How to Make Better Tasting Espresso at Home – Kev’s Guide.

I’ve come to realize something lately, about espresso creating. You could call it a revelation, or an epiphany, or literally “something I’ve simply realized”, which doesn’t sound rather as dramatic ;-).

What I’ve figured out is that there is simply one main cause of bad tasting espresso coffee at home which is often prevalent regardless of the home barista having ticked al of the other essential boxes for excellent tasting espresso coffee at home.

This isn’t an obvious one for most people, and I suspect that a number of people have been dogged by this question in the past which has led them to investing in new device, when really it’s an matter which can usually be fixed with basically a few little tweaks to your espresso-making recipe.

Before we get onto this, I’ll first go through all of the more obvious necessities for making excellent tasting espresso, due to the truth that dealing with the issue I’m referring to here is only simply 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 article.

To the uninitiated, coffee beans are coffee beans – but that’s basically 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 basically coffee, really as wheat is just wheat, oil is just oil. It’s just priced by the market, quality doesn’t come into it – and it’s really cheap. It’s incredibly difficult for farmers to turn a profit due to the volatile and often extremely low market price of coffee.

If you think “coffee just aromas of coffee” this is because you’ve probably been brought up on commodity coffee, as a lot of of us have been. This kind of coffee is usually roasted fairly dark to hide taste defects and to ensure each batch aromas the same, and it all tends to be much of a muchness where taste is worried.

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 beginning out as a extremely 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 wonderful quality coffee beans, it’s modest – buy your coffee from a coffee roaster or a specialist supplier of speciality coffee.

There are hundreds of small batch speciality coffee roasters, you probably have one locally if you wanted to pop in, and a lot of them are simply cool people, friendly and useful, and enjoy talking about coffee. To find your local coffee roaster see:

The point is, there is huge amounts of preference when it comes to getting excellent coffee beans in the UK, you don’t need to buy commodity coffee beans.

The Espresso Machine

If you want decent espresso coffee, you need a decent espresso machine – and while a lot of people will find out that, many people don’t find out what is in reality meant by a decent espresso machine.

The cheapest home espresso coffee machines are what are known as domestic espresso machines. These tend to cost from £100 – £200, and what most them have in common is that they pull shots at 15 bars of pressure, and utilize 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 Perfect

In short, you actually want 9 bars of pressure for espresso, 15 bars of pressure are not your friend if you’re trying to create excellent tasting espresso.

Also, while pressurized baskets are supposedly capable of producing barista quality espresso coffee with pre-ground coffee or with coffee ground with a cheaper grinding machine, they in reality only do this when it comes to looks, as they make the espresso look the part with artificially created crema, but they don’t rather do the same where taste is anxious.

This doesn’t mean you need to spend thousands on a home espresso coffee machine, it just implies that it’s perfect to go for a 9 bar machine (or a machine which can be modded to 9 bars) with basic baskets.

My favourite choices at the entry level:

Sage Bambino PlusGaggia Classic Pro

For more choices see:

Best Espresso Machines

The Coffee grinder

The mill is often underestimated, nevertheless it literally is important, particularly for espresso coffee.

What you need for espresso coffee grinding is the ability to grind fine enough, and also the ability to finely fix the grind size. While mainly speaking you’ll get better quality ground coffee and therefore better espresso coffee the more you spend, you can get fairly good impacts 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 rather grind fine enough for espresso coffee. You can mod them to get the burrs closer together, however even then the grind adjustments are rather far apart, you’re never going to get excellent impacts with a coffee mill like this.

At the entry extent, my favourite choices are the Iberital MC2 or the Sage Smart Grinder Pro. The MC2 is a little of a rough diamond, doesn’t look ideal, feels flimsy, and I’m not a big fan of the timer, but I can’t deny how well it performs for espresso coffee for the really low price.  The smart coffee grinder pro is a lot more refined, nicer to look at, and is extremely good for multiple brew methods as it’s so easy to get from one grind size to another for instance from espresso coffee up to filter and back.

If your budget is a little 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 matter 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 suggests 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, however 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 question 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.

Very, I’d go so far as to say that a lot of people waste money on great coffee beans, and on excellent espresso coffee gear because regardless of the quality of the beans and the gear, they’re haunted by the question of channelling, and they have no idea.

So, we know what channelling is, how do we prevent it?

Preinfusion

Some espresso coffee machines have a feature known as 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 coffee machines, this is something that basically 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.

Correct Dosage

Getting the dosage wrong increases the chance of channelling.

There’s something known as headspace (nothing to do with the popular mindfulness and meditation app, though I would advise 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 likewise cause you to have to change 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 likewise cause sloppy pucks, which are yuck.

