Making a better espresso with a home machine


Getting there… a better espresso!

You may be like me, where you’ve gotten a start of the line home espresso machine, and you can’t seem to use it to make an espresso (at all) similar to what you might get at a reputable shop.

My machine, a Krupps from about 5 years ago

My machine, a 15-bar capable Krups from about 5 years ago, still going strong.

Well, I’ve learned a few ways to make a more delicious espresso from a home machine by pushing the machine’s limits.  This comes after some years of experimenting, and after discussions with friends (thanks, Kray) who are as obsessive as I am about these issues.

The problem I faced was dull flavor, no matter the quality of coffee bean.  The drink itself was not altogether bad, in fact it wasn’t bad at all.  But it wasn’t like a real espresso, like what you’d get from your local coffee shop (assuming they know how to do espresso).  Instead, it was more like a slightly watered filter coffee.  The plus side is the usual result doesn’t have any bad flavors of a mediocre filter coffee, it’s just not as strong as I’d expect in an espresso.  It’s not even as strong as a french press with the same beans.

If I buy a pre-ground coffee ground professionally for espresso, Illy brand, for example, the espresso is much better.  It can still be so-so though.  And, crazy as I am, I don’t want to be dependent on 3rd party services.  I want to be able to make a great coffee with the beans I choose.

Ultimately the tricks I’ve learned are all about knowing your machine’s limitations and the limitations of your grinder.

If you share some of my problems, below are some things to think about:

1. You need a consistent grind of beans, and that grind needs to be as fine as your machine can tolerate.  This is tricky to get exactly right, especially with a hand grinder like what I use (see below), without any sort of guide or dial.  Blade grinders will NOT work for this, and their resulting grinds will be too inconsistent.  Grocery store grinders I’ve found also to be all over the place.  Putting those grinds through the espresso machine will either pass through too easily, or the blade cut beans will produce enough dust to easily clog the espresso machine.

I upgraded to a hand grinder, and I’m amazed at how much of a difference [more] consistent grinding makes.  An expensive machine burr grinder would do even better than my hand grinder, but even with a grinder like mine you’ll notice the crema on top of the coffee to be a darker golden brown, and the flavor will be stronger.

my hand grinder.  Kyocera.

my hand grinder. Kyocera.  Also marketed under the brand Hario

The hand grinder that I use I got for $30+.  I’m still not ready to invest in a several hundred-dollar burr grinder, and I am satisfied with this grinder’s results.  It’s fairly consistent.  It isn’t perfect though, and I’ve found the grind settings to be just a little smaller or larger than a store-bought pre-ground espresso.  That means that again, water will run through it too easily, or your machine will clog too easily.  For now I am erring on the side of the fine grind, even though I occasionally do clog the machine to the point where no coffee comes out.  That said, the tamping and the type of roast also affects this outcome, so there are ways to compensate (see following points).

One last point about having your own home grinder… you can grind fresh per cup.  For me, I grind just before making a cup, that’s one tablespoon of beans and very little time turning. I also love low-tech human energy.  So many things go wrong with little motors and parts… (I also bike a 15 mile commute every day)

2. You need to have enough coffee in your filter cup.  You need to have a tamped “cake” of coffee that will give enough resistance to build necessary pressure.  If you tamp your coffee without enough in the cup, you could risk grounds floating around with water (which can also lead to clogs).  Put enough coffee in.  I usually mound my cup like the image below.  This amount will tamp nicely.  If you find you are clogging too easy with a fine grind and you are not overfilling the cup, tamp lighter.  If water runs through too easy on the grind that your machine works with, tamp harder.coffee3The key is to find the balance of where your machine can get the water through, even though it needs to work harder with appropriate pressure.  Watch the speed and color of the coffee coming through during the “press”.  If it is too light and fast, try a slightly finer grind and/or harder tamp.

