The Home Guide to Espresso Part 2: A Simplified, 10-Step Guide on How to Make Espresso

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Welcome to Part 2 of our Home Guide to Espresso series. Follow along with this 10-step tutorial on how to make espresso.
A barista showing how to make espresso

Welcome to Part 2 of our Home Guide to Espresso series. As a barista, I’ve pulled hundreds of espresso shots daily. It is down to me to ensure that each espresso is brewed to the same high quality, so that each customer gets the best tasting coffee. I’ll be sharing my tips and tricks with you, so you’ll learn how to brew a cafe-quality espresso, right from home.

Bear in mind that for this particular article, I’ll be teaching specifically how to make espresso using an espresso machine. For espresso-styled drinks brewed using a Moka Pot or a French Press, we’ll cover that in a separate guide. 

Table Of Contents

First up, what do you need to make espresso?

What You’ll Need – The Coffee Beans

Whole Beans vs Ground Beans

Here’s the big question: when you’re out bean shopping, should you consider buying pre-ground beans at all? Or do whole beans work better?

If you’re really looking to make the best espresso possible, the answer is whole beans. Hands down. Why?

After coffee beans have been roasted, they start to oxidize. After you grind whole beans, this process speeds up immediately. If the coffee oxidizes too much, it will lose a portion of its flavour. This is the reason why baristas at your local cafe grind coffee beans just before they are about to brew a cup. They are trying to preserve that fresh, full flavour before it is lost to the surrounding air. 

So, if you want to extract every last ounce of that lovely flavour from your beans, you’ll need to buy it whole and grind it just before making each cup of coffee. That means, yes, you’ll need to buy a grinder. More on this below.

Another reason to buy whole beans is so you have full control over how coarse or fine you want to grind them. This is particularly helpful later when we’re trying to find the perfect taste for our espresso. 

If you buy pre-ground coffee, there’s not much you can do to change it. If it doesn’t taste good, welp, there goes your entire bag of coffee.

Check out our related article on Whole Beans vs Pre-Ground Coffee for further reading.

Roast Profile

When shopping on your supermarket shelves, you’ll see a handful of terminologies such as “espresso-roast”, “dark-roast” or “city roast”. What we want to know is which one better suits espresso?

A coffee bean's roast profile and colour for espresso

There are many blog posts out there that tell you to go for a dark roast when making espresso. While it usually is better, it isn’t always the case.

  • Dark roasts typically produce a better, golden crema on your espresso. Many baristas hail this as a sign of surefire quality espresso. But, taste-wise, darker roasts tend to accentuate more…well, darker flavours, such as dark chocolate or nutty notes. These can be quite strong and lean more towards the bitter side. If done well, though, it allows a more robust, fuller taste, which many people enjoy. That is why most coffee beans marked for “espresso” are almost always a dark roast.
  • Light roasts bring out more fruity and floral notes. It tastes sweeter. So why not go for a light roast all the time? The lighter the roast, the higher the acidity. Espresso tends to enhance the sour notes. As a result, your coffee could end up being way too sour. Also, you won’t be getting a very nice crema with lighter roasts.
  • Medium roasts have a better balance of sweet and dark flavours, and can suit espresso really well. Some roasters mark them as “omni-roasts”. The downside is that the delicate flavours might not shine through that easily as opposed to a dedicated light roast or dark roast.

Ultimately, it is down to your taste preference. Want something more chocolatey, traditional and earthy? Go for a dark roast. Want a lighter, more citrusy taste? Go light. Want to learn more about roast profiles? Click to read our full comparison on Roast Levels.

If you are new to espresso, I recommend a medium roast. Take it from there to slowly develop your taste buds, before branching out into other roast profiles and flavours.

What You’ll Need – The Equipment

1. Grinder

A Mythos One grinder grinding coffee beans into a portfilter

Some espresso machines come with a built-in grinder. I have tried many of these, and in all honesty, most of them have greatly disappointed me. They just do not have the build needed to properly grind your coffee beans. This is why I strongly suggest buying a high-quality, separate coffee grinder. 

