You’ve splurged on a great machine and fresh beans, but you’re still pulling ok shots. What’s the issue? Well, you need to dial in your espresso machine. Every machine and every bag of beans needs to get “dialed in”, which involves changing the grind size and shot volume to get the best espresso flavor
I’ve had my fair share of dialing in concerns — from puck channeling and clumping – until I understood how to change the dialing in parameters and how important grind size is when dialing in espresso.
Today I’ll explain what is dialing in, and I’ll talk you through my dialing in process, so you’ll be a pro at extracting a flavorful espresso shot.
If you take away one thing, it’s this: grind finer.
What Does it Mean to Dial-in In Espresso?
Dialing in espresso means tweaking the espresso brewing process to perfection. You want to extract the best amount of soluble flavor from the beans with the correct water amount. The best way to do this is to adjust the espresso parameters.
Espresso is a notoriously sensitive drink, and every change in the parameters makes a big difference.
Note: It’s crucial that you only change one parameter at a time. Otherwise, you’ll lose track of which change has affected the espresso flavor.
To properly dial in espresso, you should time how long it takes to pull the shot and then make adjustments to the grind size until you can produce a shot in 25 to 30 seconds when the espresso machine is fully warmed up.
Understanding Parameters That Go Into Great Espresso
There are three inputs to control for great espresso: dose, yield, and brew time. Changing these parameters is also called calibration, and by changing them, you’re altering the flavor of the espresso shot, for better or for worse.
Here’s a quick rundown of each parameter.
Dose (Coffee Grounds In)
The dose is the amount of ground coffee you place in the portafilter. You should always measure dose by weight (not volume) and it’s usually measured in grams. You shouldn’t use dose to change brew time but to establish the yield, i.e., the wet weight of the espresso.
A standard dose is between 18 to 21g of ground coffee for a double espresso shot. This depends on your filter basket. You should use a scale to measure the amount of coffee grinds.
The dose depends on the beans you’re using and even the age of the beans (as older beans usually need a higher dose to get the same flavor). Each coffee has specific characteristics, so you’ll need to adjust the grind size until you find the perfect amount.
After dosing the ground coffee in the portafilter, you need to distribute the grounds. Tap the portafilter so the coffee bed is even. Then use the tamper to compress the ground coffee.
Yield (Espresso Volume Out)
Yield is the wet weight of the extracted espresso, or in other words, how much espresso is in your cup. The higher your yield, the more water has passed through the ground coffee, and the less concentrated your espresso.
The ratio helps you define yield in relation to the dose. The proper brew ratio is 1:2 or 1:3. This means that you need two or three grams of water for every gram of ground coffee in the filter basket.
My advice is to start with a 1:2 ratio and then alter it if you notice any issues. For example, a lower ratio, such as 1:1.5, will yield a more concentrated espresso that tends to be sourer. A higher ratio, such as 1:2.5 or 1:3, will make delicate flavors more noticeable and have a richer taste.
Ideally, your ratio should yield a 2 to 2.5oz shot of espresso in 25 to 30 seconds.
Overall, yield is the final step before tasting the shot, and it can be a guide to help you understand what to change in your espresso.
Brewing Time (Measuring Pour Speed)
Coffee brewing time is how long it takes the machine to extract the espresso or the period during which coffee grounds are submerged in water, which leads to yield. This is the last parameter you should focus on during the dialing in process.
Most baristas have a brew time between 25 to 30 seconds. If your espresso is extracted in less time than this, it’ll usually be acidic and have less of a body. But, if your espresso is extracted for longer than this, the espresso taste will be bitter and dry.
Changing the grind setting affects the brew time. The coarser the grinds, the faster the water goes through the coffee, and vice versa.
Overall, if your shot is getting extracted in less than 20 to 25 seconds, you should go for a finer grind size (more on that below).
Pro tip: Make sure your filter basket is dry because a wet basket will start the extraction process before you intend it.
Dial in the Grind Size
Changing the grind size is the best way to dial in espresso. You should adjust the coffee grinder settings in small increments because over or underestimating grind size can make big differences in the coffee puck extraction. You should be consistent with dosing weight, tamp, and brew temperature when dialing in.
The initial grind size should produce grounds that feel slightly finer than granulated sugar, and closer to powdered sugar. Start with this grind setting, and make adjustments until you get the consistency right.
You should also purge coffee grinders to avoid grinder retention issues. You do this by running the grinder for a couple of seconds to clear out old or stale grinds that end up stuck on the grinder’s burrs.
Another thing to keep in mind is that every coffee is different. The general rule is that the bigger the coffee bean, the less dense its structure, and it will have a faster grind and varied particles.
Each time you change the coffee you use, it’s going to grind differently, which means you’ll have to go through the dialing in and finding the right grind size each time.
If you ask someone for advice on espresso, here’s the likely answer:
“Grind Finer”-Baristas everywhere
“Grind finer” is the most frequent espresso advice I’ve heard. Overall, this is the best tip for improving your espresso flavor. I suspect the issue is always “grind finer” because we’re too used to coarse medium grounds from drip coffee. Or, maybe it’s because espresso is finely ground regardless, that we always think it has to be fine enough. But, almost always, when in doubt, grind finer.
