Top Ten Espresso Dialling In Tips

If you're using a traditional, portafilter espresso machine, you'll no doubt be aware of "dialling in". If this phrase is alien to you, it simply means to tweak things to get the best tasting espresso possible.

If you're worrying at this point that you're going to have to grow a beard, get a full sleeve tattoo, and start wearing braces, fear not.

Dialling in doesn't have to mean full on coffee geekery, it just means paying attention to a few variables.

Stereotypical coffee geek hipster.

If you have an espresso machine with a portafilter, and you're using it with standard single wall baskets (and not with dual wall, pressurised baskets), you'll need to dial in to at least some degree.

OK, you may get lucky and find the beans you've bought just happen to work perfectly with the settings you were using for your last beans, but that's fairly unlikely.

Dialling in isn't all that difficult, there's just a few steps and it's quite common for people to miss one or more of these steps.

So in this post we're going through ten tips for dialling in. Starting with:

1: Buy The Right Coffee Beans

When I say "the right" coffee beans, the main point here is freshly roasted, and I'm not referring to how many days it has been since they were roasted, I'm talking about the presence of a roasted on date on the bag.

Freshly Roasted Coffee Beans

I'm not saying here that you have to use coffee a day or two from roasting, I'm referring to two different types of coffee.

Coffee that has been roasted fresh by a small batch roaster, which comes with a roasted on date, vs coffee roasted in much bigger batches that comes only with a best before date.

Beans that don't have a roasted on date, and only have a best before date, which is the case with most beans you'll pick up from the supermarket, are not beans that would usually lend themselves to being dialled in.

This is why some coffee machine manufacturers who supply both types of filter baskets (dual walled pressurised, and single walled traditional baskets) state that the single walled traditional espresso baskets are for dialling in with freshly roasted beans.

If you're changing the grind size, the ratio and various other variables, and nothing you can do is changing the way the coffee tastes, if your beans don't have a roasted on date, it's likely to be just the kind of beans you're using. 

These kind of beans tend to taste how they taste, more or less. You may be able to make slight changes to the taste, but often you can't properly dial in with beans like this.

If you're using beans without a roasted on date, I'd recommend being a bit less demanding of yourself and your gear when it comes to trying to dial in, and allow for the fact that the taste of the espresso from beans like this can't quite be controlled in the same way as freshly roasted beans.

In addition to being freshly roasted, if you're wanting the ability to properly dial them in, the next thing about buying the right beans, is buying the right kind of beans for your setup, for your current level of home barista skill, and for your palate.

A lot of people I speak to who are having issues with their espresso, especially those who're complaining of continually sour tasting shots, turn out to be using medium roasts, which tend to take a bit more effort to dial in, especially with entry level setups.

When you're just getting started, especially if you have an entry level setup, you'll find espresso blends to be the most forgiving kinds of coffee beans.

I'm not saying they have to be super dark roast, in fact most of the espresso blends you get from small batch roasters that are labelled as "dark" or "medium/dark" will be quite a bit lighter than most bags of coffee beans on supermarket shelves labelled as medium roast.

When it comes to our coffee beans, I'd highly recommend starting out with our most forgiving blends, chocolate brownie blend and/or chocolate fondant blend

It also makes it easier if you have more of the same beans to work with. If you start out with a 200-250g bag of coffee beans when you're trying to get familiar with dialling in, you may well find out that you run out of beans before you've managed to get properly dialled in.

I'd recommend buying your beans by the kilo while you're dialling in, you'll usually save quite a bit of money this way too, vs buying by the 200, 227g or 250g bag.


2: Grind Your Own Coffee Beans

Grinding Coffee Beans.

You can't dial in pre-ground coffee for espresso, as the grind size for espresso is specific to every particular espresso machine.

We only offer pre-ground coffee for espresso, for dual walled pressurised baskets, simply because the one size fits all approach just doesn't work for standard baskets, if we do that, it'll over extract on some machines and under extract on others. 

My advice for getting the best results with pre-ground coffee for espresso would be to use dual walled baskets, and try to balance the shot with ratio. 

