Troubleshooting your espresso shot

Is your espresso coming out too fast, too slow, or does it taste terrible? That sucks. Read this page, maybe we can fix that.

What to expect

The major factor here is what type of machine you have. Anything powered by steam will never get much of a crema, because the water gets too hot for one to form.

Fancier home machines with a pump may take some experimentation, but you should be able to get some decent espresso at the very least. But keep in mind these need at the very least 20 minutes to warm up. “Semi-pro” home machines will make great espresso; but they take even longer to heat up since they have a heavier boiler.

Super automatics are convenient, but often don’t offer quality components or enough settings to get your coffee to come out perfectly. But the good news is that robots aren’t ready to take over yet. Oh, and these machines also require constant cleaning. Make sure you clean them regularly or they get pretty nasty.

Too fast or too slow, yo

Unless you have one of those manual level espresso machines, the speed at which the water travels through the coffee doesn’t change. So what to do?

The following factors will affect the speed at which espresso comes through, and can be use to tweak the timing.

  • Grind. The more finely ground your coffee is, the slower the water will come through.
  • Tamping pressure. Too hard and the water can’t get through; too little (or none at all) and it will pour through like a fountain.
  • Amount of coffee. The more coffee that goes in that filter basket, the slower water will be able to get through.

So those are the parameters you want to tweak. Use a stopwatch (I use my mobile phone) to calibrate these parameters, and aim for around 30 seconds for your shot.

Temperature surfing

Unless your machine has a computerized thermostat — also known as a “Proportional Integral Derivative” (PID) controller — you need to read this section.

Your espresso machine has a light on it somewhere that turns on whenever the boiler is on. Once this light turns OFF, it means the boiler has gotten too hot. As soon as it’s off, it begins to cool down.

Using a stopwatch and a thermometer, run some water through the machine after a period of time has elapsed. Write it down somewhere. Now wait for the machine to warm up and try again. Keep doing this until you’ve found the proper temperature of about 200F/93C.

Once you’ve found the number of seconds after the boiler clicks off that you hit the correct temperature, that’s when you should begin your shot from now on.

When in doubt, clean

Often times, the problem is your espresso machine is filthy. You know how some gasoline contains chemicals to keep your engine clean? Your coffee doesn’t have anything like that; in fact it’s very much the opposite.

Not sure how to clean your espresso machine? Read my guide.