Many people think of getting a grinder as something of an afterthought, and that your money is better spent on upgrading your coffee maker. Do not make this mistake. Your grinder is just as important. You cannot make good espresso with a bad grinder. So, what should you look for in a grinder?

Type of Grinder

The two groups of grinders fall under blade grinders and burr grinders. Blade grinders use rotating blades to slice and dice, and they are notoriously unreliable for coffee. They produce uneven grind sizes, which causes uneven extraction. As a result, your coffee will taste like crap. As much as you can, avoid blade grinders like the plague.

A burr grinder will be costlier. But for an even extraction of espresso (or any coffee, really), a burr grinder will produce uniform coffee grinds. And this is what you want – so make sure you get a burr grinder. This is a must-have for espresso. 

Electric vs Manual

Electric grinders are far more convenient. Many models can be programmed to grind a specific dosage, a useful feature to have if you want to make multiple, consistent shots. They also allow much smaller increments in grind size, so electric grinders win in precision. This is the type of grinder I recommend: an electric, burr grinder.

Manual or hand-crank grinders are much cheaper. It is also lightweight, portable and can fit anywhere you like – even in a kitchen drawer. The drawback is that they are far slower and frankly a bit of a pain to use for espresso when you’re trying to make fine adjustments.

2. Tamper

A barista holding a tamp

This little piece of equipment is essential in making espresso. It is used to press down on your ground coffee to form a compact “bed”, so that the high-pressure water can flow through it. We’ll get more into this later.

3. Scale

an Acaia scale for espresso

An overlooked component of espresso. If you want to make good espresso consistently, trust me, you’ll be grateful you have a good digital scale.

The scale also has to be sensitive enough to detect small increments of ground coffee. So don’t go thinking your kitchen poultry scale would fit here. As a rule of thumb, if your scale can detect an increase in the mass of a pinch of salt, you’re good to go. 

4. Espresso Machine

The holy grail of espresso-making: the espresso machine!

Look at the fancy interior of an espresso machine! It’s almost quite intimidating to see all those pumps and pipes. Lucky for us, we don’t have to worry about any of that in this beginner’s guide. I just wanted to share that image with you because it looks so incredibly cool. All we need to know is on the outside of the machine.

In the next section, we’ll be diving into the step-by-step process of how to use this machine, but for now, take some time to familiarize yourself with the parts and their names. 

Parts of an espresso machine labelled and explained

Portafilter

Sometimes called the “coffee handle”. The portafilter basket is where the grounds go into, and the portafilter handle is where you hold it by.

Group Head

The part where you insert the portafilter into. Hot, pressurized water will be forced out from here.

Steam Wand

For frothing milk. A good steam wand will create silky, velvety milk for lattes or cappuccinos.

Drip Tray

Excess water collects into the drip tray. Remember to empty this out if you don’t want to flood your kitchen countertop!

Cup Warmer

Where you store your glasses or mugs right atop the espresso machine. Uses the heat from the boilers to warm it up. 

How to Make Espresso – Creating the Recipe

Two Simple Terms

Now, before we start brewing, we first need to figure out how much ground coffee is gonna go in the portafilter basket, and how much liquid coffee is going to end up in the final cup. Allow me to introduce you to two terms:

  • Dose: The dry weight of the ground coffee is gonna go in the portafilter basket.
  • Yield: The wet weight of the espresso that is extracted into the final cup.

When it comes to espresso, there are a bazillion recipes you could follow. Each bag of bean might have a different dose-to-yield recipe. Coffee gurus can get really in-depth when it comes to discussing this. I could teach you a whole bunch about that theory. But in this course, that’s not our focus here. 

Our goal is to get you up and running, so you can learn to pull your very first espresso shot. 

