How To Make Espresso: A Beginners Guide

The Coffee Folk is reader-supported. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Espresso is in many ways the iconic coffee brewing method. It is the foundation for the majority of espresso drinks such as lattes and cappuccinos and brewed well is simply delicious!

However, it is surprisingly hard to master and far less forgiving than many beginning brewers realize. 

In many ways that is the origin of this article. Back when we were newbies to the world of espresso, so many of the articles we were reading were either so technical that they went straight over our heads or so broad and generic that they were utterly disconnected from what the experts were saying.

And so in this article, we want to provide what really is a beginner’s guide to how to make great espresso.

What Is Espresso? 

The word espresso literally means ‘pressed’ in Italian. It refers to the brewing method where hot water is pushed through finely ground coffee at high pressure for a short amount of time extracting a strong and intense ‘shot’ of coffee.

Ideally, this form of coffee is extracted at 9 bars or 130psi of pressure (which is over 4 times the pressure used for typical car tires!). This high pressure combined with a short extraction time of 28-30 seconds makes it a very unforgiving brewing method. 

Single Shot of Espresso

Part of what sets espresso apart from other brewing methods is the crema (Italian for cream) which is a thin layer of golden foam that forms on top of the coffee shot. The color and texture of the crema indicate how fresh or otherwise the espresso beans are and how weak or strong the espresso is. It is also what enables the wondrous world of latte art. 

Espresso is a very versatile brewing method that can produce a range of espresso drinks either with milk (Latte, Cappuccino, Flat White, Cortado, etc) or without (espresso/short black, Americano, Iced Americano, etc). It produces a small and very strong shot of coffee that can either be enjoyed as is or complemented with milk.

What Are The Different Types Of Espresso Machines?

There are three different types of espresso machines (excluding pod and capsule machines) which differ in how automated the coffee-making process is. 

Manual Espresso Makers

Manual espresso machine

Manual espresso makers are fairly niche and usually only pursued by the truly committed espresso enthusiast. As the name implies these machines give the home barista the greatest level of control over every parameter in the brewing process. On a manual espresso machine, the home brewer controls the volume of water, water temperature, pressure, and pre-infusion (a small amount of water that precedes the main extraction). Manual machines require the steepest learning curve of the different types of espresso machines. 

Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines

Semi- Automatic espresso machine

Semi-automatic espresso machines are probably the most common machines on the market and form the majority of entry-to-mid-level machines. Semi-automatic machines pump hot water through a pre-ground and pre-tamped portafilter (the long handle that holds the grinds basket and locks into the machine) to extract a shot of coffee. This means that the one operating the machine will have to manually grind the beans, measure them out, tamp them, and then steam the milk. This makes it a great starting point for those just entering the world of espresso. With a semi-automatic espresso machine, you get to learn how to pull a shot and make a really enjoyable drink without all the complexity of manually controlling the water pressure and temperature. This article is really aimed at those who own or are interested in semi-automatic espresso machines.

Super-Automatic Espresso Machines 

Super automatic espresso machine

A Super-Automatic espresso machine does everything from bean to cup. The home brewer simply puts the beans into the hopper and then the machine grinds the beans, measures them out, tamps them, and extracts the shot. Some of the pricier super-automatics also automatically steam the milk while less expensive models tend to require manual steaming. A super-automatic espresso machine is a great option for those who prioritize convenience over control and effectively want good coffee on tap. Super-automatic espresso machines also tend to be more expensive.

The Ideal Conditions For Espresso

Hopefully, by now you are starting to get a feel for what this brewing method is all about and which type of espresso machine you own and operate. The next important thing to consider is what makes for a great espresso or what impacts the flavor of the shot pulled.

The quality of espresso is determined by Miscela (the blend of coffee bean), Macinazione (grind), Macchina (the espresso machine used), and Mano (the skill of the one brewing). 

Italian saying

The Coffee Beans 

The quality and taste of your espresso can never rise above the quality of the coffee beans you use. This was a lesson we took a while to learn, but can really limit the flavor of the coffee you are making. Basically, just like everything else in life, there are good coffee beans, bad coffee beans, and a stack somewhere in the middle. It also may come as a surprise to some that any old coffee beans won’t do because different beans are roasted for different lengths of time (termed light roasted, medium roasted, and dark roasted) which impacts their flavor and which brewing method they are best suited for. 