The ideal headspace is thought to be 1-2mm, and dosing as per the recommended dose 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 perfect.

This is among the reasons the Razor tool which comes with espresso coffee 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 (called Breville in a lot of countries but the UK and other parts of Europe) espresso machine and you don’t usually utilize the Razor equipment, I’d recommend digging it out. You don’t have to use it each time, but it’s a excellent equipment to utilize while dialling in.

If you don’t have a sage machine, there’s nothing stopping you from picking up the Razor device, if you have a basic 58mm portafilter you can pick one up from Sage Appliances for literally over a fiver. Alternatively, basically dose the basket with the proven dosage for your basket, but basically 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, however 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 explained, 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 know when getting into home espresso coffee is that you need to get the grind size right with each bag of coffee beans, mentioned as dialing in.

This isn’t only important due to the fact that of ensuring the desired flow rate (shot time) and therefore as close to a fantastic extraction as possible, but it’s also important because unless you’re using the Razor tool as I’ve basically pointed out, headspace is going to be out until you’re dialled in. This implies that the likelihood of channelling increases until you’re dialled in even if you’re dosing the correct amount for the basket.

Puck Prep

Puck preparation or “puck prep”, just implies 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 just implies to ensure that the coffee in the basket is equally distributed.

Busy baristas often purely work with hand methods for this, whether it’s tapping the portafilter with their hands, and/or using what’s called the “North East South West” technique (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, even though, which busy baristas might not want to work with due to time constraints, which are more suited to home baristas. The a lot of popular of which, and in my opinion the best, being the WDT, or the “Weiss Distribution Technique”.

This recipe requires something thin and pointy, such as a needle, with which you basically 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 equipment, but I just bought this keycap puller equipment 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 deal with part is flimsy plastic so it may turn out to be false economy, however there are plenty of WDT tools you can buy online from about fifteen quid and up.

keycap puller wdt tool
My DIY WDT tool.

You can also make a DIY WDT equipment 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, basically 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 simply cut the bottom off an correctly sized yoghurt pot or paper espresso coffee cup, something like that, or just get a dosing funnel – there are loads of these available for all sized portafilters.

Tamping

I count tamping as part of the puck prep, some would see it as a separate stage of the procedure, I don’t think it actually matters either way – but tamping properly is another way to minimize chances of channelling.

To tamp appropriately suggests 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 basically 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 simply 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 very aim for consistency with tamp pressure, and focus on getting a extent 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 utilize 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 utilize a smaller tamper with it) you actually want a tamper which is a best 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.

Lots of home baristas now utilize oversized tampers, likewise referred to 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 extremely 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.

Utilize a better basket

Not all filter baskets are created equally. Competition baskets such as VST & IMS baskets are created for specific doses and with really 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, generally via knowing exactly what dosage the basket is made for, which isn’t the case with all baskets.

Don't 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

Beginning 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 coffee mill

I know we spoke about the mill earlier, but now we’re talking about channelling, it’s worth pointing out that some of the extremely cheapest coffee grinders can be the no1 reason for channelling. The modest reason for this is that lots of of them basically don’t rather go fine enough for espresso coffee with basic 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 work with better quality coffee beans. In my modest opinion pressured baskets (which come with most of the cheapest, sub £200 espresso machines) can make OK espresso from excellent quality coffee beans via an extremely cheap grinding machine, nevertheless if you want more than just OK, you’ll need to work with a machine with a standard basket, and an espresso coffee capable grinding machine.

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 basically won’t go fine enough. For more on grinders see:

Perfect Coffee Grinders

In my video below I likewise talk about which coffee grinders are, and aren’t capable of grinding fine enough for espresso coffee with fundamental baskets.

Upgrade your espresso machine

If you’re utilizing an very cheap machine which pulls shots at 15 bars of pressure and uses a pressurised basket, it’s possible to enhance matters by switching to a fundamental 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 many pressure, and this pressure can gauge a hole right through the puck of coffee, which causes terrible channelling. Numerous 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 mill pro, Iberital MC2 or Lelit Fred, unless you can afford to spend a little 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.

Likewise see:

Perfect Home Barista Setups

Creating better espresso from home – conclusion

To conclude, to make better tasting espresso coffee 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 basically good heat exchanger or dual boiler espresso coffee machine, we could end up sipping shots that taste nowhere near as good as another home barista is achieving with a budget single-boiler espresso machine and lower cost mill who’s taking good care of avoiding channelling.

So truly take some care when dialling in, remember not being dialled in is a big cause of channelling. Remember that achieving the correct dosage 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.

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This post to start with appeared at Coffee Blog – The UK Specialty Coffee Blog – For Lovers of GENUINE Coffee!