One Simple Recipe

Hence, I’m going to give you a tried and true recipe that you can’t go wrong with. We’re going to use a 1:2 dose-to-yield recipe ratio

For one part of coffee grounds, you are going to get double its weight in the final cup of espresso. 

This guide will teach you how to make a double shot of espresso, which is the most commonly served in cafes. It’s quite a standard across the globe, and that’s what we’ll be making. 

Dose: 18 g of ground coffee
Yield: 36 g of espresso
Extraction time: 25 – 35 seconds

Start with this. Don’t worry about anything else for now. Once you get the hang of how to make espresso, then that’s when you can have some awesome fun and play around with recipes. But now, the first step is to actually make it. 

Basket Size

A final side note: double check your portafilter’s basket size. Most will have text printed along the side specifying the dose it is made for. 

single vs double portafilter basket
  • Double shot baskets are the ones that can hold our desired 18 g dose.
  • If your basket is a smaller, single-shot basket, 18 g will not fit. You’ll have to follow the dose weight that’s printed on it. If that’s the case, simply double the dose to get your yield. The extraction time does not change. 

Typically, when you buy an espresso machine, the pack should come with both a single basket, and a double basket which you can swap as you like. If you’re uncertain, check with the instructions manual of your specific model.

How to Make Espresso – The Step by Step Process

a La Marzocco home espresso machine

And here we go! This is where I’ll teach you all about how to make espresso – even if you’ve never touched an espresso machine before and don’t know the first button to press. 

In the following steps, we will be using the standard, guideline recipe that we’ve set as per above. Use it as just that – a guide. You may opt to follow it exactly the first time, just to get the hang of pulling your first espresso shot. But remember, It’s not set in stone – you should definitely tweak and adjust it to your taste! More on this later, but for now, shall we begin?

Step 1: Set Up Your Grinder

Set the grinder close to the finest grind setting. It is usually the smallest number. Alternatively, some brands have an “espresso” setting. 

Remember, an espresso machine blasts high pressured, hot water straight through the bed of ground coffee in less than a minute, so the beans have to be ground small enough to resist the flow of water.

Pour your coffee beans into the hopper. If your grinder has a trapdoor, make sure it is open so the beans fall into the burrs.

Step 2: Grind and Load the Portafilter

Place your empty portafilter on your scale. Tare it (i.e. reset the scale to zero). 

Then, the next step depends on the grinder model you have.

  • Option A – If your grinder has a portafilter holder, use it, so that the grinder grinds directly into the portafilter basket. Make sure the portafilter basket is positioned directly under the grinder chute. If it’s not aligned, loose grounds will spill out and all over the table. 
  • Option B – If your grinder doesn’t have a portafilter holder, use the grounds bin that usually comes with it. You’ll have to grind your beans into the bin, and then tip it into the portafilter.

For this preset recipe, we will be pulling a double shot of espresso, which is what most cafes use and is the industry standard for many countries. 

Start the grinder. Grind out an 18 g dose of coffee grounds. (This is the dose, or the dry weight of the coffee grounds.)

Your grind size should look ever so slightly finer than table salt. The grounds should be light and fluffy, yet separate from each other. If it looks like powder, it’s too fine; if it looks like sand it’s a little too coarse. Double check this visually to confirm. 

Step 3: Distribute your Grinds

Once you’ve first loaded the portafilter, you’ll likely have a mountain-like shape of ground coffee, with most of it piled up towards the middle. What you want to do is even it out. We call this “distribution”. Your goal is to create a flat bed of coffee grounds. How do you do it? 

Give the portafilter a firm tap downwards onto the counter top. This should force that mountain of piled up coffee to disperse evenly. If it still doesn’t look too even, you can gently tap the side of the portafilter as you tilt it. Or, use your finger to level it out. Your grounds should now be nice and level, but still loose enough to move around.

Step 4: Tamp, tamp, tamp

This is arguably the most important part of making espresso. Using a tamper, you press down on the coffee in the portafilter.