Freshly roasted coffee beans in bag

We recommend that the best option for sourcing great quality coffee beans is to purchase an espresso blend from a local or online specialty roaster. While this will be more expensive than the beans from the supermarket or grocery store, it will ensure that your beans are of high quality and have been roasted specifically for espresso. Also while we don’t love buying beans off Amazon it can be a convenient option that is certainly a step up from the supermarket. It is quite incredible how significantly this can lift the taste of your coffee.

Coffee beans do go stale and so are best consumed less than a month after they were roasted (this should be written on the bag of beans and is a good indicator of quality beans; no roast date = mass-produced average beans). The first step to delicious espresso is quality, fresh coffee beans. 

The Grind

This is perhaps the make-or-break factor in brewing espresso. The consistency and fineness of the grind will determine the speed at which water flows through the beans. If the grind is too coarse the water will flow too quickly through the grinds leading to an under-extracted (sour) shot while if it is too fine the water will struggle to get through leading to an over-extracted (bitter) shot. 

For the espresso beginner, there are basically two options when it comes to grinding coffee; you can either buy pre-ground beans or you can invest in a coffee grinder and do it yourself. Having done both we actually think both are quite legitimate options provided they are done with quality beans. Buying a grinder does lead to a more flavorsome shot as much of the flavor and aroma of the bean disappears shortly after being ground. However, to do this you really need a decent espresso grinder (one that can make small enough adjustments to work for espresso). We recommend the Baratza Encore ESP as a great beginner’s espresso grinder. While grinding on demand is the better option dialing in a grinder (finding the right grind size for your beans) is not as easy as it looks and can be fairly finicky.

Pre-ground coffee can be a good option for the beginner espresso brewer. Effectively it is one less thing to worry about so you can focus on getting the brewing process down pat. However if you decide to go with this option make sure your beans are ground specifically for espresso. The other way to do this is to buy a bag of whole beans from your local cafe and see if they can grind it for you. While grinding yourself is better, pre-ground beans can still produce a really nice coffee.

The Machine 

When it comes to espresso machines we recommend buying them from companies with a good track record. These more reputable companies include ones like De’Longhi, Breville, Rancilio, Gaggia, and Rocket. For more advice on buying a machine check out our article here.   

PARTS OF AN ESPRESSO MACHINE

The Skills 

When it comes to semi-automatic espresso machines the three major skills you will have to learn are how to dial in a grinder, dose and tamp, and how to steam milk using a steam wand. These skills are very learnable for the beginning brewer but take a bucket load of practice to master.

Pressurized vs Non-Pressurized Baskets

Many entry-level espresso machines will come with four filter baskets that click into the portafilter. These will be a single and double pressurized (or double wall) basket as well as a single and double non-pressurized (or single wall) basket. A pressurized basket has a false bottom with a tiny pinhole at the bottom. The purpose of this is to create a greater level of pressure within the basket when brewing occurs. This improves extraction consistency and allows you to use less precisely ground coffee. Pressurized baskets are the simpler option but are somewhat inferior. These baskets allow the use of pre-ground coffee while still producing crema.

A non-pressurized basket will simply have a bunch of holes that go right through so that the coffee extraction is governed exclusively by the grind and tamp of the home brewer. These are far less forgiving. Often one set of baskets will be labeled but if not then the ones with more holes in the bottom are non-pressurized while the ones with a smaller amount of holes in the center are pressurized.  

SINGLE VS DOUBLE WALL FILTER

Double wall or pressurized baskets are a great place to start initially. They are a lot easier to master and can give you some enjoyable results early on. As you advance it is great to work towards using the single walls as this leads to far better crema and more enjoyable coffee.

Our own experience has been that it is incredibly hard to use single-walled baskets with pre-ground coffee. We found that it was only as we invested in an espresso grinder that we could consistently pull a good shot with these baskets. 

How To Make Espresso 


Here is the method we use and have found to be great for making espresso. You will notice there are two options for step six. The first is a generic and easy automated double shot which is a great place to start while the second is for those who want to up their game and try and follow a specific espresso recipe (more on this below). 

