Grabbing a quick espresso shot on your way to work is a convenient way to get that much needed energy boost. But having to run down to the local coffee shop on your day off is less than ideal.
After splurging on an expensive espresso machine, it seems like it just might be possible for you to enjoy a shot at home. But after attempting time and again to get it right, it can still be a struggle to get your espresso tasting just right.
A weak, bitter espresso shot can be such a sour disappointment. But what’s the difference between a bad espresso shot and a good one? What’s causing your homebrewed espresso disasters? Is it possible to save yourself from frustration?
Generally, a good espresso shot is one that harmoniously balances the strong, robust flavors of high-quality coffee with the rich sweetness of crema. On the other hand, a bad shot tends to be sour or watery with a strong, bitter aftertaste; the crema has dissipated, or it looks burned.
- Discover the four qualities used to characterize a good espresso and why they matter.
- Understand the signs of a bad espresso, like flavor, color, etc.
- Learn how to quickly and efficiently identify good or bad espresso.
- Tips and tricks for getting the best home brewed espresso shot every single time.
Unravel the mysteries of espresso: learn to identify and craft the finest shots. Unlock your inner barista and transform your coffee game!
- Identify Good vs. Bad Espresso Shots with Ease
- Common Espresso Pitfalls
Identify Good vs. Bad Espresso Shots with Ease
Generally speaking, once you take a sip of it, you’re going to know if your espresso shot is good or bad. Realistically, though, nobody really wants to have to ruin their day with a nasty, watered down espresso. Especially when tasting, it is not the only way to determine if the shot is good or bad.
Hallmarks of a Good Espresso Shot
More than 100 years ago, Italian businessman Luigi Bezzera set out to find a way to brew his coffee faster. Through much experimentation, he brought us the highly concentrated coffee shot that is espresso.
Over time, coffee enthusiasts have adjusted and experimented, determined to create the perfect espresso shot. Authentic espresso contains certain hallmark characteristics that determine if a coffee shot has been made correctly and is going to taste right. Recognizing these characteristics will ultimately render you successful and prevent frustration in the long run.
|Criteria||Good Espresso Shot||Bad Espresso Shot|
|Flavor Profile||Well-balanced||Sour, overly acidic, bitter, burnt|
|Mouthfeel||Full-bodied, smooth||Watery, thin|
|Crema||Consistent, velvety||Little to none, inconsistent texture|
|Extraction Time||25-30 seconds||Too short or too long|
|Temperature||195-205℉ (90-96℃)||Too hot or too cold|
|Extraction||Properly extracted||Over-extracted, under-extracted|
The first sign of a perfect espresso shot is a beautiful, amber layer of crema floating at the surface. It should be impossible to see any coffee beneath the topper. As the crema begins to dissipate, an espresso shot will die (see my article, Coffee Conundrum: Do Espresso Shots Die Over Time).
Crema can cover the coffee in a thick or thin layer, but it should never have a frothy texture. An extremely light or dark crema is a tell-tale sign that the espresso has not been brewed properly. Considered to be the “heart” of any good espresso, the crema is an excellent way to determine if your espresso is good or bad.
The intense, full-bodied aroma of a well-brewed espresso is one you will unlikely be able to ignore. Hints of toasted chocolate and whispers of fruits and flowers are characteristic of an excellent espresso. A lack of fragrance and an ashy, burnt smell generally indicate that particular espresso is likely to ruin your day.
Texture and Flavor
When it comes time to taste espresso, the texture and flavor of the shot will speak the truth about quality. An excellent espresso shot is quite dense and velvety smooth. A firm, full-bodied espresso is ideal. A thin, watery espresso is not what you’re looking for.
A harmonious combination of salty and sweet, yet sour and bitter at the same time, gives espresso its unique flavor. When one of these bold flavors overpowers an espresso, it’s likely you’ve got yourself a dead shot. However, when they work together and do their dance, it’s extremely satisfying.
It’s no secret that most any type of coffee leaves an aftertaste of some sort. However, espresso is quite unique in its vividly sweet aftertaste. An exceptional espresso shot’s mildly spicy yet somehow floral aftertaste will linger consistently and delicately. A powerful, overwhelmingly bitter aftertaste is a sign that your shot may have turned.
Common Espresso Pitfalls
After recognizing that an espresso is subpar, it’s time to figure out what’s causing it to turn out that way. Diagnosing the reason why the espresso is turning out wrong depends heavily on the characteristics of the pulled shot. Once you’ve figured out what’s causing the espresso to turn out badly, the solutions are quite easy.
A Bitter Espresso
One common issue that you may run into is bitter espresso. Aside from the taste, the puck will generally be extremely soggy. When you watch the liquid stream into the cup, it could be a pale, watery stream. The crema will probably look a bit off too.