Tamping is applying pressure onto the loose coffee grounds, which presses it tightly together into a firm, flat bed of coffee. 

Tamp too lightly, and the pressurized hot water will rush through the coffee, creating an flavourless or sour coffee output. Tamp too hard, and the water will trickle through too slowly or get stuck, and you’ll get disgustingly bitter coffee. It’s a fine balancing act that takes practice to get. So how hard should you press?

According to industry standards, you would want to aim for 30 lbs (15kg) of pressure. One way to practice is to literally press down on a bathroom scale, to get the feel for how hard to need to tamp. 

Or, one little trick I can give you is: press down on the coffee until you feel resistance, or in other words, until you feel it pushing back. 

Tamp it once, and once only. Make sure your tamping is perfectly even. After you lift the tamp away, the result you should see is one nice, flat bed of coffee grounds, packed firmly together. If you turn the portafilter upside down now, the coffee won’t spill out as it’s now tightly squashed.

Step 5: Purge the Group Head

Push the start button/lever on your espresso machine and just let hot water flow out for 3-5 seconds. This flushes out any dirt or coffee grime that might be stuck in the group head, and gives you the best tasting espresso. 

It’s a good habit to do this every time before you make a new espresso.

Step 6: Insert the Portafilter

Now, gently pop the portafilter with your tamped coffee into the group head. Make sure you lock it in properly and seal it tight!

Place the scale on the espresso machine’s drip tray, directly under the portafilter. Then, put your cup on top of it, and tare the scale to zero.

Step 7: Pull the Espresso Shot

Push the start button/flick the lever. 

At the same time, start the timer on your smartphone. Or, if your espresso machine already has a built-in timer, keep an eye on it. Some digital scales also have a timer feature built in, so use whatever tool is at your disposal.

Now watch as the magic of espresso flows out in a lovely golden brown stream.

Pay special attention to how the espresso flows out. It should trickle out at first, then gradually build up to a steady stream.

  • If it trickles all the way through, or only a few drops come out, change to a coarser grind size.
  • If it gushes out like a waterfall, use a finer grind size.

We’ll have a little troubleshooting section below on how to make your espresso taste better.

Step 8: Weighing and Timing the Extraction

As the shot is running, keep an eye on the scale underneath your cup. You want to aim for 36 g of espresso in the cup. (This is our yield, the wet weight.)

Just as you notice the scale reading approaching 36 g (say, 33-34 g), stop the flow of water by pressing the same button/turning the lever to the ‘off’ position. This will give the shot enough time to fully come to a stop.

At the same time, stop the timer. Check the time taken for the espresso shot to reach 36 g. If the timer shows 25 – 35 seconds, well done. This extraction time is the sweet spot for most espresso. That means your shot was at the correct grind size, and was extracted at the correct time.

  • If the timer reads less than 25 seconds, your shot is way too fast. It’ll taste sour. Adjust your grinder to a finer grind setting. Start over from Step 1.
  • If the timer went over 35 seconds, it’s far too slow. It’ll taste bitter. Adjust it to a coarser grind setting. Also start over.

Pro tip: some espresso machines have pre-programmed buttons that automatically cut off the flow of water. Read your instructions manual, and find if there is a button already set for a “double shot” or “doppio”. If so, you can opt to use this. However, if this is your first time, I would recommend doing it the manual way – starting and stopping the shot yourself.

There you have it! Congratulations, you’ve just pulled your very first shot of espresso.

Step 9: Enjoy!

Once you’ve gotten the shot right, go ahead and savour it. Drink it immediately – if you let espresso sit for a couple of minutes unattended, it will oxidize and lose its bright flavours, and turn bitter. Espresso is a drink best enjoyed straight away after making it.

