How to Clean and Descale Your Espresso Machine (to keep it performing)
Is the care and well-being of your espresso machine important to you? It should be.
Remember what that beautiful machine brings to your life each day – the lovely, rich, liquid gold jolt of caffeinated delight. I have hard water in my neck of the woods and I drink A LOT of coffee – so I do this a couple of times a month.
Limescale can clog up your machine and cause serious damage. Not to mention it can affect the taste of your coffee. No matter what your water is like (and even if you use bottled water), it is a good idea to descale your espresso machine on a regular basis.
This is a proactive step to keep your machine healthy and happy – which translates to keeping you (and other family members) cheerful because your machine works well and your coffee tastes great.
Read on to learn how to descale an espresso machine.
Descaling An Espresso Machine: What You Need
Choose one of these three cleaners to put through your machine:
- Citric Acid
- White Vinegar
- A commercial descaling product
Before you decide on an approach, please check your owner’s manual to see if there are any restrictions or if they recommend another method. If you own a Breville, we’ve covered how to descale a Sage espresso machine here.
If you want to know more about your water, you can test it to see what minerals (and how much of them!) are in it. If minerals are high, it is a sign to descale your espresso machine more often. You can find a water testing kit here:
Every machine is different and every water source is different; however, the overall process is the same. Let’s go through the hows and whys of each of the descaling cleaners here – so you can make an informed decision as to what is right for you.
Citric acid vs. vinegar vs. a commercially-produced descaling product is a personal choice.
Citric acid is found naturally in citrus fruits such as lemons and limes. It is sold in a dry powdered form markets and grocery stores, and is often called “sour salt” because of its physical resemblance to table salt.
It is used in culinary applications, as an alternative to vinegar or lemon juice, where a pure acid is needed. This is why it is used as a descaler for coffee machines.
You can find this in health food stores, in some grocery stores or online here.
You might be worried about how to clean espresso machine with citric acid. Don’t be – it’s quite simple. A popular citric acid descaler recipe has a citric acid descaling ratio of one quart of water to two tablespoons of citric acid.
However, you should know that there are citric acid descaler pros and cons.
- Easy to use
- Can create a different kind of build-up within your machine over the longer term
You can combat this by using different products and rotating them in a cycle, or by using a citric acid descaling solution three times out of four and using a commercial product that fourth time.
Plain old distilled white vinegar can also be used for descaling.
- Some say it isn’t that effective.
The vinegar descaling solution for espresso machines that appears to work best is a ratio of 25% vinegar to 75% water. Some users and manufacturers recommend up to 50%.
Commercially-Made Descaling Product
This comes with its own directions. If you choose to go this way, make sure that it will work for your espresso machine AND that it says that it is 100% natural.
This one is a good choice for most machines:
Lemon juice is another solution I often hear about. It might work for some… one of the challenges is that it doesn’t always work work well for hard water – and vinegar and citric acid are cheaper.
You can also choose to approach descaling coffee machine with vinegar and then cycle in a commercial descaling product every three or four cleanings.
Now, before we move on to the instructions, please note that sometimes, all you need to do is to backflush your espresso machine in order to clean it. But if you think it needs more than that, then let’s proceed.
Step-By-Step: How to Descale Your Espresso Machine
There are a lot (and I do mean A LOT) of different espresso machines in the world. Here are some of the best, and you’ll notice, most of them are not cheap.
Please check your owner’s manual to see the specific instructions for your machine.
It may be that you have an automatic cleaning and descaling cycle. If you do, then you get to do a little happy dance. If not, you’ll need to do it manually.
1. Decide On What You Will Use to Descale
It’s up to you what you use. Citric acid, vinegar and lemon juice are all all-natural. Any commercially-made descaling products – powders, tablets etc. – that you decide to use should clearly state that they are all-natural as well. Most are.
At some point, you will get into a routine with this and have a “go-to” descaling recipe or product that you like and that works. It may be that you choose to go the espresso machine descaler homemade route with vinegar or citric acid, or you might purchase a descaling product. Or rotate them through on a monthly basis. Whatever works for your machine.