Over-Extraction: Generally, a bitter espresso is due to over-extraction of the coffee. Typically, this happens because the water to coffee ratio is off and there is too much water passing through the coffee grounds.
Fix it: Getting your brew ratio just right is especially important to ultimately getting your espresso just right. Normally, a traditional espresso needs a 1:2-1:2.5 ratio to get a perfect espresso.
Unmaintained equipment: Properly maintaining and cleaning your equipment is essential to getting a good home-brewed espresso. A dirty espresso machine could mean oils and other residues build up, ruining your espresso.
Fix it: Simple routine maintenance and a regular deep clean will keep your espresso machine in good working order. To deep clean:
- Mix and dissolve espresso machine cleaner in water for a simple cleaning solution.
- Using a nylon brush or something similar, thoroughly scrub any removable items like the portafilter and basket.
- Backflush using a blind basket, then rinse with clean water.
- Using clean, hot water, sanitize the machine’s steam arm.
- Thoroughly scrub the drip tray.
Incorrect size grind: Unfortunately, if the grind size is too big or too fine, it will negatively impact the flavor of your espresso. It can also cause the espresso to flow either too quickly or slowly through the espresso machine.
Fix it: If you grind your own coffee, adjusting the settings on the grinder can easily solve this problem. A medium grind is ideal for a good espresso.
A Sour Espresso
Another issue you may face is an acidic, sour espresso. While a good espresso typically has hints of sour, almost fruity flavors, it should never be lip-puckeringly sour. Certain brands of coffee are characteristically a bit more sour; however, the sour flavors should never be overbearing.
Under-extraction: The most common cause of a sour espresso is under-extraction. Once again, this boils down to the water-to-coffee ratio. Only this time, there is not enough water passing through the grounds.
Fix it: Simply adjusting your water-to-coffee ratio will usually fix this problem quickly. A 1:2 ratio is generally the best choice.
Incorrect size grind: The wrong grind size can cause under-extraction, just as it can cause over-extraction. Typically, under-extraction happens because the grinds are too coarse.
Fix it: Once again, adjusting your coffee grinder is the most efficient way to fix this issue. Buying a finer grind size also helps if you don’t grind at home.
Acidic coffee beans: As I mentioned, some types and brands of coffee are more acidic than others. Generally, lighter roasts are more acidic or citrusy than dark roasts. Also, coffee beans that are grown at higher altitudes and volcanic soils tend to be more acidic.
Fix it: Avoid coffee beans with higher acidity. Medium-roasted coffee beans are ideal for brewing a good espresso.
Tips for Better Espresso
Solving the major issues causing your espresso shot to taste bad is only part of getting a decent espresso. There are still a couple of tips and tricks that can help improve your espresso even more. Quality has never been closer.
Fresh Coffee: Using freshly roasted, high-quality coffee beans will go a long way in getting an incredible espresso shot. As a general rule, coffee begins to stale around two weeks, so to get the freshest, best espresso, avoid using coffee beans that have gone past about a week.
Preheat: Since espresso is a concentrated coffee beverage, there is not much liquid and it loses heat rather quickly. To prevent your espresso from getting too cold too quickly, preheat your machine with hot water before brewing.
Tamp Evenly: Mastering your tamping method is a sure-fire way to improve your espresso shot. While a metal tamper is a good way to improve your tamping, a calibrated tamper is designed to tamp correctly and evenly every time. Check out our tamping article to get the best tips and tricks to master your technique.
Quality Water: The quality of your coffee beans is not the only quality you should concern yourself with. Using high-quality filtered water is important to consistently getting a perfect espresso. Not only will this improve the flavor of your espresso, but it will also help with machine maintenance. Check out What is the Best Kind of Water for Brewing Coffee?
Mastering home-brewed espresso can be frustrating and tricky. But once you do, it becomes a magical experience. Once you understand what makes an espresso great, you can determine why your shots aren’t turning out quite right and fix it.
Using these tips and tricks can help you avoid and fix any espresso problems in the future. We look forward to hearing about your espresso-making experiences, triumphs, and any tricks you’ve found along the way that work for you.
What does a wet espresso puck mean?
Inconvenience. A wet coffee puck can ruin a good espresso very quickly. See our article, Why is My Coffee Puck Wet? Avoid These 5 Overlooked Mistakes
Should espresso be slightly bitter?
Only slightly. A good espresso should be slightly bitter, but also be slightly bitter and sweet.
How should I store my coffee beans for the best espresso flavor?
Airtight is best. For the best, most fresh coffee beans, store them in an airtight container.
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