3.  Different roasts yield different grinds.  What I mean is that if you take a dark roast and grind it fine like above, you’ll find it easy to grind and water will also pass through it easier.  A light roast will be tougher to grind, and it will clog easier (too bad for me as those are my favorite roasts).  If you use darker roasts, you probably will be tamping harder than your light roasts.

Finally, you need to rinse and clean the machine after use.  Sometimes if the machine really needs to work to force water through the beans, a few grounds might get pushed up around the gasket.  Sometimes they get forced underneath the rubber seal.  For the next use, there will be a greater chance of the basket not sealing properly and allowing for water to leak out the side–thus ruining the coffee due to not being at adequate pressure.  You don’t want that.  Cleaning the grounds out of that area can be very tedious.  And it can be difficult if the machine is hot.  Run the machine without the filter cup in place to help eject any stuck-on coffee before trying to wipe that area, it will reduce the chance of you accidentally wiping any stray grounds into the rubber seal.

About David Dettmann

Food obsessed and frequently nostalgic.
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2 Responses to Making a better espresso with a home machine

  1. Kray says:

    I am familiar with that Krups machine. It makes some smooth & tasty espresso, no doubt, but I’d like to elaborate a bit about its technical side. There are basically two types of home-espresso machine and they are distinguished by their portafilters. The first and most common type has one hole at the bottom of the basket that holds the ground coffee. Although you may see hundreds of holes inside the basket but the brewed coffee only comes out from one hole that the bottom. This design deliberately forces the brewed coffee to mix with air when it jets out, so the crema of the espresso would look thick and foamy. This single orifice design is a type of crema enhancer that produces unnaturally thick crema on top of an espresso. This enhances the look of the espresso, regardless of how good and fresh your ground coffee is, but actually tampers the natural texture and potential taste of the espresso.

    By forcing the brewed coffee to mix with air, first causes the color of the crema to be lighten (natural crema should be dark or reddish brown), second the texture of the crema becomes foamy, which it shouldn’t (it should feel like a layer aromatic oil on top of the espresso body). And lastly, since espresso is volatile, mixing it with air causes oxidation (coffee beans & drink enemy), the taste and aroma of the coffee deteriorates quicker than it should.

    There is also a technical negative side effect on the machine performance. Even without ground coffee in the basket, the single orifice alone is enough to cause significant pressure drop between the water pump and the atmospheric pressure outside. Meaning, the pump has to work quite a bit just to force the water out through the orifice. Now when you add some ground coffee in the basket above the orifice, the ground coffee cannot be as fine as it should be and the coffee cannot be packed (or tamped) as hard as it should be either. Therefore the pressure drop across the ground coffee cannot be as high as it should be because the machine has to produce extra pressure to force the liquid through the orifice.

    The second type of home-espresso is essentially a stripped down version of a professional machine, with simpler heating and pumping system, but they share the same portafilter with hundred of holes in the basket directly through to the outside. This design is actually simpler than the single hole design but it’s harder to produce good even crema, unless your coffee is fresh and properly grounded to the right size. If done properly, this simple portafilter would produce naturally rich crema without oxidizing the coffee prematurely. And it doesn’t add an extra work for the pump to force the liquid through a tiny hole. This allows the use of finer ground coffee and the ability to tamp the coffee tighter to allow maximum water contact at higher pressure when brewing the espresso.

    For a person who is able to appreciate finer taste of things like you, I would recommend you to get this pro-like machine that uses professional grade portafilter. Although it would be harder to produce good espresso at first, but with some fine tuning and practice, the result would worth every drop. This may sound expensive but believe me, it is much cheaper to get these machines in the US than in Asia. If you want to go an extra length in controlling the brewing pressure with your hands, have a look at “lever espresso machine”. Mastering these lever machines and you will be an espresso Jedi!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kray, this is very useful information, thank you for taking the time to put all this down. I haven’t had much of a chance to try out different machines, especially the “next level” with the lever machines. I am fascinated with the idea of actually “pulling” an espresso though, and hopefully some day I’ll be able to shell out enough money for one of those.


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