Like coffee? Love espresso? If you’re looking to learn how to make espresso with an espresso machine, you’ve come to the right place.
This guide will walk you through the basics of making espresso so that you can start making your favorite coffee drink in no time. Let’s get started!
By the way, read this if you want to learn how to make espresso without a machine.
How to make espresso with a machine
Here’s a quick guide on how to make espresso with an espresso machine. We’ll take a closer look at each step further down.
- Flush the group head and clean the portafilter and basket ↓
- Grind your coffee very fine ↓
- Add about 17-18 grams of ground coffee to the basket ↓
- Distribute the ground coffee evenly and tamp down with even pressure ↓
- Rinse the group head ↓
- Insert the portafilter into the group head ↓
- Extract the espresso for 25-30 seconds ↓
- Extract about 35 grams of espresso ↓
- Serve ↓
- Discard puck, clean basket, rinse group head ↓
Next, we’re going to break down each of the steps above. Then, we’ll look at brew time, grind size and dosage when thinking about how to make espresso that tastes great. ↓
By the way, if you haven’t already, learn what espresso is over here.
Put the what in the where?
Before we look at the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of how to make espresso, let’s get some terminology out of the way.
Step 1 – Flush the group head, and clean the portafilter and basket
How to flush a group head and clean the portafilter
Run water through the group heads and rinse out any trapped coffee grounds in the basket.
Afterwards, give the basket a little wipe with a clean cloth to remove small pockets of water. This cleaning process shouldn’t take longer than 10 seconds.
Why should we rinse the group head and clean the basket?
Not cleaning the basket before the next use will lead to an unbalanced espresso.
Left-over coffee grounds get burnt or over-extracted with the next use. This gives an astringent or overly sour taste to the espresso.
When making any coffee, you must be using clean equipment.
Of course, we can’t clean the espresso machine after every use, but we can clean the parts that we’re using.
Step 2 – Grind your coffee very fine
How to grind coffee for espresso
The grind size for espresso should be very fine.
The grind size refers to how big or small we grind the roasted coffee beans.
If the pieces are big, they’re referred to as coarse. If they are small, they’re referred to as fine.
Coffee grinders are very sensitive, so you should only make very small changes. We call this a micro-adjustment.
You can only see or taste the effect that your changes have made to the coffee in the resulting espresso. So when you make changes, you’re going in blind.
That’s why making large changes, or macro-adjustments isn’t recommended.
Use micro-adjustments to nudge the grind size where you want it to be. Do this as you notice problems instead of making a large adjustment later on.
After adjusting the grind size, most grinders will need to be “purged”. This flushes out the old coffee grounds before the newly-adjusted grounds come through.
This can be quite wasteful. We recommended that you keep a coffee journal to keep track of the grind size.
You could also make markings on the grinder. These will show the maximum and minimum grind settings for the coffee you’re using.
For espresso, the grind size should be very fine. This lets the water extract more coffee solubles during the short brew time. We take a closer look at that down here.
Step 3 – Add the ground coffee to the basket
How to add coffee grounds to the portafilter basket
To start your expresso journey, you’ll need about 17-18 grams of finely ground coffee.
Depending on your coffee grinder, the grounds should be dispensed into the basket.
Baskets come in different sizes, but it’s not complicated; I promise. It’s similar to how a baker will use different sized scoops to measure out flour, sugar, etc.
The size of the basket is usually displayed in grams on the basket itself. Coffee baskets are made in sizes that increase incrementally from 7 grams to 25 grams (or more!).
The amount of coffee grounds you use should be within 1 gram of the basket’s capacity. This helps to avoid channelling and other extraction issues.
The basket holds the coffee grounds, and has tiny holes on the bottom.
The basket holes are big enough to allow liquid to pass through but small enough to prevent grounds from passing through.
The amount of coffee grounds you need is determined by the espresso recipe you’re using. The basket size you use should be appropriate for the amount of ground coffee you’ll use.
If your basket is too big or too small, it will lead to uneven extraction of the coffee. And probably a very messy experience!
Step 4 – Distribute and tamp
How to tamp coffee for espresso
Lightly tap the sides of the portafilter so that the coffee grounds are as level as you can get them.
Once the coffee grounds are level, use the tamper and push the grounds down hard until you can’t push down further.
Like me, water is known to be lazy and always follows the easiest path.
This means that the water will travel to areas in the coffee grounds that are less dense or have air pockets.
This is called channelling, and it’s Public Enemy #1 in the world of espresso.
If channelling happens, the coffee grounds don’t get extracted evenly. This is reflected in the espresso’s poor taste and body.
We distribute and tamp coffee grounds to remove air pockets, even out the coffee grounds and create a consistent density throughout the grounds.
This helps the water pass through the grounds at an even speed and pressure and means a better tasting espresso.
Espresso distributing and tamping is a hot topic with tons of theories and techniques. Our suggestion is to keep it simple and consistent in the beginning.
Once you’ve mastered the espresso triangle, then experiment with distribution and tamping.