Step One – Pre-Heat The Espresso Machine

Different machines take different lengths of time to pre-heat but we usually aim to turn on our machine around 10 minutes before we intend to brew. This gives it enough time to reach the optimal brewing temperature, usually around 195-205°F (90-96°C).

Step Two – Dose And Grind

Use a burr grinder to grind fresh coffee beans to a fine consistency (resembling table salt). If you have a single-dosing grinder you can weigh the coffee beans before grinding, spray the beans with water to reduce static, and then grind. Otherwise, you can weigh the coffee grounds after grinding. For a double shot basket, you should be aiming for a dose of around 14-22 grams (for our recipe we are using 18 grams).

Now fill the portafilter basket with 18 grams of finely ground coffee beans. Ideally, you should be using a coffee scale to weigh this, however, if you don’t have one this is around 1 rounded tablespoon.

Note: This is for a 58 mm portafilter so if you have a smaller portafilter eg 54mm then you should be using a lower dose of 16 grams. 

Step Three – Distribute And Tamp

This step is very important to ensure you get an even extraction. Now gently tap the bottom of your portafilter onto your benchtop. This helps settle the grinds and can help get rid of any air pockets. Once this is done gently even out the top of the grinds and break up any clumps using a wdt tool.

How to tamp

Now hold your portafilter on the benchtop making sure that it is parallel to the bench. Hold your espresso tamp in the other hand like you would hold a flashlight with the thumb facing down. Place your tamp-holding arm at a 90-degree angle to the bench and press down slowly and evenly until you can feel the grinds stop compressing and push back. You don’t need to ‘polish’ the tamp by turning the tamp or tapping the edge of the portafilter. You should be able to flip your portafilter upside down without any of the grinds falling out. 

The goal with tamping is a simple one; to remove any air pockets and produce a bed of coffee grounds that is even and level.

Step Four – Purge The Grouphead And lock In The Portafilter 

Now purge the group head by allowing hot water to run out for a few seconds. This gets rid of any older or extra-hot water and stabilizes the temperature of the group head. 

You can now lock the portafilter into the group head. Your machine will generally indicate how far you need to lock it in but if not then push until you feel some resistance. You shouldn’t have to force it. 

Step Five – Pull The Shot 

General: Place your cup(s) directly below the portafilter where the coffee comes out. Push the start button on your machine. There should be a gap of around 5-8 seconds before the coffee comes out. This is normal. If your machine has pre-set buttons the shot will stop automatically, if not then stop it after 28-30 seconds.

For those using an espresso recipe: Place an espresso scale with the cup(s) on top on the drip tray and tare. Now get a timer ready- you can either use your phone, a coffee scale, or the built-in timer on the espresso machine (if it has one). Press the timer and start the shot simultaneously. Now watch the scales and stop the extraction around 2 grams from your target weight. Stop the timer when you end the shot and evaluate the shot. You may need to adjust the grind size if the shot did not fall in the desired time range.

How to make espresso

Step Six – Steam The Milk 

For a milk-based drink like a latte, begin by filling a milk jug halfway with cold milk. Turn on the steam wand and let it purge over the drip tray to clear any water. Position the wand into the milk and start steaming.

The objective of milk steaming is to produce microfoam—milk with a velvety texture and tiny bubbles. Position the steam wand just beneath the milk’s surface and turn on the steam. Stretch the milk by adding air, listening for a slurping sound, and observing the milk expanding.

Once the desired volume is achieved, submerge the wand slightly deeper into the milk to create a whirlpool effect. This is called texturing and helps create the tiny bubbles required for microfoam. Once steamed, turn off the steam, tap the pitcher on the countertop to remove any large bubbles, and swirl the milk to incorporate the foam evenly. The result should be smooth, creamy microfoam with a silky texture, perfect for adding to espresso to create lattes, cappuccinos, and other espresso drinks.

In terms of the ideal heat, monitor the temperature as you steam the milk. The ideal temperature is between 55-65 °C (131 – 149 °F). You do not need a thermometer to do this but can gauge the temperature by feeling the bottom of the milk jug. When it becomes too hot to touch, remove your hand and wait a further three to five seconds before turning off the steam.

Most entry-level machines are single boilers which means they cannot steam milk and pull a shot at the same time. If yours can, then steam the milk while the shot is being pulled. 

