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How to Troubleshoot your Espresso?

Posted by Ofra Ronen - Di Bartoli Coffee on 24th Sep 2020

You've been following up on all the right advice. You've got the right machine, the right grinder, freshly roasted beans roasted for espresso and a little bit of a know how to operate your new set up. 

Then why is it that you can't get consistent quality with your espresso? It may be too thin, sour, bitter, it might taste medicinal, dull or just too watery. It's surely not tasting balanced, presenting round body or lingers with a pleasant aftertaste with each and every cup. Sounds familiar?

This can be frustrating, especially if you follow the routine you were taught and still can't get the results you want. 

Let's troubleshoot your espresso, shall we?

To understand how to troubleshoot our espresso shots, we need to understand what it is we are looking for. Here is an industry benchmark, common definition of espresso, but take it with a grain of a salt and figure out for yourself if this is what makes your palate sing. At the end of the the day, your own palate is the judge!  

What is Espresso?

Espresso is a full-flavoured, concentrated form of coffee that is served in 30ml “shots.” Espresso is made by forcing pressurised water through very finely ground coffee beans, at 85-95 degrees Celsius, extracting in that process the aromatic oils, the sugars and the soluble out of the bean. Ideally, espresso should have a thick, reddish-brown crema, a potent aroma and balanced in flavour between sweetness, bitterness and sourness, leaving a lingering aftertaste on the tongue minutes after drinking.

Now that we know what we look for, we wonder, how to be get there easily and consistently? 

Let's start with the basic “4 M's” of Espresso:

● Miscela (in Italian: blend, the organic product)
● Macina (Espresso machine)
● Macinino; Macinadosatore ; Macinacaffe (Grinder)
● Mano (hand: you)

There is a debate among coffee professionals and home users alike as per what percentage each component plays in the equation, but it is clear that without even one of these ingredients, you can’t create a good espresso. This article assumes that your espresso equipment is capable for maximising espresso flavours, that your beans are roasted for espresso and are fresh (less than 3 weeks from roasting) and that the only area to focus on troubleshooting your espresso is the Mano – You.

Is Espresso Art or Science?

To produce great coffee, science and art must come together. Espresso production might be considered a science: if t!a number of variables such as grind, dosage and tamp are taken into account, you can produce a good espresso. 

We like to see the art in coffee in 2 areas: in the flavor and in coffee presentation but if you struggle with consistency in your routine, you would struggle with consistent flavour and presentation later on. 

Professional baristas may spend months just perfecting speed or crema as understanding the relationship between all the variables and applying quickly the right adjustments to maintain the same quality each cup is vital. 

So make friends with  science first!

But what happens if it doesn’t come out the way it should? 

  • Espresso pour is much slower or much faster than 25ml in 25-30 seconds
  • Espresso pour is thin with little body or bubbly, gassy and unstable
  • Espresso has non or pale, thin crema instead of caramel color or red-brown
  • Espresso is watery instead of having a rounded mouthfeel and good body
  • Espresso isn’t balanced, it presents too much acidity or bitterness, could also taste rancid, rubbery, medicinal or astringent

Over-extraction

If we get 30ml slower than 30 seconds, if it takes a long time for the first drop to come out, if it has a dark colour throughout, thin crema and burnt, astringent and unbalanced taste, you are over extracting the coffee. We have created too much pressure that results in prolong contact of the hot water with the grinds thus burning it.

Solution: adjust your grind to be coarser

Under-extraction

If we get very fast pour of 30ml in less than 20 seconds, the crema pales quickly, it gushes, out, thin and with fast dissipating crema, acidic or sour taste, thin and unbalanced mouthfeel, than we need to increase resistance.

Solution: adjust your grind to be finer

Distribute The Grind

Uneven particle size can be a result of a grinder’s design fault or clumping. Clumping can be attributed to the grinder’s chute design or slow speed, as well as to changes in the weather (humid day results in more clumps) and the freshness of the coffee (the older the beans are, the more it will ‘sweat’). As the grinds clumps, water will flow faster through the air pockets created in between the particles, while the water flowing through the clumps will meet higher resistance and will flow slower, this will result in uneven extraction.

If the beans and grinder are a fixed factor, you can try and avoid ‘channelling’ or uneven extraction by paying attention to your distribution. After dosing as recommended below, you can choose any distributing technique known to you, as long as you keep it consistent. You can choose the North, South, West, East technique, or the twist technique, aiming at breaking clumps and distributing the grind as evenly as possible in the basket.

There are some great tools in the market that assist in even distribution, like the Scottie Callaghan Tools or the ONA Coffee Distributor (OCD)

Updosing

Updosing (loading more ground coffee than what is specified for the basket) seems to be a very popular practice with Australian baristas. Whether or not you can updose will be determined by how low your shower screen hangs down the group. lf it's possible to updose with your group design, whether or not you wish to updose will depend on your taste preference in relation to the blend, grind, the extraction rate, etc.

Other Valuable Tips

  1. Always wipe your basket dry before loading coffee
  2. Use consistent dosing technique. The most popular one is:
       a. Fill basket 3/4 high with ground
       b. Tap twice the portafilter on the bench to settle the grinds 
       c. Refill basket with ground coffee until a mound forms on
       d. Level by brushing off the excess coffee grinds with a dosing tool or your finger
  3. Tamp in a consistent pressure maintaining level tamp. The right tamping pressure is the one you can repeat over and over 

If you find this still quite confusing, we've got just the pill for you. Invite our home barista trainer to your kitchen through Zoom, and allow them to guide you step by step through troubleshooting your espresso. At the end of the session you will have a consistent routine to apply time and time again and you will understand how and when to adjust it to achieve the flavours you desire in the cup. 

BOOK YOUR ZOOM ESPRESSO TROUBLESHOOTING HERE

© 2020 Ofra Ronen and Di Bartoli Coffee