Step 5 – Rinse the group head
How to rinse an espresso machine’s group head
With the portafilter still removed from the machine, run hot water through the group head for a second or two. That’s all there is to this step.
Rinsing the group head serves two purposes.
Firstly, it flushes out and removes any old coffee grounds from the group head. This means that old coffee grounds won’t be used when you make the next espresso.
Secondly, when you flush hot water through the group head, you’re bringing the temperature back to where it should be. This improves the chances of a consistent extraction.
The time that the group head is exposed to the surrounding air could be anywhere from 30 seconds – 2 minutes (depending on how fast or slow the barista is).
During this time, the group head cools down. By flushing the group head, we bring the temperature up to where it should be.
The difference that a cooler group head makes might be negligible. But when we’re making espresso, we’re trying to keep the entire process as consistent as possible.
If you aren’t happy with the taste of our espresso and you’ve kept everything consistent, troubleshooting the problem is easier to do.
Step 6 – Insert portafilter into the group head
How to insert a portafilter into a group head
Hold the portafilter horizontally to the countertop. Then, rotate the handle towards the left, usually at about a 30 angle°.
Insert the portafilter into the group head, then rotate towards the right until the portafilter latches in.
It may seem silly to even discuss something so easy and mundane. The reality is that all the previous work you’ve done could easily be undone by messing this step up.
Inserting the portafilter should be done in a controlled manner and with care. The result of performing this step poorly will be uneven extraction and a bad tasting espresso.
If the portafilter is knocked during this stage, the tamping and distributing that was done in previous steps will need to be redone.
Unfortunately, this means that you’d need to restart the entire process from scratch because you can’t just tamp down the grounds that came loose.
If you want to re-tamp so you don’t waste coffee, you would need to remove all the grounds from the basket, add them to the basket again, redistribute and re-tamp that way.
During this process, the portafilter and group head have both cooled down. The group head can be reheated by flushing it with hot water.
The portafilter can be reheated by inserting it into the group head and flushing hot water through it. Then you would need to dry it and repeat the steps from step 2 or 3 onwards.
So, while adding the portafilter into the machine is an easy step, it’s also a very annoying step to mess up. Trust me, I’ve messed this up way too many times!
Step 7 – Extract for 25-30 seconds
How to extract coffee
After inserting the portafilter into the group head, immediately press the manual or ‘free-pour’ button. Stop the flow of water after 25-30 seconds.
It’s crucial to start the extraction process immediately after the portafilter has been inserted.
If the extraction isn’t started immediately, the dry coffee grounds in the basket will absorb the surrounding moisture and could also stick to the group head screen and burn.
Have you ever tasted burnt coffee? If you have, I’m sure you don’t want to taste it again. If you haven’t, imagine drinking burnt popcorn.
Most espresso machines have a programmed button for a single and double espresso. These buttons are usually programmed volumetrically.
Step 8 – Extract 35 grams of espresso
How to weigh your espresso shots
Place a cup on a scale under the portafilter’s spouts. Tare the scale to 0 so the cup’s weight isn’t included. Monitor the weight of the espresso and stop the machine just before the scale hits 35 grams.
You might be wondering a few things at this point.
For starters, why are we only putting the scale and cup down after we’ve started the extraction? Well, you can put this down before, no problem. Whatever works for you.
After you hit the button to start the extraction process, you have a few seconds before the espresso starts pouring out of the portafilter’s spout.
My routine is to hit the button, grab a cup that’s been heating by sitting above the espresso machine, and put it under the spout. This is usually timed quite well and it’s super satisfying.
Another thing you might be wondering is when do we actually stop the extraction? In step 7 I said that we stop after 25-30 seconds. In this step, I said we stop just before 35 grams. So, when do we stop?
If we have the right dosage, grind size and brew time, then we should be stopping the extraction between 25-35 seconds and have the expected espresso amount in the cup (35 grams in this example.
This is explained in more detail in the ‘espresso triangle’ bit below.
Step 9 – Serve the espresso
How to serve an espresso
Serve this however you want to. Tradition calls for espressos to be served in a ‘demitasse’ (a small cup for espressos).
Call me Mr Pedantic if you’d like, but I believe that drinks should be served on a saucer, with the cup’s handle pointing to 3 o’clock. A spoon should be placed under the cup’s handle, and it should be perpendicular to the handle.
If you’re serving left-handed customers, then place everything on the opposite side.
You could also serve it over ice as an iced-coffee.
Step 10 – Discard puck, clean basket, rinse group head
How to remove puck from the basket
Remove the portafilter from the group head by rotating it to the left. Then, firmly knock the puck out of the basket and into the bucket.
Flush the group head for 2 seconds before putting the portafilter back in.
The puck is the hard disk of used coffee grounds that’s leftover in the basket. Before discarding it, you could examine it for clues on how the extraction went.
For example, if it isn’t compressed and is quite muddy, that could mean that you need more grounds in your dose, the distribution and tamping wasn’t done right, or that the coffee was too coarse.
If the puck is thicker on one side, that points to an uneven flow of water through the grounds. This points to issues with the distribution and tamping.
