Four Quick Espresso Hacks

Do you find that home espresso making can be a bit frustrating at times?

By "a bit" I mean are you occasionally temped to launch the espresso machine, or at least launch something at it, or just stamp your feet & shout obscenities?

There's nothing quite like the satisfaction of knowing you made an espresso, Americano or flat white from home, for pennies, which tastes better than from any chain coffee shop!

But it can be frustratingly complex at times, and there are four issues in particular that are very common, which can be resolved relatively easily once you know how.

Here they are:

1: Use The Correct Espresso Baskets

This is a mistake many, many people make. In fact, I think it's probably the most common home espresso mistake I come across.

If you have an espresso machine that has both standard, traditional baskets and dual walled pressurised baskets (most Sage coffee machines, and the Gaggia Classic Pro, for example) which baskets do you use?

If you're using the standard, single walled, non-pressurised baskets but you're using "normal" supermarket coffee beans with no roasted on date, you're using the wrong baskets.

If you're using freshly roasted pre-ground coffee beans, and you're using standard, non-pressurised baskets, you're also using the wrong baskets.

If you do a quick Google on what espresso baskets to use, you'll often find people suggesting you should use the standard baskets, as they're much better. 

You'll also find info suggesting that you should be trying to dial in the grind to achieve a specific shot time window, usually of 25-30 seconds (I always recommend extending this to 20-35 seconds, and then just going by taste).

All of the above is only true for one type of coffee. Freshly roasted, whole bean coffee beans.

By this I mean coffee beans that are sold when freshly roasted, it doesn't mean you have to use them straight away, they're fine for about 4 weeks.

Also, I say wholebean, because standard baskets aren't for pre-ground coffee either, even freshly roasted pre-ground.

Standard baskets are for "dialling in" with freshly roasted coffee beans, meaning to tweak things (most importantly the grind size) until you get a decent extraction, and great tasting espresso.

Pressurised, dual walled baskets are for using with beans that aren't fresh, and also for using pre-ground coffee (freshly roasted or not), and the shot time doesn't matter with these baskets.

You'll find this info in the instruction manuals of most machines these days, including the Sage instruction manuals, which will instruct you to use standard baskets for freshly roasted beans only.

A knock on effect of this, is that when people who've been doing this, switch over to freshly roasted coffee beans, they can find that they get what appears to be very strange results, as they're now using the standard baskets for the kinds of beans they're intended for, so they require a very different grind size.

So to fix this, just make sure you're using standard baskets if you're using our coffee beans, as all our coffee is freshly roasted (usually on the day of dispatch).

If you're using "normal" main stream coffee beans with a use by date but no roasted on date, this is what the pressurised, dual walled baskets are for, and you don't need to pay attention to the shot time, as you can't dial in with these baskets.

If you were using standard baskets with supermarket beans but now you're moving over to freshly roasted coffee beans, just be aware that you'll probably have to make quite big grind adjustments.


2: Choke Your Espresso Machine 

I'm not suggesting any threats of violence against your espresso machine for not providing sufficiently mega espresso ;-).

Choking just means that you grind so fine that no espresso flows. Don't worry, this won't harm your machine.

Many people beginner home baristas are nervous about going too fine with the grind, and as a result it can take a lot longer than it could do to find the right grind size with the beans you're using.

So what I recommend is being bold, and grind way too fine to start with, look for a grind size that feels like fine flour when you rub it in between your fingers.

A grind this fine will probably choke or at least partially choke your machine (very slow shot) but you'll probably find that starting here and adjusting more coarse is a faster approach to dialling in than starting too coarse and adjusting finer.

3: Expect Daily Grind Adjustments

Once you've found the right grind size, just be aware you've found the right grind size for now, not forever.

If you want to stay well dialled in, you'll need to make adjustments throughout the day.

Usually, it goes something like this (it will depend on where you live, whether you have air conditioning & so on).

Your first shot of the day runs fast, you tweak things, you think you've nailed it, but you make a shot later in the day and it runs too fast again and you need to tighten up the grind size again.

This is completely normal.

If you're not all that fussy, it doesn't matter a great deal, just ignore it, as long as you're happy with the drinks you're making, who cares?

If you have a well trained palate (which can be a curse as well a blessing) then you'll probably need to stay well dialled in, and you can predict the required grind adjustments throughout the day to help in this regard.

When it comes to the first shot of the day, this can be partially due to not properly warming up, so see the next point for that one.

Other than that, it's generally a case of just guessing that you're going to need to go slightly finer with the grind throughout the day, and then roughly back to where you started the next morning as long as you properly pre-heat your machine for the first shot.

The reasons for this, mainly when it comes to home use it's more than likely the room temperature changing throughout the day, and this impacting the temperature of the grinder and the beans, and to some degree the espresso machine, too, with more entry level setups with less thermal stability.

I did suspect at one point that it was mainly down to the temperature of the beans changing with the room temp, but testing with grinding from frozen appeared to rule this out as being the sole cause.

In commercial settings I think constant use of the grinder heating the burrs slightly is also a factor, which is why some commercial coffee grinders have air cooled burrs.

4: Turbo Flush

As I mentioned earlier, the first shot of the day is often weird simply because the machine is cold. 

Pro baristas will usually have their machines heated up and ready to go well in advance of the morning shift, and even then they'll often dump a few shots while dialling in, so in most cases the first couple of shots are just for dialling in.

Most home users would consider this to be wasteful of coffee beans and time, so we tend to expect the first shot of the day to be drinkable, and it's possible, but it does take a bit of a routine if you have a machine with very fast heat up.

If you have a machine such as the Sage Bambino, Bambino Plus, Barista pro, Barista Touch or Touch Impress, for example, they're heated in 3 seconds - but that's literally just the water heater that is warmed up and ready.

The water heater is tiny, and it's made of a thin alloy, so it heats up very fast but gives off very little heat other than when it's actually heating.

So the 3 second heat up time means it gets three seconds of heating, it's ready to heat cold water, the entire brew path, group and portafilter are all cold.

Like pro baristas, you can choose to make a shot and dump it if you like, in order to heat everything up properly before you make your first shot.

If the thought of wasting 18-19 grams of lovely, freshly roasted coffee beans upsets you though, I'm with you ;-), just do a turbo flush instead.

What this means is to pull a blank shot using the pressurised, dual walled baskets.

If you do this with the standard baskets, because there is no ground coffee in the basket to create pressure in the basket, the water will be pumped too quickly through the heated coil, so it'll flush at a cooler temperature, hitting your cup at about 60-65C.

If you pop the dual walled basket in and flush by going through the motions of pulling a shot of espresso but without coffee in the basket, the same pressure will be generated in the basket regardless of the fact that it's empty, so it's just like pulling a shot to heat things up but without the sad waste.

And there you go, four simple hacks for better tasting espresso, I hope you find them helpful.