Espresso has always had a mystical aura around it and for someone new to coffee this can be a daunting thing. Whether you’re a home barista or new behind the espresso bar, dialing in espresso doesn’t need to be so scary.

Together we will explore the parameters that affect espresso extraction and break down all the barriers to demystify dialing in espresso.

This how-to on dialing in espresso will go through the fundamental steps required to dial in any espresso using only our taste buds as our guide.

By the end of this comprehensive guide, you will learn a very powerful system of dialing in espresso that will help you get a much better understanding of coffee.

Welcome to the ultimate guide to dialing in espresso for newbies, are you ready?

The espresso recipe

Every espresso recipe should start off life on a piece of paper written up as a recipe; extracted, tasted, and constantly refined.

Regardless of brewing style, the goal of brewing coffee is the same; to dissolve just the right amount soluble flavour and aromatic compounds into our brewing water at just the right strength to make it delicious.

To control the rate of extraction and the final strength of our espresso, we must consider three basic parameters in our espresso recipe; dose, yield and time.

These three parameters on their own have a huge impact on our extraction. To get the most delicious espresso, we must fully understand and control them to get the best possible outcome from the beans we have in our grinder.

Every coffee will have its own recipe or set of numbers that will make it taste good. This is due in part to provenance (origin), climate, variety, processing method, roast degree, and equipment.

For example, the perfect recipe for one Kenyan SL-28 coffee might not necessarily translate well to a different SL-28 variety coffee from the same region in Kenya.

Let’s break down the recipe into its components.

Dose

The dose or dosage refers to how much ground coffee is being used in our brewing system.

In the case of espresso, we must first decide on which portafilter we want to use; either the single or double spouted portafilter. Sitting inside the portafilter is a filter basket held in place with a spring.

How much ground coffee your basket holds depends largely on its diameter and depth. I’ve written a quick 3 step guide on how to size your filter basket in another post. So if you don’t already know your basket size, make sure you read the guide before continuing.

Once you have sized your filter basket, for the purposes of this guide, it is advisable to dose exactly that amount of coffee in. For example, if you have a 14-gram basket, you should dose 14 grams of ground coffee into it. If you have a 22-gram basket, dose 22 grams of ground coffee etc.

If it isn’t already obvious, we’re going to need a good digital scale. At The Espresso School we use the Brewista Smart Scale II to measure both doses and yields. This scale has a resolution and accuracy of 0.1 gram up to 2,000 grams.

In this example, we will be using a 20-gram straight walled double filter basket, so we will be dosing in 20 grams of ground coffee.

After dosing, evenly distribute the ground coffee in the portafilter to prepare it for a flat and firm tamp. We are now ready for brewing.

Yield

The yield refers to the total liquid output of espresso from the machine.

The yield has two properties we can measure, namely volume and mass. The preferred property is weighing the espresso mass (a.k.a yield) for ease of measurement and consistency.

The Brew Ratio is a concept that defines the relationship between the dose and the yield. For regular espresso, this ratio is ideally at or close to 1:2. A 1:2 ratio means for every gram of coffee in your basket, double it for your liquid espresso yield out.

For example, a 20-gram dose at 1:2 would yield a 40-gram double espresso. 18 grams in, 36 grams out. 25 grams in, 50 grams out. You get the idea!

At a ratio of 1:1 you’re in ristretto territory, thick, heavy and strong. At 1:3 you’re in lungo land, thin, delicate and weak.

We recommend a starting at a brew ratio of 1:2. In our example, the target dose of 20 grams in means our target yield should be 40 grams out.

To achieve this, we will need to extract the espresso on scales until the target yield has been reached. So whip out those trusty scales again because it is now time to brew.

What you will have noticed is that if you cut off the shot when the scale reads 40 grams, the drips of espresso at the end of your shot will contribute to your final yield causing you to overshoot the target.

You must offset this by cutting your extraction off earlier by exactly this amount of overshoot.

The drip offset is usually somewhere between 4-5 grams depending on your machine, coffee and grinder setup. Cutting off the extraction at 36 grams will allow the drips to bring the final yield up to our target of 40 grams.