If the shot tastes under extracted, overly sour, tangy, unpleasantly acidic, just try pulling a bigger shot with the same dose, for example instead of a 1:2, 16g of coffee to 36g of espresso, try a 1:2.5 or 1:3, by stopping the shot at 40g or 48g for example, with a 16g dose.

If the shot tastes over extracted, bitter, dull - do the opposite, pull a slightly smaller shot with the same dose. 

Ultimately though the only way to really get decent results with espresso is to grind your own coffee beans, using an espresso capable grinder. See our coffee grinder recommendations.

3: Properly Store Your Beans.

Coffee beans in an airtight jar

Many people empty their bags of coffee straight into their hopper, where they'll remain until they get through them all. In my opinion this is a mistake.

Hoppers aren't designed for long term bean storage.

They're designed for commercial use, the concept was borrowed from grain milling, although on a much smaller scale of course.

When used on commercial coffee grinders it's a time saving tool to stop baristas having to constantly load the grinders, and the hoppers in busy cafes will need to be loaded several times per day.

When home users fill their hopper, it can often be sitting in there for around a week, and beans sitting in a hopper for a week will go stale faster than beans that have been kept in an air tight container away from air & light, and away from changes in humidity and temperature.

The main issue with storing beans in the hopper, though, is they offer no protection to the continuing change in room temperature and humidity.

Not only is this likely to have an impact on the speed of the staling process, but it'll also wreak havoc where dialling in is concerned.

Within just an hour or two, a kitchen can change quite a bit where temperature and humidity are concerned. 

Many people will notice that they'll dial in their beans, and an hour or so later they're not dialled in at all, and the main reason for this is the change in room conditions as the day goes on.

Our beans come in bags with a re-seal strip with a one way valve, my recommendation is always to either keep your beans in the bag and just be sure it's properly sealed, and push the air and CO2 out of the bag via the valve, or keep them in an air tight container, preferably something like Airscape or Fellow Atmos, which allows you to push the air out.

Then just use the beans you think you're about to use, and be ready to top up if you run low while grinding.

5: Don't Fixate on Shot Time

One of the most common questions I'm asked is how to achieve specific shot time, often it's 25-30 seconds, sometimes 28-32 seconds, recently I've had quite a few emails from people who're thinking they need to achieve bang on 30 seconds.

The fact is, there's no specific golden rule about shot time. Yes, professional baristas are usually trained (on commercial setups, I might add) to aim for a specific shot time, and it's usually something like 28-32 seconds. 

But even with Pro baristas this is only for guidance, and it always mean quite the same with home setups as it might do for high end commercial espresso machines.

I recommend starting out with a much more forgiving shot window, of around 20-35 seconds. Once you're inside this shot time window, try to focus mainly on taste. 

Are you happy with the taste?

Yes - carry on, don't change anything, ignore the numbers.
No - OK, work towards dialling in, because it doesn't taste right, not because the numbers would appear to predict that it shouldn't taste right.

5: Get Familiar With Dialling in by Taste

A photo of a man tasting coffee.

If your espresso makes you pull a face and shudder, due to the unpleasant acidity, almost like sucking on a sour sweet or chewing a lemon, this indicates under extraction.

This means you've only extracted the more sour compounds, so it's unbalanced towards sourness.

If it tastes overly bitter, like having a gob full of cocoa powder, and/or tastes dull, and dries out your tongue, this indicates over extraction, you've tipped over past the balanced point, into the bitter dullness of over extraction.

If it tastes balanced, that's a well extracted shot.

This is what were aiming for, a well balance shot, one that doesn't make you grimace or shudder.

It's worth pointing out that if you're not use to drinking neat espresso, you may be so unfamiliar with that level of intensity that even a "god shot" may make you shudder.

So if you're someone who mainly drinks cappuccino, latte, flat white etc., I'd recommend making your drink and then tasting it, and the same if you tend to mainly drink Americano / Long black, taste it how you drink it in order to be able to fully appreciate how good (or not) it tastes

I'd still recommend tasting every espresso you make, though (give it a stir first) prior to adding anything, to aid in developing your palate.