Similar to the other steps about cleaning as we go, we clean the basket and group head after making the espresso to give the next espresso the best chances of success.
Another way you can see this stage is “resetting the machine.” It’s the same reason why we make our beds in the morning (I hope!). So that when we’re ready to sleep, we have a clean and tidy bed to get into.
Perfecting the espresso is a dance between dosage, grind size and brew time.
These three are interdependent. If we change one, it will affect the others.
What we haven’t discussed yet is the relationship that they have with each other. First, let’s talk about the ‘brew ratio’.
Brew ratio is the ratio between the amount of dry ground coffee and the amount of coffee we want to extract.
The ratio for espresso is between 1:1.5 – 1:2.5. A good starting point is 1:2. But what does this mean?
The first number is the amount of coffee grounds, and the second number is the coffee yield.
For a ratio of 1:1.5: If we use 10 grams of coffee, our yield should be 15 grams of espresso. The math is 10 (grams of ground coffee) x 1.5 = 15 (grams of espresso)
For a ratio of 1:2: the math is (grams of coffee) x 2 = (grams of espresso). We’ll use 10 grams of coffee to extract 20 grams of coffee.
Of course, you could extract more or less espresso. The ratio shows us which amount of extracted coffee gives us the best results.
If we use a 1:10 ratio for espresso, the coffee will be very diluted (and over-extracted) because of the extra water used.
If we use 1:0.5, the coffee will be extremely under-extracted, and the yield would be small.
Using a ratio, and keeping it consistent while trying to extract the best espresso is important because it gives us a fixed variable.
When we look at the next sections, we’ll see that the brew time, dosage and grind size are changeable. The one variable that won’t change is the expected yield.
Having a consistent expected yield gives us the “finish line.” If we fall short of it or overshoot it, it’s a clear indication that something is wrong with our espresso-making process.
Now, let’s get into the nitty-gritty!
What is grind size?
Grind size refers to how big or small roasted coffee beans have been ground.
If the pieces are big, they’re referred to as coarse. If they are small, they’re referred to as fine.
Picture sand in one glass and marbles in another glass. Then, picture water being poured over the top of both.
Which glass will the water travel through faster? The glass with the marbles. The large gaps between the marbles don’t slow the water down.
Fine coffee grounds slows the water down. The water is in contact with the coffee for longer and extracts more solubles from it.
This can be a good or bad thing, depending on the brewing method.
If the brewing method is fast (espresso), the water is in contact with the coffee for a short period. The water doesn’t have much time to extract solubles from the coffee grounds.
So, we grind the coffee very fine for espresso to give the water a better chance to extract the maximum amount of desirable coffee solubles.
If the coffee particles are too small, the water will extract the undesirable coffee solubles, and the espresso will taste over-extracted.
What is brew time?
Brew time is the time from pushing the start button on the espresso machine until we push stop.
For a regular espresso, the brew time should be 25-35 seconds.
The time it takes to push a fixed amount of water through coffee tells you how much resistance there is. Grind size and dosage affect this.
When trying to get the best espresso extraction, baristas look at the brew time to see how effectively they’ve made a change to the dosage and/or grind size.
What is espresso dosage?
Dosage is the amount of dry ground coffee used for the espresso. Dosage is used to determine the expected yield amount or vice versa.
Your dosage should be measured with a scale to ensure consistency when trying to master your espresso making skills.
If you’re eye-balling your dosage instead, chances are you’re making your life harder than it needs to be.
Although you can change the dosage when experimenting with your espresso-making, it’s not recommended to do so.
Usually, the dosage is determined by the coffee basket that you’re using. So there isn’t much room for changes there. Because the changes made will be quite small, the changes will be hard to see.
Of the three variables, keeping the dosage the most consistent will help you find the sweet spot easier and faster.
The rule of thumb is to keep the dosage consistent, and rather experiment with the grind size or brew time.
How to use the espresso triangle to make an espresso
First, figure out your dosage and expected yield amount. Then, grind your coffee and extract for 25 – 35 seconds. Analyze the extraction process then adjust your grind size accordingly.
Let’s say we’ve got our expected yield amount, and it’s 30 grams of espresso. We also know that our brew ratio will be 1:2 for now while we’re finding our feet.
The dosage is 15 grams (1:2 → 15 x 2 = 30) of coffee grounds.
Now we have one side of the triangle. We also know that our brew time should be between 25-35 seconds. So, we have the second side of the triangle.
The only thing left to do is find the right grind size and taste the espresso. To do that, grind 15 grams of coffee, time the extraction and weigh the yield.
If it takes longer than 35 seconds to extract the expected yield amount (30 grams), there’s too much water resistance from the coffee. The grind size is too fine.
If you extract the expected yield amount well ahead of 25 seconds, there isn’t enough water resistance from the coffee. The grind size is too coarse.
Adjust the grind size until you extract the expected yield amount within the brew time using the correct dosage.
Then, it’s time for the best part, tasting the espresso!
What to do next?
Making espresso can seem daunting in the beginning. The best way to perfect the craft of making espresso is to, well, make more espresso!