Time

Time is the final piece of the puzzle in our recipe and can be thought of as two ways:

  • how long did it take for the target yield to enter my cup
  • how long did the coffee grinds stay in contact with the water for

Time is a driver for extraction. It’s very simple and analogous to brewing tea. More time = more extraction and more strength.

Leave your tea in the water for too long and it becomes very dark, too strong, bitter and astringent (puckering dry sensation on the palate). Conversely, not enough time will make an insipid, thin and weak brew.

Coffee is much the same.

In the case of espresso, if you brew too quickly, the coffee is not only underwhelming in flavour but it also becomes overwhelmingly acidic and jagged. This is a low-quality acidity is often associated with a perceived sourness.

Conversely, an espresso that takes too long to come out will result in a brew that is strong, bitter and dry.

It’s all in the grind

Assuming constant tamping pressure, the brewing time is largely influenced by your grind size.

Imagine you have two identical pipes of equal length and diameter. The first pipe is filled up with gravel whilst the second pipe is filled with coarse sand. You then try to filter water through both pipes.

One pipe will allow water to flow faster than the other. The gravel, having more space or gaps will allow the water to filter through faster than the sand. And that is, in essence, the effect of grind setting.

Coarser = faster shot time
Finer = slower show time

We recommend you shoot for a time of 25-27 seconds for now.

Too slow?

After dosing in 20 grams and your 40-gram yield came out faster than 25 seconds, adjust your grinder finer, purge out 2-3 seconds worth of grinds and repeat.

Too fast?

If your 40-gram yield took longer than 28 seconds to come out, adjust your grinder coarser, purge out 2-3 seconds worth of grinds and repeat.

Locking down strength

The next step to dialing in espresso after shooting for a basic extraction is to find a strength of espresso that you enjoy.

Strength is a personal preference and entirely your choice. Strength is largely dictated by the espresso yield, the second parameter of the espresso recipe.

Was the espresso you just made weak, strong or just right?

If the strength was just right, then the brew ratio of 1:2 is perfect, you can skip to the next stage, locking down flavour.

Too weak?

If the espresso was weak, pull another shot 2 grams shorter in yield (you may have to grind finer to keep it brewing between 25 and 27 seconds).

Too strong?

If the espresso was strong, pull another shot 2 grams longer in yield (you may have to grind coarser to keep the brewing time down).

Keep iterating in 2-gram increments up or down in yield until you have reached a desired strength. This will become your new target yield.

Locking down flavour balance

Now that we are at your desired strength, it’s time to lock down the flavour balance. This part of dialing in espresso is largely influenced by extraction time, the last parameter of the recipe.

The perfect espresso is neither overly acidic, nor bitter. What you’ll often hear from coffee pros is that they are looking for a harmonious balance of acidity, bitterness and sweetness from the coffee.

It is important to note that equal intensity doesn’t necessarily imply balance. It is how all three aspects of flavour (sweet, sour, bitter) help support one another to achieve an overall flavour balance.

Too bitter?

It’s likely you over-extracted your coffee. Grind coarser until the bitterness fades away. This is your new target extraction time.

Too sour?

If your espresso is sour and sharp, it’s likely the espresso is under-extracted. Grind finer until the espresso is balanced. This is your new target extraction time.

Not bitter, not sour?

If your coffee is already balanced, we lucked into the correct brewing time for your coffee, happy days.

Congratulations

You just learnt a powerful system for dialing in espresso. You now have a fully defined recipe that is pleasing in not only strength but also in flavour balance!

As always, if you have any questions about dialing in espresso, let me know in the comments section below. Happy brewing.

8 Comments
  1. I use a single boiler machine at home to brew espresso. I like to drink black coffee ..i use Americano technique generally.moreover I enjoy the whole process..but yet not getting it right

    I hv tried using 18 gm..17gm..15gm..and 14gm..

    Anything less than 15 gm..my coffee puck becomes soupy..I find water hovering over my basket after removing from The machine. What am I doing wrong..or is it just bcoz it’s not a professional machine but a home made one?

    I have been trying to readjust the grind settings to find the sweet spot..but it keeps changing. I thought I found the sweet spot..but next shot again a bitter one..same technique though.

