Learning how to make espresso at home opens up a whole new world of possibilities so you can take your coffee drinking to the next level. In the long run, it can also save money if you regularly buy your espresso from a coffee shop every day.
That said, brewing espresso can be quite tricky to master, and if you’ve just bought an espresso machine like the Breville/Sage Bambino Plus, you may struggle to recreate the rich, dark espresso and thick crema you see in coffee shops. Fear not: learning the basics is actually pretty easy, and this guide will teach you how to use an espresso machine like a pro in no time.
This tutorial covers making espresso with pump machines, as opposed to hotplate coffee makers or Nespresso machines† If you’re still looking for an espresso machine, check out our top picks of the best espresso machines for advice on which one to choose.
Making espresso in just 4 steps
Here are the main steps in preparing espresso at home:
- Choose which coffee beans suit you best
- Grind your coffee beans for the perfect shot
- Use a coffee tamper to make a puck
- Experiment to find the best flavor
1. Which coffee beans are best for espresso?
If this is new to you, you will likely encounter people who tell you that expensive specialty beans are a must. But while it’s true that higher-quality beans often yield a better product, it’s okay to use lower-quality beans that will still make a great coffee. Be sure to opt for whole beans or pre-ground beans that have been ground for espresso. Pre-ground from the grocery store is often too coarse for espresso, which we’ll discuss later, and unless the package includes a roast date, there’s no way of knowing how fresh the coffee is.
You have to choose which flavor profile you want from your beans, based on the type, origin and roasting. Check any tasting notes on the back of the package to find out what flavors the coffee will deliver when brewed. In general, dark roasts give a more bitter end result with rich, chocolatey notes, while medium and light roasts produce a sweeter and more acidic profile with fruity and floral flavors. What you go for is completely up to you. Be sure to buy a bean roasted for espresso, rather than filter or French press.
2. How to grind coffee beans for espresso
The level at which your coffee is ground determines the resistance to your machine’s pump, varying the time the coffee is exposed to and boiled by the pressure and hot water – this affects the taste, texture and strength of brewed espresso. A finer grind provides more resistance, resulting in greater extraction of the coffee compounds as it is exposed to heat, water and pressure for longer. It is important that your coffee is ground evenly throughout to ensure consistent extraction and results.
Many espresso machines have a built-in grinder, but it’s also common to have a stand-alone grinder. If you have a coffee grinder, initially aim for a grind that is coarser than dust (like Turkish coffee), but finer than for filter or french press. Getting the right grind (also called “dial-in”) essentially comes down to trial and error, and the required grind settings will change for different beans and even individual batches of the same beans. We’ll discuss that trial and error a bit more later. If you don’t have a grinder, many local coffee shops will grind beans for you, although usually only for beans you buy from them.
The pre-ground grocery store is usually too coarse for pompespresso, resulting in thin, watery coffee with no crema. Conveniently, however, some espresso machines come with double-wall pressurized baskets to increase the pressure to which the coffee puck is subjected, allowing for coarser grinds – these will give a great brew, but won’t produce the texture or flavor that comes with ‘really’ fits espresso.
3. Weigh and tamp your coffee grounds
Once you’ve ground some beans, put them in the portafilter basket that came with your coffee maker. It’s a good idea to weigh the coffee you put in to make sure you’re taking a consistent approach for each shot, and because the amount of coffee also affects the pressure resistance of your puck. A general starting point is 0.32 oz (9 g) for a single shot and 0.64 oz (18 g) for a double, but if your coffee maker suggests a weight, use that. A good set of high-precision espresso scales come in handy here to keep things consistent, and coffee scales with a shot timer are readily available for under $20. Look for one that says it’s accurate to 0.1g.
Use a coffee tamper—often included with machines—to press down your coffee firmly and turn it into a puck. Again, this affects the resistance of the puck, so you need to make sure you apply even pressure for consistency between shots. You may need to adjust your pressing pressure based on how your espresso pulls down the line later.
Consider investing in a tamp mat to ensure that your portafilter remains stable and that you do not damage it or your worktop when tamping.
4. How do you serve an espresso shot?
Before you start, have a knock box or food waste container nearby to dispose of your coffee grounds afterwards, and handle the hot puck with care to avoid burning yourself.
A good shot will pour with the viscosity of liquid honey and should be golden brown in color. If you’re using a set of coffee scales, which we recommend, place them under your glass or cup and pour until you’ve reached double the weight of the coffee you’re putting in them. This usually takes about 30 seconds, and you’ll need to time your shots to make sure you have a comparable amount of time to pour them all. Taste your espresso and see what you think.
Here’s where your past consistency pays off. It’s unlikely you’ll get a perfect shot to begin with. It can be too thin, too bitter, too sour. Maybe you have too much coffee, or too little. In general, you aim for an espresso that balances out the flavor profile of your chosen beans: with dark roasts, you expect some bitterness with chocolatey, rich notes. With medium and lighter roasts, you should expect more sweetness and acidity, with floral or fruity notes. Flavors need to be balanced, though, so if you have overpowering bitterness or acidity, that’s a sign of over or under extraction, essentially brewing too much or too little. Not much liquid or a shot that pulls hard means your grind is too fine, while too much liquid indicates the opposite.
Play around with the grind of your coffee as this is often the most likely cause of extraction problems, with all other inputs remaining the same including the beans and weight of coffee used, tamping pressure, brew time and ratio. If this doesn’t work, try adjusting the other factors individually until you have the perfect espresso. It takes time, but is well worth it once you get the hang of it.
If you feel like you’ve bitten off a little too much with espresso, don’t worry. Our best coffee makers feature a range of coffee machines to take the effort out of your morning brew.
For more tips on how to make great coffee, check out our guides on how to make cold brew coffee, how to make French Press coffee, how to clean your coffee machine, and why you should descale your coffee machine.