17 Top Tips for Espresso Beginners
I remember how intimidating it felt when I was first getting into espresso. Everyone had a piece of advice, and most of it seemed contradictory. Looking back, that was probably inevitable because everyone has their own taste.
So to save you from my confused fate, I compiled this list of basic tips that no one disputes. They go from basic to advanced, so you can work through them as you progress on your espresso journey.
Get reading because delicious caffeinated glory awaits!
1. You don’t need to buy espresso beans
In fact, “espresso” beans aren’t even a thing. They’re simply coffee beans that the roaster believes make great espresso. But by all means, try your favourite espresso beans.
Likewise, while most specialty coffee is Arabica, there is a long history of adding Robusta beans to espresso blends in Italy. The point is that there’s no hard-and-fast rule. Buy the coffee that tastes great to you.
2. But you should buy freshly roasted beans
Like most foods, coffee is best when fresh. I know I just said there’s no rule, but let’s call this a strong suggestion. Try and buy beans that have been roasted within the last week or two. After two weeks, coffee starts to go stale. It becomes less and less flavourful, and you’ll notice that it’s harder to achieve a dense layer of crema on your espresso (1).
3. Use the right grinder
Not all coffee grinders are created equal, and espresso is a demanding art that demands the right grinder. The grinds need to be fine, equal in size, and free from clumps. And the grinder mustn’t retain too many grounds.
At the bare minimum, make sure you use a burr grinder. A blade grinder simply can’t cut it for espresso. If you don’t have a grinder at home, buy beans from a local coffee shop or roaster who will grind them fresh for you.
4. Use freshly ground coffee
Remember how I said coffee beans go stale? Well, ground beans go stale even faster! It is best to use freshly ground beans when preparing any coffee, but it is imperative with espresso.
If you are buying pre-ground coffee, try not to buy more than you can drink in a week. You can stretch this to two weeks by investing in a good coffee storage container that you keep in a cool, dark place.
5. Grind size matters
You need to grind coffee very fine for espresso, not as fine as Turkish coffee, but finer than a drip brew.
The reason for this has to do with the rapid speed with which espresso is prepared. It only takes about 30 seconds to pull a shot of espresso. In that short time, the water needs to extract all the coffee’s flavour, and the only way to do that is if the coffee is very finely ground.
6. Preheat everything
Because espresso is a very small volume of liquid, it loses its heat very quickly, especially when it comes in contact with a larger mass of something cold. To avoid this, preheat both the portafilter and the demitasse cups using hot water.
7. Master the tamp
First things first, if your espresso machine came with a plastic tamper, as most do, throw that thing right in the recycling bin and buy a metal tamper with some weight behind it. You need that heft to achieve a proper tamp. You can also get a palm tamper if you make the same espresso every time, especially if you’re prone to wrist injuries.
If you want to guarantee tamping consistency and have the budget, invest in a calibrated tamper. These ensure you apply the same force every time.
8. Know the Golden Rule, but don’t live by it
I’m not talking about the Golden Rule of life — do unto others as you would have done unto you — which perhaps you should live by, but the Golden Rule of how to use an espresso maker. It states that it should take 25 seconds to pull a 60-ml double shot with the correct dose, grind, and tamp.
This is an excellent guideline for beginners, but don’t kill yourself over it. The actual rule is to pull a shot that tastes delicious to you, not to obsess about timing.
9. Keep everything clean
This is so important and so often overlooked. Once you’ve got that delicious espresso in hand, it feels like you’re done. But if you want tomorrow’s espresso to be equally delicious, you also need to do a bit of cleaning.
Daily, wipe down the shower screen and clean the portafilter with warm, soapy water. These are two places where coffee oils can build up and eventually turn rancid.
10. Scales are better than scoops
It’s always better to measure your coffee by weight than by volume. This is the only way to ensure you’re using the exact same amount of coffee every time, and when it comes to espresso, consistency is key! There’s nothing worse than pulling a perfect shot one day and being unable to repeat it the next, so invest in a basic coffee scale that is precise to 0.1 g and spare yourself that pain.
11. Get the correct dose
Now that I’ve persuaded you to weigh your coffee, you’re probably wondering how much you should weigh. That depends a bit on the size of your portafilter and your taste. However, a rough guideline is to use 6 to 10 g for a single shot and 16 to 20 g for a double shot.
12. Swap your filter basket
If you have a cheap espresso machine, chances are it came with a pressurized filter basket. One of the easiest and least expensive upgrades is to swap it out for a non-pressurized option, which will yield a sweeter and smoother shot. Here’s where you can learn more about their difference.
The only caveat is that it’s harder to pull a nice shot from a non-pressurized basket without adequately ground beans. So upgrade your grinder first!
13. Water temperature is important
But if you’re using a manual espresso machine and heating your brew water in a kettle, then know that proper water temperature is vital for perfect extraction (2). You don’t want to use boiling water; instead, aim for something in the range of 90 to 96 °C.
14. Water quality matters too
This might seem pretty esoteric until you remember that coffee is 98% water. Always use filtered water when brewing espresso. Not only will it improve the flavour, but it will keep the plumbing inside your espresso machine clean.
Coffee scientists have researched the optimal water composition for coffee (3)! It’s also best to use water that is soft but not too soft. Some mineral content is crucial for the best flavour. Want to get really nerdy?
15. Good accessories matter
If you’ve mastered the basics of making espresso, it’s worth adding a few essential accessories to your coffee bar. They make life easier and improve your efficiency. As a bonus, since they’re mostly small and reasonably priced, some accessories make fantastic gifts for the espresso lover in your life. Start with a tamper, espresso tamping mat, knock box, and some microfiber cloths for cleaning.
16. Dial in the grind size
If you’ve mastered the espresso technique, the time has come to go from pulling good shots to pulling great shots, which means dialling in your grind size.
Grind too coarse, and water will gush through, leaving a watery and astringent shot. Grind too fine, and water will seep through, resulting in a tiny pool of intensely bitter brew.
The only solution? Practice. Get ready to prepare and drink a lot of espresso in the quest for perfection.
17. Distribute your grounds in the portafilter
This is another tip for espresso no-longer-quite-beginners looking for that last 5% improvement. For the best extraction, water should flow evenly through the portafilter. So you don’t want any clumps or air pockets in your grounds before tamping.
The Weiss Distribution Technique (WDT) is the solution to this, a fancy name for stirring the grounds in the filter basket (4). You can buy many overpriced tools for the task, but honestly, a toothpick, safety pin, or fine needle is almost as good.
If you’ve put all 17 of these tips into practice, congratulations! You’re no longer an espresso beginner. I hope you’re enjoying the delicious, crema-topped fruits of your labour.
What did you think of this list? If it helped you, be sure to share it on social media and pass it along to your coffee-loving friends. Do you have a top espresso tip that we missed? Let us know in the comments below.
- Hendon, C.H. (2017, September 28). The Chemistry and Physics Behind the Perfect Cup of Coffee. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/science-behind-brewing-great-cup-coffee-180965049/
- Fekete, M. (2019, February). How brew water temperature effects espresso extraction. Retrieved from https://www.beanscenemag.com.au/brew-water-temperature-effect-espresso-extraction/
- Carr, A. (2019, February 20). The Science of Perfect Water for Coffee. Retrieved from https://www.sevenmiles.com.au/blogs/editorial/the-science-of-perfect-water-for-coffee/
- Barista Hustle. (2021, July 5). Weiss Distribution Technique. Retrieved from https://www.baristahustle.com/blog/weiss-distribution-technique/