The finer the grind, the more extraction you’ll get. Start with a fine grind and keep grinding finer until espresso doesn’t flow, then step it back to get that 25 to 30 seconds coffee brewing time.
Here’s how to know if you should grind finer or coarser.
If you get drips at first and the extraction finishes too slow or not at all, it’s a sign you should go for a coarser grind. A coarser grind increases particle size and allows the water to flow faster.
Overall, grinding coarse can be the answer if the espresso isn’t flowing or if it’s just too bitter and burnt. The aim is to have balanced flavors — rich, but not bitter.
Like I said, you want to grind finer almost always. You should change the grind size to a finer setting if the extraction takes less than 20 seconds.
A fine grind setting makes it harder for water to pass through the coffee puck. This results in a longer extraction time. For example, 30 seconds is ideal, but 40 and over is too long.
If your espresso tastes sour or sharp, that’s a sign you need to grind finer. A sour espresso is a sign of under extraction and you should go finer for good espresso.
Changing the Dose and Yield
The dose and yield are the second steps to dial in your espresso. The key here is to either add more coffee (dose) or pull a bigger shot (yield) to find the right brew ratio between coffee to water.
I found you change the yield (espresso shot) much more than the dose. That’s because most filter baskets have fixed volume, so you can’t go below 18g nor above 22g without puck issues.
But, every espresso machine has some volumetric control where you can time the shot. Use a scale and measure how much volume is coming out. Tweak the brew ratio from 1:2 up to 1:3 by increasing the yield (espresso coming out) as the second layer of dialing in.
Generally, you want to go to a higher ratio to get more extraction. You’ll find the taste changes to a richer and fuller taste. But, as you get to 1:3 ratio, espresso will get bitter. I find the sweet spot is 1:2.5 or 1:2.7 or 45 grams out for 20 grams in.
Once you get the dose right, you shouldn’t change it throughout the rest of the brew method, as this will make it easier to control other parameters (yield and brew time).
Other Troubleshooting Tips
I know I mentioned this, but I can’t stress it enough: only change one parameter at a time. Otherwise, you won’t know what influenced the flavor to go better or worse.
Also, remember that YOU are the ultimate judge of espresso flavor. A delicious espresso for one person may be bad for another. Change the dialing in process until it hits your sweet spot.
A perfect espresso should balance richness, acidity, and sweetness. These should support one another for a balanced flavor profile.
Take notes about the flavor, parameters, what works, and what doesn’t. Think of it as a “dial in journal.” Good baristas dial in espresso machines multiple times daily to make sure they’re being consistent, and grind retention isn’t an issue.
I note each change I made and its result, so I don’t end up repeating something that doesn’t work and wasting coffee beans.
Also, you’ll occasionally be able to see when the espresso isn’t right. For example, spots or streaks in the crema signify over-extraction. But, for the most part, you’ll need to use your sense of taste to notice when things are right or not.
The final two things you can modify are water temperature and pre-infusion.
You can increase extraction with a higher water temperature and vice versa. Most espresso machines have temperature settings, which gives you one more thing to tweak. However, if your budget espresso machine doesn’t have temperature control, try flushing the brew group a few times to heat it up.
Most espresso machines allow you to change the pre-infusion, which is the low-pressure time to start the shot, which wets the puck and effectively blooms the espresso.
I found a longer pre-infusion time improves extraction. The extra wetting levels the coffee puck and prevents channeling for a good espresso.
How to judge espresso flavor to troubleshoot
- Too bitter — Over-extracted. The flow starts after 12 seconds and drips or doesn’t flow at all. You have dark and spotty crema and dark brown espresso. You need a lower shot time. Go for a coarser grind while keeping the coffee dose and yield the same until the bitterness goes away.
- Too sour — Under-extracted. The acids are the first ones to go out into the cup, and if the extraction time is too short, you’ll be left with lower TDS and body. The flow starts in 1 to 6 seconds and goes fast, like water. You have thin and pale crema and pale brown espresso. Go for a finer grind and keep the coffee dose and yield the same until you get a balanced flavor.
To compare, here’s what correct extraction looks like: it starts in 8 to 12 seconds and flows slowly like warm honey. Espresso is dark brown with a golden brown crema with a mousse texture.
Once you’re done extracting, remove the used grounds and rinse the filter basket to prevent blockages.
Dial in Espresso Machine: Final Thoughts
Dialing in the espresso machine is all about changing the brewing process until you get espresso suited to your flavor preferences. You can change all espresso parameters: dose, yield, and brew time. When in doubt, grind finer. If further in doubt, increase the yield.
Overall, dialing in takes time, so don’t get frustrated if you don’t get it right on the first, second, or even third try. Once you get a flavorful espresso shot, it’ll be worth it. Now that you’re an expert in dialing in, check out our guide on how to use an espresso machine.