6: Be Aware Grind Size Isn't The Only Dialling in Tool

Many new home baristas are of the impression that dialling in simply means changing the grind size, and this is the main tool we use for dialling in, but it's not the only one.

We also have brew temperature and/or ratio at our disposal as tools for dialling in.

Make sure you only work on tweaking one variable at a time though, or things can get very confusing.

If your machine has adjustable brew temperature, it's worth experimenting with temperature as part of the dialling in process. For instance, if you've switched to a slightly lighter roasted bean, generally speaking a higher brew temperature will help with the extraction, so you might want to knock the brew temp up by one or two degrees.

Even if you don't have adjustable brew temperature, you always have ratio, and this is a very powerful and often underrated tool.

Ratio means the relationship between the amount of ground coffee and the amount of espresso, so 18g of ground coffee to 36g of espresso is a one to two, or sometimes described as a two to one ratio.

18g to 54g would be a one to three, and we'd refer to this as a Lungo, but this doesn't mean it's not an espresso, by the way. 

Because of the adoption of the terms "Ristretto, Espresso & Lungo" by certain pod coffee machine manufacturers... many people actually think these are completely different drinks. They're actually just the different names for different espresso ratios. 

Ristretto is usually about 1:1 - 1:1.5, a standard espresso is about 1:2 - 1:2.5, and a Lungo is about 1:3.

The way we can use ratio, is by increasing the ratio to increase the extraction, and decreasing the ratio to decrease it, however ratio can only be used up to a point, especially when it comes to upping the extraction, due to the sacrifice that has to be made to intensity and body.

You might taste the shot, and declare that it's under extracted at 1:2, so you leave the dose (the amount of ground coffee in the basket) as it is, and you increase the yield (the shot weight), aiming for a 1:3, so you end up with around 54g of espresso instead of 36.

Then you might taste the shot and decide that, actually it tastes really balanced now, but the intensity has really dropped as has the lovely thick body of the last shot, so now you might decide to drop it to 1:2.5 by pulling a 45ml shot, and see where you're at. 

At this point if you're not quite dialled in you may then nudge the grind just slightly finer in order to gain the additional extraction required without sacrificing intensity and body, or if you have a machine with adjustable brew temp you may try a slightly hotter temperature.

7: Pull Shots Manually

Once you're familiar with ratio and how much it can impact the shot, you’ll understand why you shouldn’t just let your machine dictate the shot volume. 

I'm not saying you need to pull shots manually all the time, just while you're dialling in. Once you're dialled in you can re-set the shot volume or time with the next shot.

This is something that will make a lot more difference with freshly roasted beans, than with "normal" beans with a sell by date but no roasted on date.

Most people who are used to drinking this kind of coffee, who haven't yet spoiled their taste buds with freshly roasted coffee, will often be relatively happy with it, and wouldn't be able to detect much difference between a 1:2 ratio shot and a 1:3 ratio shot, for example, using these beans.

When someone then makes the switch to freshly roasted beans though, they may be surprised by the difference that the shot variables make, including ratio, and this is one of the reasons that people often detect extraction issues when switching to freshly roasted coffee beans.

While it doesn't really matter all that much what you do with mainstream coffee beans, it matters more with freshly roasted beans, you'll find that the difference that just a 50g shot vs a 40g shot, for example, can make to the taste, can be quite dramatic. 

8: Be Aware of Dose Volume

Photo of a portafilter after dosing and tamping.

Most people are purely thinking about dose weight when they think of dose, but there are two elements to dose, weight and volume.

The dose weight obviously means how much the coffee in the basket weighs, and it's important to know this so you know what yield you're aiming for in order to achieve your target shot ratio.

Dose volume refers to how much space in the basket the coffee takes up, and this will change with different coffees, and mainly with grind size, simply because if you grind finer you’ll get more in the basket as there's less space in between each particle.

The reason volume is important is because it changes the amount of headspace, the space between the puck of coffee and the shower screen.

If you close this gap too much with too big a dose volume (which is possible to do with the same weight of coffee but ground coarser) you can over dose, which means there's not enough headspace, and it causes issues with the way the water pressure builds up, and how the water flows through the puck of coffee.