Here’s an example of how to clean the espresso machine with vinegar:
2. Mix It Up
Depending on what type of product you decide to use – a homemade solution or a commercially made product – there might be an additional step. If you’re using citric acid, you need to mix the powder with water; if you’re using vinegar, dilute it in water – and for a commercial product, please follow the directions.
I love breaking rules, but not when it comes to the well-being of the most important machine in my kitchen.
3. Espresso Machine Descaler Rinse
While each machine is different, the overall process is the same. In this step, you fill up your reservoir with your cleaning solution (the mixture with the water) – just as if you were making coffee.
It runs through your boiler and out through the machine. You will want to run this through your steam wand too. Think of this cleaning solution as a much-needed “cleanse” for your machine. It runs through your espresso maker, cleaning away gunk and other bits and pieces that come from the minerals and other elements in your water. (1)
After regular use, hard water can cause mineral build up in and on many of the inner functioning components, reducing the brewing flow, brewing temperature, power of the machine, and taste of the espresso.
This process dissolves those things as it goes – so that it doesn’t sit there and build up, clogging the pipes.
If you deal with hard water where you live and are concerned about it, you can run this process twice, back-to-back, just to be sure you got all the gunk.
Now, sometimes what happens is that in the middle of a descaling process, you are hit with the NEED for an espresso. We’ve all been there. Seriously. Even with your machine in the middle of this cleaning process, you can make yourself a double shot – without an espresso machine.
Click here to learn how to do this. It’s a real McGyver move to be able to make espresso without an espresso machine. Just sayin’.
4. The Rinse Rinse
After you have done your descaling rinse, fill up your reservoir ONLY with water this time and do it all over again. Nope, this is not a joke. You need to rinse out the rinse.
Your espresso machine (and the coffee you make post-descale process) will benefit from rinsing, no matter what option you use.
This is done to be sure that all of the citric acid, vinegar or other commercially-made descaling product has been flushed out of your machine. You don’t want your morning espresso tasting like vinegar or citric acid or some other descaling product. That would just be wrong.
And sad. So very sad.
5. Take a Big Sniff
When you feel that you are done with the rinse rinse, take a big sniff of the water that has come out and make sure that it only smells like water. Not vinegar or citric acid or anything else. If you get a whiff of that – run the rinse rinse again.
And – if it looks the least bit cloudy, it is recommended that you start the ENTIRE process all over. You want to see clear water so you know there won’t be any descaling product flavour lingering about (2).
If you are unsure if all of the descaling solution has been flushed from your machine, you can use baking soda to test if the acids from the solution are still present in the water.
Once the water is clear and it smells like, well… water, you are good to make coffee again!
One of the things you can do to keep yourself caffeinated throughout this process – it takes about 20 minutes all in – is to have some chocolate covered coffee beans around. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Click here to learn how to make these.
The Last Step – Make Yourself An Espresso
When you are all done, it’s time to reward yourself with an espresso! After all, you took the time to care for your espresso machine, now it’s time for it to return the favour. And after all that, perhaps a coffee liqueur might be order. You can find recipes here.
Well, what did you think? Was this helpful? Please let us know in the comments.
And if you have any buddies who want to know how to descale their machine but are unsure, please share!
You should descale an espresso machine about once a month if you have hard water, according to Breville’s maintenance page (1). They also recommend descaling (also called decalcifying) before going on vacation, to prevent mineral build-up while the machine sits unused. The level of minerals in your water will determine how frequently you need to descale.
If you don’t descale your espresso machine, hard-water deposits can clog the heating elements and water passages. This reduces water flow and also reduces temperature, leading to poor extraction and bad flavour. You can also risk damaging internal parts from inadequate cooling.
Clean the steam wand by wiping it down with hot water and a sponge after every use, then drying it with a clean kitchen towel or paper towel. You also need to run a little steam through the wand to make sure the tip does not clog with milk. For best results, run the steam wand while your machine is filled with the descaling solution.
- The Infuser™ Links. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.brevilleusasupport.com/bes840xl/care-and-use/care/periodic-maintenance/
- Semi Automatic Maintenance. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.gaggia-usa.com/pages/semi-automatic-maintenance#semi-auto-decalcifying