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Whether you’re a seasoned pro or someone who’s just got their first espresso machine, dialing in espresso can be challenging.
Trying to align various brewing variables, such as the coffee’s freshness, humidity, temperature, etc., takes practice.
Each of these factors will ultimately affect how your espresso pulls, and with each new bag of coffee, you’re essentially starting with a blank slate.
Even if you nail the perfect espresso shot in the morning, you will more than likely have to dial in again later in the day.
Environmental changes, such as humidity and temperature, or stale coffee stuck in your grinder, will alter the parameters of your original dialed-in espresso.
Okay. I get it. This all sounds way too confusing, especially if you’ve only just unboxed your new machine and barely finished reading through the basic setup guide.
But bear with me. Once you’ve reached the end of this article, you’ll be on your way to brewing some great-tasting espresso shots. I promise.
What Is An Espresso Recipe?
It all begins with an espresso recipe. An espresso brew recipe is just like any other recipe; it’s just a list of ingredients with instructions to follow.
The recipe for espresso includes:
- The ground coffee weight (dose).
- The amount of brewed espresso (yield).
- Brew time.
- Water temperature.
Why Do We Need An Espresso Brew Recipe?
Without a recipe, you’re basically winging it, and you’ll never be able to recreate the same shot twice.
Great-tasting coffee doesn’t just magically land in the cup. It tasks practice and then some more practice, and maybe a bit more until you’ve found the sweet spot and are able to extract the correct flavor profile from your beans.
What Is Dialing In Espresso?
Dialing in espresso is the act of calibrating your machine and grinder to follow a particular brew recipe.
By manipulating the dose, time, yield, and grind size, you can align the parameters needed to pull the perfect shot of espresso with the coffee beans you’re using.
Below I will cover each of the parameters (does, yield, brewing ratios, espresso extraction time, and grind size) in more detail.
Remember, by influencing any of these variables, you will be able to alter the espresso taste and look of your shot.
Coffee Dose And Tamping
When dialing in espresso, always try to brew a double shot as they will always pull much more consistently than single shots.
For this, you’ll need 16 – 18 grams of coffee (this is the typical dose range for a double espresso).
The “starter” coffee bean grind should feel a bit finer than fine table salt. Add to your portafilter, carefully distribute the grounds in the filter basket, and wipe away any excess from the sides with your finger.
Next, use a tamper to compress the coffee grounds evenly.
You’re aiming for a smooth and level surface using about 30 lbs of pressure. If you’re not sure what 30 lbs is, try practicing on a regular bathroom weighing scale to help improve your muscle memory.
If you’re struggling with being consistent, I suggest investing in a calibrated tamper like the Espro Calibrated Tamper; it makes it super easy to maintain consistency.
The yield refers to the amount of coffee that comes out of the espresso machine.
It can be measured by two variables: volume and mass. By using a good accurate coffee scale, you can measure the espresso mass.
In most cases, for a home enthusiast, using a scale and your tastebuds will be enough to ensure you’re dialing-in correctly.
But for the coffee geeks of the world, a refractometer can be used to also compute total dissolved solids.
When scrutinizing the amount of brewed espresso, make sure you’ve taken notes on the espresso brew time, the dose amount, and grind size so you can compare it to your recipe.
The espresso brewing ratio denotes the connection between the dose and the yield.
For a standard shot of espresso, the ratio is typically around 1:2. So this means that for every gram of coffee, you will yield 2 grams of liquid espresso.
Another way to look at brewing ratios is as a scaling measurement.
For example, if you have a larger amount of ground coffee, you can make more liquid espresso. However, the physical limitation would be the filter basket size.
Let’s look at a couple of espresso drinks to help you visualize.
- A strong-tasting thick, and heavy Ristretto calls for a ratio of 1:1.
- A delicate and slightly weak Lungo is at a 1:3 ratio.
Once you know the ratios, you can adjust them to any espresso machine you use, in spite of the parameters discussed earlier.
By keeping a fixed dose and changing the yield, you will effectively change your extraction and brew strength.
More water that passes through a set amount of ground coffee will increase the extraction but comes with a loss of strength.
The extra amount of water used for extracting more flavor will also end up diluting the espresso. On the flip side, if you use less water, you’ll end up with an espresso that tastes stronger but is less extracted.
When dialing in your espresso with any machine, I suggest starting with a pretty standard brew ratio of 1:2 and working your way down from there through trial and error.
Okay, here is an example. Using a target dose of 20 grams and with a brew ratio of 1:2, you should have a yield of 40 grams.
With a coffee scale and cup in place, you need to continually pass water through the coffee grounds and stop once you reach the target yield.
However, if you stop the shot as the scale reads 40 grams, you will always overshoot by a few grams due to the excess dripping through the portafilter.
This is where a bit of skill comes into play. You need to stop your extraction before the scale hits 40 grams.
Depending on your espresso machine, the excess drip is typically around 2-5 grams.
After some practice, you will know just how much extra your machine drips, and you can adjust accordingly.
Say you have 3 grams of excess. You would stop the extraction when your scale reads 37 grams, allowing the extra drips to bring the yield to where it needs to be – 40 grams.
Time is the driver of extraction and can be looked at in two ways: how much time was needed to reach the target yield or the total amount of time that the water was in contact with the ground coffee.
A typical extraction time is between 25 – 30 seconds. So if you land in this range, you’re in the right ballpark.
Simply put: more time equals more extraction and more strength.
Assuming your tamping pressure is consistent and everything else is equal, your coffee grind’s size will affect extraction time the most.
This variable is last on the list because it has a knock-on effect with all of the other espresso parameters I’ve spoken about so far.
- Coarser Grind = faster shot time
- Finer Grind = slower shot time
A coarse coffee grind will mean a faster extracted coffee. A finer grind will translate to a slower time.
You get the idea.
Dialing in espresso too sour and having a thin body usually means that your brew time is too short. So this indicates that your coffee grind is probably too coarse, and by adjusting your grind, you can fix the issue.
If you find your espresso too bitter or ashy, your brew time is more than likely too long, which translates to having a grind that is too fine and can be corrected by coarsening your grind.
It’s worth noting that varying roast levels will grind differently when ground with the same grind setting.
Take darker roasted coffee as an example. They often brew faster with slightly less crema than medium or light roasts.
It’s just another factor to keep in mind when you’re dialing in espresso grind.
Espresso Dialing In Conclusion
If you have stuck around to the end, you should now have a better understanding of how to dial in a shot of espresso.
If you follow this guide and play around with your home espresso setup, you will eventually find that sweet spot when everything aligns.
Remember that consistency with all the variables is crucial to getting a great-tasting cup of espresso. Your coffee grind is one of the most critical components to achieving that.
Having the skill of being able to dial in any espresso blend or single origin with any grinder or espresso machine is the strongest indication of a skilled barista or home coffee enthusiast.
Don’t be afraid to tweak the different components of your espresso shot – have fun!