheapest “grinders” have blades, and blades don’t grind.
The very cheapest burr grinders are the Delonghi KG79, Krups Expert and Melitta Molino, and while these will do OK with domestic espresso machines with pressurized baskets, they won’t quite grind fine enough for espresso. You can mod them to get the burrs closer together, but even then the grind adjustments are quite far apart, you’re never going to get great results with a grinder like this.
At the entry level, my favourite choices are the Iberital MC2 or the Sage Smart Grinder Pro. The MC2 is a bit of a rough diamond, doesn’t look great, feels flimsy, and I’m not a big fan of the timer, but I can’t deny how well it performs for espresso for the very low price. The smart grinder pro is a lot more refined, nicer to look at, and is very good for multiple brew methods as it’s so easy to get from one grind size to another for instance from espresso up to filter and back.
If your budget is a bit higher, the grinders I’d usually recommend would be the Eureka Mignon, an ex-commercial Mazzer mini with a single doser and doserless mod, Baratza Sette 270, or Niche Zero.
For more see:
Best Coffee Grinders
OK, so if you’ve ticked the above boxes, what is the one main issue which is likely to cause bad tasting espresso, and how can you avoid it?
The issue I’m referring to, if you hadn’t already guessed, is channelling.
What the chuff is channelling?
When water is introduced to the puck of coffee in the basket, and pressure starts to build up, this pressured water will naturally look for a channel, a path of lesser resistance. Where the water does this, you have uneven extraction. This means that regardless of flow time and ratio, the shot can taste wrong.
If a home barista is honing their craft, and is doing all the right things, weighing the coffee in, weighing the espresso and timing the shot, but something just doesn’t taste right and they can’t figure out why – a lot of the time, maybe most of the time, this is due to channelling.
It doesn’t matter if you have a £300 setup or a £10,000 setup, if you’re suffering from channelling you’re still going to get espresso which doesn’t taste how it shoud.
I wanted to write this post because I’ve suddenly come to realise that I’ve previously underestimated the impact of channelling, and I think the vast majority of people who own an espresso machine probably do too.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most people waste money on great coffee beans, and on great espresso gear because regardless of the quality of the beans and the gear, they’re haunted by the issue of channelling, and they have no idea.
So, we know what channelling is, how do we prevent it?
Some espresso machines have a feature called preinfusion, which is where the puck of coffee is soaked with water under low pressure before the pressure is ramped up. This more gentle introduction of water to the ground coffee beans helps to ensure an even flow of water through the puck, once the pressure is increased.
While preinfusion is a feature I’d usually expect to find on higher cost espresso machines, this is something that really impresses me about Sage coffee machines, as all of their espresso machines including the lowest cost machines, feature proper low-pressure preinfusion.
I say “proper low pressure” preinfusion, as there are some machines on the market which claim to feature preinfusion, but it’s a case of pulsing the water at full pressure, so there’s a short blast of water at full pressure, a pause, and then the shot is resumed.
Getting the dose wrong increases the chance of channelling.
There’s something called headspace (nothing to do with the popular mindfulness and meditation app, although I would recommend that too) which refers to the space between the top of the puck of coffee and the shower screen above, which the water comes through.
The amount of headspace is important, as the pressure builds up in this headspace.
Too little headspace and too much headspace are both bad. Both can cause channelling, both can also cause you to have to alter the grind to correct the flow rate, while unaware (unless you have a bottomless portafilter or your palate is sensitive enough to detect what’s going on in the cup). Too much headspace (too little coffee for the basket) can also cause sloppy pucks, which are yuck.
The ideal headspace is thought to be 1-2mm, and dosing as per the recommended dosage for the basket is the obvious solution, combined with getting the grind size right, of course, because regardless of the weight in the basket, if the grind size is off for the coffee you’re using, the headspace may be under or over the ideal.
This is one of the reasons the Razor tool which comes with espresso machines from Sage Appliances is such a clever idea, as it ensures the ideal headspace for the basket, while also ensuring a level surface.
If you have a Sage (known as Breville in most countries but the UK and other parts of Europe) espresso machine and you don’t usually use the Razor tool, I’d recommend digging it out. You don’t have to use it every time, but it’s a great tool to use while dialling in.