I’ve taught the intricacies of how to drink espresso in Part 1 of this Home Guide series, but as a refresher:

  1. Lift the cup and take in the aroma. Let your imagination and memories run. What does the aroma remind you of? Any particular fruit or nut? 
  2. Decide what you want to do with the crema. Some people scoop it out. Others stir it in. I recommend you give the whole espresso – crema, body and all – a good swirl in the cup. 
  3. Sip it. Take small, slow sips. Let the liquid run across the whole of your mouth. This is where the flavour shines through. Again, what does it remind you of?
  4. Pause. Well-brewed espresso has a delectable aftertaste. It can be different from the flavour itself. It usually lingers for a bit at the back of your mouth. This is called the “finish”. 

Step 10: Cleaning Up

Take out the portafilter, turn it upside down, and give it a firm whack or two over your rubbish bin or dump box. This will force the bed of coffee grounds out. Wipe the inside of the portafilter with a cloth. 

Remember how we purged the group head before making your espresso? You’ll want to do the same thing after as well. Let the hot water flow out for a few seconds. This keeps your espresso machine nice and clean, and your upcoming coffees fresh and tasty.

Don’t forget to empty the drip tray every now and then too, once it gets full.

How to Make Espresso – The Troubleshoot

Experimenting and learning how to make espresso is an incredibly fun process. You won’t get the perfect taste upon your first try, but that’s all part of the process. You get to create your own recipe through tasting, and in turn, this will refine your taste buds for better and better coffee. The most common issue with espresso is that it comes out too sour or too bitter; too fast or too slow.

The first step to troubleshoot is to adjust your grind size. Keep the dose of coffee grounds the same (in our case here, 18 g) . Adjust the grinder by small steps. If it’s a stepped grinder, adjust it by just a click or two max. If it’s a stepless grinder, turn it less than half a centimeter. Do not crank the grinder from fine to extra coarse or vice-versa.

Make Your Grind Sizer Finer If:

  • The espresso tastes sour
  • The espresso gushes out too quickly
  • The timer reads less than 25 seconds

Make Your Grind Size Coarser If:

  • The espresso tastes bitter
  • The espresso trickles out or doesn’t come out at all
  • The timer reads more than 35 seconds

If this doesn’t solve the issue, then you can take the next step, which is to change your dose in small increments (up or down by 0.5 g). If you’re doing this, keep the grinder settings exactly the same. Remember to always use a scale if you want to taste good espresso. Don’t eyeball it.

Increase Your Dose If:

  • The espresso tastes sour
  • The espresso gushes out too quickly
  • The timer reads less than 25 seconds

Decrease Your Dose If:

  • The espresso tastes bitter
  • The espresso trickles out or doesn’t come out at all
  • The timer reads more than 35 seconds

The idea here is to test only one variable at a time. So say, for example, your espresso comes out sour. If you choose to adjust your grinder, keep the weight of the coffee grounds exactly the same. That way you’ll know if one variable isn’t working, and you can move on to the next. If you try to change the grind size AND the dose at the same time, you’ll get confused very easily and will not know what’s causing the espresso to taste funny. This process of making small adjustments to fine-tune and perfect the taste of your espresso is a process called “dialing-in” espresso.  

The last variable you should consider is your tamping pressure. Most people, once they get the hang of tamping, will usually do so quite consistently. Consistently right or wrong, though – that’s the issue you need to look into here.

Tamp Harder If:

  • The espresso tastes sour
  • The espresso gushes out too quickly
  • The timer reads less than 25 seconds

Tamp Softer If:

  • The espresso tastes bitter
  • The espresso trickles out or doesn’t come out at all
  • The timer reads more than 35 seconds

And That’s a Wrap!

How did your espresso endeavour go? Like everything else, it takes time, patience and experience to produce good coffee consistently. So don’t go hurling your machine out the window just because of one bad coffee!

Click here to start your journey with Part 1 of our Home Guide to Espresso.
Part 3 is out now! Get to know your favourite types of espresso drinks right here, and get ready to learn how to make them.

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