If you end up with a bigger headspace (which, again, is possible to do with the same weight of coffee ground finer) you can under dose.

Under dosing doesn't necessarily cause problems with the shot, it mainly just leads to a soggy puck, but it can require a finer grind, and can mess up the shot slightly from that perspective.

So grinding finer with the same dose weight can actually lead to a smaller dose, which can lead to a finer grind being required.

If you think about that, it means that in intentionally changing one variable (grind size) can have a side effect on another variable (dose volume) which can in part override the intentional change, making you scratch your head and wonder why grinding finer didn't produce the intended result.

So just be aware that the dose volume will change as you're changing the grind size if you're sticking to the same dose weight. 

If you have a Sage coffee machine, I'd always recommend using the the razor tool they come with, at least when getting started, because this keeps the shot volume the same every time, so it makes things more straight forward.

Just keep in mind, though, that when you're using the razor tool, you need to base your yield off the dose weight after trimming with the razor tool, not before. 

If you grind 20g, but you have 18g after trimming, then a 1:2 would be 36g, not 40g.


9: Warm up

Image of a woman warming up before a run.'

Many people underrate this step, especially with clever machines with super fast heat up times.

If you have a Sage Bambino or Bambino Plus, Barista Pro, Barista Touch or Barista Touch Impress, for example, the amazingly fast three second warm up time only refers to the very small and very efficient heater.

The rest of the machine is absolutely stone cold at this point, including the brew path (the pipes from the pump through to the group) the group, the portafilter and the cup.

So it's important that you run enough water through your machine to heat everything up. 

A bonus tip for you, when it comes to all of the machines I've just mentioned, all the thermojet machines from Sage, there's a way to heat them up slightly hotter, which I refer to as doing a "turbo flush".

This works to a certain degree with all thermocoil or themoblock machines, but the more traditional bigger thermoblocks don't suffer quite from the same degree in this area, as they're bigger units that kick off more heat inside the machine.

Thermocoils work by pumping water through a heated block, and they're set up to work based on the speed that the water will be passing through the coil when there's pressure in the basket.

So when you flush water through the group without any pressure, the water has less contact time with the heater, so it comes out of the group cooler.

With the Bambino, Bambino Plus, Barista Pro and the other thermojet machines, if you do the heating flush with the standard basket in place, water will hit the cup at about 60C.

If you do it with a cleaning disk with a hole in the middle (if you have one of the machines that came with a hole only, don't do this if you have a proper cleaning disk without a hole), or with the dual walled basket (pressurised basket), the water will hit the cup at around 80c, as the water is having the expected contact time with the coil.

By the way, don't mistake the temperature hitting the cup with brew temperature. The brew temperature is the temp that the water is when it hits the coffee, the extracted espresso isn't going to be at this temperature.

It's important to warm up your cup too, you'll be surprised how good a heat sink a cold cup can be. Just try it, pull a shot into a cold cup, then a hot cup, and see if it makes a different to the shot temperature if you start drinking it straight away.

 

10: Waste Your Coffee

I know, this is sacrilege, and you may think that I'm biased here, and I'd want you to waste coffee so you need to order more sooner ;-).

Actually, not at all, I despise waste, especially when it comes to lovely high quality freshly roasted coffee beans, knowing just how much love and care has gone in all the way from seedling to bag.

Image of coffee beans being wasted.

But the fact is, with most coffee grinders, there's something called exchanged retention, and you need to get rid of this, in certain cases. 

Exchanged retention is the amount of ground coffee that is retained each time you grind, which then ends up in your next basket of coffee the next time you grind.

In order to get rid of this, we do what's known as purging, which just means grinding a bit and knocking it in to the knock box.

If you're making a few back to back shots, at the same grind size with the same coffee beans, no wastage required. If you've changed the grind size, or if it's been a while since you last ground, if you don't purge, some of the coffee in your next basket will be stale, or at a different grind size.

If you don't want to waste coffee, its absolutely fine, you don't have to, but be aware that the first shot of the day or the first shot after changing the grind size, isn't going to be perfect.