If you don’t have a sage machine, there’s nothing stopping you from picking up the Razor tool, if you have a standard 58mm portafilter you can pick one up from Sage Appliances for just over a fiver. Alternatively, just dose the basket with the suggested dose for your basket, but just keep in mind that the headspace may be out either way until you’re dialled in.
For example, if you’re using a basket made for 18g, but you’ve gone to course with the grind, that 18 grams of coffee will take up more space in the basket, leaving less headspace. If you’ve ground too fine, that 18g will take up less space, taking up less headspace.
By the way, an easy way to tell you’ve got too much headspace is that horrible sloppy puck I mentioned, and a tell tale sign you’ve over dosed the basket and have too little headspace as a result, is a rock-solid puck after pulling the shot, which often won’t knock out in one go and breaks up instead.
Correct Grind Size
One of the first things you learn when getting into home espresso is that you need to get the grind size right with each bag of coffee beans, known as dialing in.
This isn’t only important because of ensuring the desired flow rate (shot time) and therefore as close to a perfect extraction as possible, but it’s also important because unless you’re using the Razor tool as I’ve just mentioned, headspace is going to be out until you’re dialled in. This means that the likelihood of channelling increases until you’re dialled in even if you’re dosing the correct amount for the basket.
Puck preparation or “puck prep”, simply means what you do to the ground coffee in the basket after grinding and before pulling the shot. If your only puck prep is tamping, you’re leaving yourself open to channelling.
An important part of puck prep, often overlooked by home baristas, is distribution, which simply means to ensure that the coffee in the basket is evenly distributed.
Busy baristas often purely use hand methods for this, whether it’s tapping the portafilter with their hands, and/or using what’s known as the “North East South West” method (running the outside of your palm/little finger across the top of the puck of coffee in all four directions), or the Stockfleth’s message in which you make an L with your thumb and forefinger and rotate your hand and the portafilter in opposite directions.
There are arguably more effective methods, though, which busy baristas might not want to use due to time constraints, which are more suited to home baristas. The most popular of which, and in my opinion the best, being the WDT, or the “Weiss Distribution Technique”.
This method requires something thin and pointy, such as a needle, with which you simply stir the grounds in concentric circles, breaking up the clumps and aiming to ensure an even distribution of ground coffee throughout the basket. There are tools you can buy to make this easier, such as this WDT tool, but I just bought this keycap puller tool and snipped off the ends with pliers, works fine.
OK, it might not look as nice as some of the other ones you can get, and to be fair the handle part is flimsy plastic so it may turn out to be false economy, but there are plenty of WDT tools you can buy online from about fifteen quid and up.
You can also make a DIY WDT tool by getting something like a cork, and sticking three or four needles into it. Whatever you use, just stir the grounds in concentric circles, trying to get all of the coffee, right down to the bottom of the basket. Finally, just rake the puck in an s or zigzag fashion to evenly distribute the surface, and you’re done.
If you watch my video below from where I’ve set it to play, you’ll see me doing this.
You need something put into the basket to stop the grounds from going all over the place while you’re doing this, you can just cut the bottom off an appropriately sized yoghurt pot or paper espresso cup, something like that, or just get a dosing funnel – there are loads of these available for all sized portafilters.
I count tamping as part of the puck prep, some would see it as a separate stage of the process, I don’t think it really matters either way – but tamping properly is another way to minimize chances of channelling.
To tamp properly means to apply enough pressure so that the coffee is compressed as much as it can be, while ensuring an even surface.
When I say “as much as it can be”, you can’t really compress the ground coffee in the basket all that much. There’s only so much you can tamp the coffee down – after that, you’re just wasting energy, chancing injury due to repetitive pressure on your joints, and potentially increasing the likelihood of channelling by ending up with an unlevel surface.
I would just aim for consistency with tamp pressure, and focus on getting a level tamp. You can get calibrated tampers like this one, which only allow you to apply the pre-set amount of pressure, a good way to ensure tamping consistency.
Use a decent tamper, and the correct size tamper for your basket
If your machine came with a plastic tamper, find some other use for it, and invest in a proper tamper. Those plastic things, some of which double up as scoops, are useless as tampers, in my humble opinion, and one thing that is often wrong with them is that they can sometimes be too small for the basket.