    Also i think my portafilter can accommodate 14 to 15 gm coffee..more than this the tamper won’t press it below the rim. So for 14 gm..25 sec..2 Oz of yield is what I keep achieving. Taste is sometimes bitter.. sometimes sour..rarely better.

    Anything different i shud try?

    1. Hi Parag,
      Great questions. A single boiler machine can be tricky to master as it is inherently unstable in brewing temperature, more on this later!

      For now let’s try and solve your puck problem. I’d suggest you dose 15 grams of coffee into your basket. If you are particularly concerned about the excess water atop the puck post extraction, I’d extract slightly less than 2 fl oz. Aim for 1.5 fl oz and see if that helps. This will also help with the bitterness aspect as you might be passing too much water through your coffee leading to over-extraction. To be sure, it’s better to use scales for brewing. 15 gram dose, 30 gram double espresso.

      Generally speaking, if the coffee tastes good, don’t worry about wet pucks. It’s not the end of the world.

      Bitterness and sourness are always going to be aspects of coffee flavour, however, it important to understand that these flavours must be in balance. If you feel it is overwhelmingly bitter or sour, this is obviously not good.

      Sourness could be because the water from the boiler of the machine is under temperature (less than 92 degrees Celcius). Likewise, bitterness could be because the boiler is heating the brewing water above 96 degrees Celcius. This is an inherent shortcoming of cheaper single boiler machines with rudimentary temperature control that does not maintain the water at the correct temperatures.

      I recommend you google “temperature surfing” for single boiler machines. Basically, you want to have a repeatable brewing temperature. To do this wait for the boiler to reach the top of the heating cycle. Once the boiler light turns off, start counting X number of seconds before extracting. Try 20 seconds for a start. This will allow the water to cool slightly and you’ll have a fairly even temperature to extract from every time. Add more time if the coffee is still bitter. Count for a shorter time if it is too sour.

      Good luck!

  2. Hi. Awesome blog thankyou! I just bought a breville express 870. When do u begin timing the shot to get the 25-27 sec range? ..is it when press dose button to begin shot or when preinfusion finishes a few seconds after button pressed or when first drips start? Thank you so much for help and your easy to follow guide :)

  3. Hi,

    Like Mitch, I have also just purchased the barista express. Ive had mixed comments from people about using the single/double buttons. For a typical FW/Latte, what is recommended? Using the single cup filter, with a single cup extraction? What is the recommended dose ‘grammage’ for that?

    1. Hi Dan, personally I’d use an entire double shot from the Barista Express for any milk-based drink (due to the smaller basket size). This means you’re stuck making one drink at a time from the double basket.

  4. Hi,

    I’m new to this world. Everyday i tend to love my coffee just a little bit stronger!

    I have the Breville oracle touch machine. Double basket is fixed at 22g. Using a 1:2 brew ratio, yield would be 44g. I’m able to get a 44g yield in a 25 sec extraction.

    Q1: Do you think 44g yield in 25 sec is too short? From what I read here, 25-27 sec extraction is best. From what I read somewhere else, extraction could be as much as 35 sec.

    Q2: Considering a 44g yield in one single cup (double shot), what would be the best amount of milk to add for a perfect latte? And what would it be for a perfect cortado and flat white as well?

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Alex,

      There is not magic yield or time for a coffee. Each coffee depending on its origin, the soil and climate it is grown in, the species and variety, processing method, roasting, water chemistry and a host of other variables will change what is the right yield and brewing time. In other words, each coffee will have a unique set of numbers (a recipe) that will make that coffee taste good. What works for one coffee will not work for another, even if it is from the same region, same species and variety and the same processing method.

      Q1) I don’t know. I can’t taste the coffee. Is the coffee unbalanced and too acidic? Grind finer and increase the brew time. Is the coffee too bitter and rough? Grind coarser and decrease the brew time. Time of extraction will change the flavour balance.

      I’ve had incredible espressos brewed as quickly as 18 seconds and as long as 38 seconds. It just depends.

      Q2) Again, there is no one single answer here. It comes down to personal preference. Add as much or as little milk that you deem to taste good.

      Sorry we couldn’t provide any concrete answers.

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