How to dial in espresso: enjoy a perfect espresso every time

Looking for the secret on how to make the perfect espresso? It’s all about how you dial it in!

Understanding how to dial in espresso is the trick to making perfect espresso shots every time.

On the surface, it may seem like an overcomplicated process at first. And, if you’re just beginning your journey into the world of home brewing espresso, you may find it initially a bit frustrating.

But once you get some practice in, the results are worth the effort. Plus, you’ll find that it’s much more simple than it appears!

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What does dialling in espresso mean?

Before you show you how to dial in espresso, let’s explain what we mean by dialling in espresso.

Dialling in espresso simply means getting every variable right to make that perfect shot.

If you don’t dial in espresso, you can end up with super bitter or sour coffee that doesn’t do the coffee beans justice, and simply doesn’t taste good.

To dial in your espresso, you’ll take steps to adjust the equipment you’re using, the size of the coffee grinds and your timing for each brew.

Let’s take a look at each of the five most important components you’ll want to consider in order to brew the perfect espresso.

How to dial in espresso: step by step

When it comes to knowing how to dial in espresso, there are five main variables to think about.

Here’s a step by step guide to making sure each of them is primed to make the perfect espresso shot.

When using these five steps as your guide, it’s easy to find a workflow that works well for you and makes it easier to get consistent results. 

The five steps – which we will break down in more detail – are as follows: 

  1. Espresso Dose
  2. Grind size 
  3. Distribution
  4. Espresso ratio
  5. Extraction time

Let’s take a look at how each of these factors affects your espresso – and how to make the perfect espresso by adjusting them correctly.

1 – Understanding espresso dose ratio

The first step in making the perfect espresso is getting your espresso dose right.

When we use the word dose, it simply refers to the quantity of ground coffee in your portafilter basket.

And, when it comes to brewing the perfect espresso, the dose you use can vary between 7g and 24g. This will depend on the size of the basket and the espresso machine you’re using. 

Like many specialty coffee shops, we use 18 grams of ground espresso beans for every double shot of espresso (and we serve double shots as standard).

If you’re new to dialling in espresso, this is a perfect base from which to start. 

how to make the perfect espresso

2 – Getting the right grind size for the perfect espresso

The next – and probably the most important – part of how to dial in espresso is the grind size.

The best way to think about grind size is to imagine your coffee basket and grounds as rocks and sand in a tube.

If the coffee is ground too coarse, the water will have no resistance and freely flow through the coffee grounds. It’s like pouring water over a tube of large rocks.

On the other hand, if your coffee is ground too fine, the water will have too much resistance and therefore not be able to get through the water fast enough for brewing. 

In this scenario, the coffee grounds are more like sand in a tube.

Ideally, your grind size should allow the water from the machine to flow at a clean, steady rate which incorporates the pre-infusion and the brewing of the coffee.

By allowing this to happen, you’ll create an espresso that is balanced and tastes great. When extracted at the correct speed, your espresso will also have lots of creamy crema – perfect if you enjoy making latte art.

As mentioned above, every espresso machine is very different and the same is true for coffee grinders.

Of all the coffee equipment you can invest in, a good grinder will make the biggest impact when dialling in the perfect espresso.

A grinder such as the Eureka Mignon Specialista or the Baratza Sette 270Wi will provide a consistent grind that will make dialling in espresso much easier.

Unfortunately, a good grinder does come at a pretty steep price. And even though it’s worth it – and could still save you money – it won’t be within every coffee lover’s immediate budget.  

If this is the case for you, a hand grinder will be a very worthy investment. This requires some elbow grease but can provide an equally consistent result.

The 12presso Q2 and Hario Skerton Pro are two of the most popular hand grinders, and neither will set you back more than 50-100 Euros.

Whether you have an electric coffee grinder or a hand grinder, the most important thing is to know how to adjust it.

If the espresso runs too fast, you need to grind more finely. If the espresso shot runs too slowly, you’ll need to grind on a coarser setting.

