Espresso troubleshooting is part torture, part game, and it's at the heart of homemade espresso. Please don't take me wrong. Making espressos for customers is incredibly challenging, but commercial-grade equipment offers better results most of the time.
That said, the adjustments I am suggesting come from personal experience and talking with dozens of baristas to offer an easy guide to get better espresso every time.
My story with coffee drinks isn't short nor linear. I've been a coffee lover ever since I was a kid, and lattes were pretty common to take for breakfast at home. An old Moka pot was the weapon of choice, and as I grew up, I started looking for ways to emulate the delicious lattes we got at the nearest bakery. Back then, coffee shops weren't as ubiquitous as they're now in Caracas, my home city.
Eventually, I realized that steamed milk was essential for frothy coffee and later discovered the importance of espresso. As the base of all classic drinks at coffee shops, I overlooked its significance at first. But then, it happened: I fell in love with espresso. Soon enough, I started to take notes on how it tasted, felt, where the beans were sourced from, and so on.
Pour-over coffee is excellent too, but nothing can beat the human-to-machine connection that espresso-making can create. Part of the game is dialing a great espresso, and most home baristas struggle to perfect their craft. Even professional baristas with top-class equipment can fail now and then, so we could say that espresso-making is a form of art. And considering that coffee beans are the canvas, it's pretty challenging.
People often face awful tasting notes in espresso, like sourness and extreme bitterness. This is usually caused by incorrect extraction, meaning that dosing or water temperature wasn't appropriate. Additionally, if the grind size is too coarse or the tamp is too light, the coffee will also be sour and taste bad.
To improve espresso, like anything in life, start by identifying the problems.
How to read your espresso
Old-school espresso is beautiful to the eye. Today, espresso can be less appealing at specialty coffee shops, but the visual appeal is still critical. Crema, body, and colors are essential to judge the quality of an espresso.
On the other hand, taste and aroma are the most important features to assess in espresso. Some coffee enthusiasts are highly focused on the extraction time, but here's the thing. If you get an espresso shot in 25 seconds that tastes awful, it won't be better than an espresso shot that takes 35 seconds that tastes great.
Now, let's go through the main aspects to analyze in espresso:
If you have a naked portafilter, you have a full range of aspects to analyze. Channeling, for instance, is evident when you have a naked portafilter because you can see how the espresso is flowing, and if it's running aside, that's a sign of channeling.
Multiple streams, watery spurts, and spraying are ominous signs as well. A good espresso shot flows steadily and thick, like golden lava.
Another aspect of assessing issues in espresso, without even tasting it, is the puck. Usually, if there is some channeling, the puck is evidence of it.
Now, looking at espresso, I prefer to serve it on a double-walled glass than in a ceramic cup so that I can check its body. No other coffee drink is as concentrated as espresso, as we make it using between 1 and 2 parts of water per part of coffee grounds. And such a degree of concentration should be evident in how espresso looks.
A watery espresso without crema shows that something odd happened. Likewise, excessive crema can be an issue too.
The fragrance of freshly ground coffee is one of the most pleasant ever. Likewise, espresso offers a lovely scent, commonly called aroma. Unlike taste and visuals, aroma tends to display problems with coffee beans.
Rubbery, burnt, chemical aromas are signs of coffee beans defects, so if you perceive any of those, look no further: change your coffee.
Depending on how powerful your nose is, you might notice other signs of poor extraction like faint aroma or lack of aromatic notes that should be in the espresso.
The final verdict depends on taste. Sourness and bitterness are at the extremes of poor espresso, and they can be confusing for most people. Around good espresso, you can get under or over-extracted shots, and telling the difference between them will help you improve your espresso-making skills.
Researchers found that we tend to confuse sourness and bitterness in food science, so it's essential to tell their difference. Another common confusion is between sour and acidic notes.
Although prone to subjectivity, the difference between acidic and sour flavors is that sourness is unpleasant and aggressive. It's hard to avoid pressing your lips when tasting a sour flavor, while acidic notes can be delicate and fragrant, like berries or lemon peel.
Under-extracted coffee tastes sour, and in the case of espresso in a very intense experience. Specialty coffee has promoted more acidic profiles, so you might feel a bit confused between acidic and sour coffee. However, pleasant acidic notes tend to be fruity and delicate, while sourness is aggressive and produces an immediate reaction in the mouth against it.
For instance, I know many people that can't avoid pressing their lips when tasting a sour espresso shot.
Additionally, under-extraction takes the form of a dull, overall lack of sweetness, and short finish, without almost no aftertaste.
So, if you aren't sure if it's sour, you can assess the whole picture in terms of taste to decide.
Intense bitterness is the most unambiguous indication of over-extraction. However, it might be challenging to decide when there is excessive bitterness in espresso since a complete lack of it isn't a good sign either.
Along with bitterness, you'll find some astringency and emptiness in espresso. Unpleasant flavors will mask nice notes entirely, so over-extracted is a bit gross, although most people would say that under-extracted is worse.
How to fix your espresso
If you find any of the problems above, you can try some adjustments. Unless you have low-quality coffee, your espresso will improve noticeably.
Adjust coffee grind size
Making good espresso requires an adequate coffee grind size- small changes can make a massive difference in the flavor you get out of it and its aroma!
Over-extraction is usually the result of grinding coffee too fine, so increasing the grind size will usually correct over-extraction if all other variables remain equal.
In the opposite case, decreasing the grind size will usually solve under-extraction.
Finding the perfect grind size can be pretty annoying depending on your grinder. For this reason, most manufacturers sell grinders designed explicitly for espresso.
Tweak your dosing
Espresso takes between one and two parts of water per part of coffee. Experimenting outside this proportion tends to produce poor espresso. That's why many espresso enthusiasts weigh their coffee grounds and their shot.
Adjusting the amount of espresso you serve depending on your coffee dose will improve the taste, aroma, and body.
Check your distribution and tamping.
Getting awkward combinations of under-extracted and over-extracted espresso in the same cup has to do with poor distribution and tamping.
Tamping helps to accomplish a better-tasting espresso by preventing channeling. When coffee grounds are not distributed evenly, it causes water to flow through them faster and more directed. This results in an under-extracted shot that tastes sour and bitter. On the other hand, when you properly tamp coffee grounds, it slows down the water flow and allows for a more even extraction, leading to a better-tasting espresso.
Clean grinder. Clean espresso machine. Better espresso
Grinder retention is a common enemy of good espresso. If stale grounds are part of your dose, they will hurt your espresso taste. The machine can also retain some coffee or water minerals residues that alter taste. Keeping the grinder and the machine clean helps to improve the espresso taste.
Cleaning regularly the espresso machine helps to remove any built-up coffee oils or deposits that may have settled on the machine. It is also essential to clean the grinder every few weeks, especially if you use it daily.
Experiment with different coffee beans
In comparison to low-quality coffee, good coffee has a considerably better flavor. Some people enjoy dark roasts for espresso, while others like medium roasts.
It's got something to do with personal taste.
Beyond roast type, processing methods can play a massive role in aroma and taste, so it's vital to consider when picking new coffee beans for espresso.
Espresso is a subtle art form. From the type of beans you use to how finely ground they are, there's a lot that can go into making a perfect cup. These espresso tips should help your home brews become even more delicious and satisfying than ever before. But don't stop here-tell us what worked for you! What other dos and don'ts have you discovered in your quest for better-tasting espressos?