As long as your basket is straight-edged and isn’t tapered (the basket which ships with the DeLonghi Dedica for example is tapered which is why you need to use a smaller tamper with it) you really want a tamper which is a perfect fit for the basket. If there’s a gap around the tamper, some of the puck around the outside isn’t going to be tamped.
Many home baristas now use oversized tampers, also known as competition tampers, along with competition baskets, which I’ll cover next. The Motta competition tamper for example, which you can get from ShopCoffee or Clumsy Goat, is 58.4mm which means a really snug fit. You do need to make sure if you’re using these, however, that you’re lifting up the tamper straight, and you’re not lifting on an angle, as this can cause suction which can also promote channelling.
Use a better basket
Not all filter baskets are created equally. Competition baskets such as VST & IMS baskets are created for specific doses and with very specifically sized and distributed filter holes. Switching out your basket to a competition basket is one way to aid overall shot quality and potentially help avoid channelling, mainly via knowing exactly what dose the basket is made for, which isn’t the case with all baskets.
Do not disturb
Once you’ve taken the time and effort to properly prep your puck, be careful with the portafilter. Don’t knock it with the tamper, or put it down onto the worktop with force, and be careful not to knock it into the group while locking it in place, as any shock to the puck can cause breaks or cracks, which can encourage that pesky chanelling.
Dry your portafilter
Starting out with a wet basket can encourage channeling around the edges of the puck, so it’s good practice to ensure that the basket is dry before grinding the coffee into the basket.
Upgrade your grinder
I know we spoke about the grinder earlier, but now we’re talking about channelling, it’s worth pointing out that some of the very cheapest coffee grinders can be the no1 reason for channelling. The simple reason for this is that many of them just don’t quite go fine enough for espresso with standard baskets, and if you can’t grind fine enough, you’re more than likely going to suffer from channelling.
If you’re using pressurised baskets, there’s really not much you can do about channelling or improving the taste of your shots other than to use better quality coffee beans. In my humble opinion pressured baskets (which come with most of the cheapest, sub £200 espresso machines) can make OK espresso from great quality coffee beans via a very cheap grinder, but if you want more than just OK, you’ll need to use a machine with a standard basket, and an espresso capable grinder.
If you’re using a standard basket, you’ll need to grind finer than you would with a pressurised basket, and most of the cheapest grinders just won’t go fine enough. For more on grinders see:
Best Coffee Grinders
In my video below I also talk about which coffee grinders are, and aren’t capable of grinding fine enough for espresso with standard baskets.
Upgrade your espresso machine
If you’re using a very cheap machine which pulls shots at 15 bars of pressure and uses a pressurised basket, it’s possible to improve matters by switching to a standard basket (if you can get one to fit your portafilter) but the one thing you can never get away from, is the 15 bars of pressure.
15 bars is a LOT of pressure, and this pressure can gauge a hole right through the puck of coffee, which causes terrible channelling. Many of these machines are awful when it comes to temperature stability too, which enhances this problem.
So I would recommend considering upgrading to at least something like the new Gaggia classic pro, or a used older Gaggia classic, or the sage bambino plus – paired with either the Sage smart grinder pro, Iberital MC2 or Lelit Fred, unless you can afford to spend a bit more, in which case something along the lines of the Eureka Mignon Specialita, an ex commercial Mazzer super jolly modded to be single doser & zero retention – or the Niche Zero.
Best Home Barista Setups
Making better espresso from home – conclusion
To conclude, to make better tasting espresso at home, the main thing we need to do is to work on reducing the chances of channelling.
Even if we’ve got a mega, espresso capable grinder paired with a really good heat exchanger or dual boiler espresso machine, we could end up drinking shots that taste nowhere near as good as another home barista is achieving with a budget single-boiler espresso machine and lower cost grinder who’s taking good care of avoiding channelling.
So just take some care when dialling in, remember not being dialled in is a big cause of channelling. Remember that achieving the correct dose at the correct grind size reduces the chances of channeling via having the right amount of headspace, and taking care when it comes to puck prep and tamping will also, hopefully help.
Life is like a box of chocolates, so join my Brew Time list, subscribe to my YouTube Channel, try my coffee at The Coffeeworks (use discount code coffeebotherers), follow me on Twitter & Instagram, follow the coffeeblog FaceBook page, and that’s all I have to say about that.
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This article firstly appeared at Coffee Blog – The UK Specialty Coffee Blog – For Lovers of REAL Coffee!