3 – Getting good distribution in your espresso shot

Another important step to take into consideration when brewing espresso is the distribution of the coffee grounds in the coffee basket. 

After putting in so much effort to make sure the coffee is ground perfectly, you don’t want to waste it all at the next step.

Making sure the coffee is evenly spread through the basket only serves to make a good espresso shot a really great espresso shot. 

There are many different tools available to help you spread and distribute the ground coffee evenly throughout the portafilter basket. 

You will notice when first pouring your ground coffee into the basket that it will stand uneven and have peaks and troughs.

If brewed like this, without distribution, you will notice channelling. This is when the water does not filter through the coffee evenly because there are areas of less resistance.

This is why the distribution of the coffee evenly throughout the basket is important for brewing the perfect espresso.

The easiest way to ensure even distribution through the coffee basket is to use a distribution tool.

Just like grinders, these range in price from DIY to expensive. But they all fundamentally do the same thing: break up the clumps of ground coffee and evenly distribute the coffee throughout the basket. 

Once distributed, you can then move on to tamping the coffee grounds. Again, a good tool will make the process easier.

We like to use a tamper with a spring in our shops to ensure consistency between baristas. You can buy one of these for home, or you can use a regular tamper such as this one. Just make sure you use the right size for your portafilter!

The purpose of tamping is to compact the coffee in the basket and it is a crucial step in dialling in espresso.

how to dial in espresso

4 – Get your espresso ratio right

So you have your espresso dose, your grind size is dialled in, your coffee grounds are evenly distributed in the basket and now it’s the moment of truth: espresso extraction. 

The next thing to consider is the ratio of coffee to water (i.e. the espresso ratio).

This may seem more complicated than it is, but it doesn’t have to be. The simplest way to remember is that it’s essentially a 1:2 ratio. So, for every one gram of ground coffee, you are looking for two grams of water.

For example, if you have 18 grams of coffee in your portafilter, you are ultimately looking to extract 36 grams of coffee. 

A very easy way to measure the output is to simply put a small scale under your cup to measure the espresso extraction.

5 – Adjusting espresso extraction time

The next step in this stage is making sure the espresso extraction time is correct. Ideally, to get the best out of your espresso shot, you are aiming for an extraction time of around 25 to 30 seconds.

Again, this will vary depending on the origin of the beans you are using – for example, African coffee beans tend to taste better on the sour side – and your own personal preferences.

However, this should be a good starting point.

If your extraction time runs too fast, you will find the coffee tastes quite sour. Some people prefer a more sour coffee, so you might want to aim for a faster time if this is you!

If the extraction runs too long, the end result will be a bitter espresso. You’ll know it’s bitter if you feel like you need to add sugar!

You can increase the extraction time by grinding the coffee finer or reduce it by using a coarser grind setting.

When it comes to timing the shot, there is some debate out there in the coffee world as to when you start your timer.

Some baristas will start their timer as soon as the button is pressed on the coffee machine and others will start the timer as soon as the first drop of coffee is extracted through the basket. 

There would not be a huge amount of difference in time so you can choose which one you prefer. Just make sure you use the same method every time when dialling in espresso.

Output reviewing your perfect espresso

The final stage of brewing perfect espresso is a simple one, and we call this “the output”. 

The output of the brewing process is simply your observation of all of the steps above.

If you haven’t created the perfect espresso, it’s time to take a look at what went wrong and adjust accordingly.

You may want to inspect the portafilter to see if there are any signs of channelling or weigh the shot to make sure you have the right extraction ratio.

If these are both okay, then you’ll most likely need to adjust the grind size.

How to make the perfect espresso

So, there you have it: our five top tips for brewing the perfect espresso!

Dialling in espresso is a process that can take some practice before you get the best out of your beans, but will change your coffee drinking forever.

Even if it takes some time to get the perfect espresso shot, the most important thing you can do when beginning this journey is to enjoy each process. Coffee is there to be enjoyed, after all!

Will hope this guide to how to dial in espresso has helped you feel more confident in making espresso at home, and we hope it will help you enjoy specialty coffee even more!

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