How to steam milk

Step Seven – Pour Milk

Now pour the milk into your coffee cup with the shot of espresso in it. The more milk the more diluted the shot so you can experiment with how much milk to add depending on how you like your coffee. Try to start pouring from about 5cm above the cup and then gradually bring the milk pitcher closer to the cup. As you develop in this you can go on to get into the fun and frustrating skill of latte art. 

How to pour latte art

Step Eight – Clean the Espresso Machine

Steps eight and nine are really interchangeable. We clean our machine first as otherwise the milk dries on the steam wand and is more work, but either way around is fine. 

To clean your machine, get a wet cloth and purge the steam wand by turning it on again and letting some steam out. You will often see some milk come out first. Then rub the wet cloth up and down the wand until all signs of milk are gone. This is really important for the longevity of your machine.

Now take out the portafilter and tip the coffee grounds out either into a knock box or into your compost. On some machines, the grinds should come out easily in a ‘puck’ form. Clean your grinds basket and portafilter by running them under hot water. While the portafilter is out push the shot button so that hot water comes out of the group head. This will get rid of any grinds stuck on the group head which could otherwise negatively impact the taste of your next coffee. 

Finally, place the portafilter back into the lock position in the group head and dry the exterior of the machine with a dry cloth. Empty the drip tray if required. 

Step Nine – Enjoy

Now go somewhere relaxing and enjoy your brew!

Espresso

Espresso Recipe

  • 18g dose
  • 36g yield
  • 28-30 second extraction time 

Directions:

Step One – Pre-heat the espresso machine for 5-10 minutes before brewing.

Step Two – Fill the portafilter basket with 18 grams or 1 heaped tablespoon of finely ground coffee.

Step Three – Distribute the grinds in the portafilter with a WDT tool and then evenly tamp down the grinds.

Step Four – Purge some hot water through the group head and then lock the portafilter into place.

Step Five (General) – Place cup(s) under the portafilter then press start to extract the espresso shot. Stop the shot after 28-30 seconds.

Step Five (With espresso recipe) – Tare cup(s) on an espresso scale and get a timer ready. Press the shot button and timer simultaneously and then stop the shot and timer at around 34 grams (2 grams before the target weight). Check the time to see how close you are to the specific recipe (28-30 seconds) and adjust the grind size if needed.

Step Six – Steam milk if required for espresso drinks.

Step Seven – Pour milk into the cup.

Step Eight – Clean the espresso machine.

Step Nine – Enjoy!

Espresso Recipe (Advanced)

One thing that we totally missed when we first delved into coffee is that just like baking a cake, espresso is best done with a precise recipe. Most entry-level espresso machines will have buttons for single and double shots with preset volumes. This means that you can simply tamp your grinds, lock the portafilter into the group head, push the desired button, and have your espresso shot (like the general option in step six). While this does make it very simple to make a nice coffee, it is quite different from how the experts go about it. 

Instead, cafes and professional baristas work off what is called an espresso recipe. An espresso recipe typically consists of a dose weight (how much coffee grounds you put into your portafilter), a yield weight (how many grams of coffee comes out), and an extraction time. So a typical espresso recipe would be an 18g dose for a 36g yield in 28-30 seconds (this is what we call a 1:2 ratio). An espresso recipe is a way to up your espresso game once you have a hold on the basics. 

Acaia Lunar Espresso Scale

The advantage of an espresso recipe is that it will usually make a nicer and more easily replicable cup of coffee. The espresso recipe you choose will in part depend on the size of your portafilter. It is worth being aware that most commercial recipes are for commercial-sized (58mm) portafilters which may or may not be true for your espresso machine. So for our old Breville Infuser which had a 54mm portafilter the recipe we aimed for was16 grams in, 32 grams out in 24 seconds. For our more recent machine with a 58mm portafilter, we aim for 18 grams in and 36 grams out in 28-30 seconds.

Because of the precise nature of recipes they really do require an accurate set of scales and are more easily done if you grind your beans. As mentioned earlier, this is a great way to step up your coffee game.  

Pitfalls For Those Using an Espresso Recipe (Advanced)

While espresso is a fantastic brewing method to get into, it can also be very frustrating when it doesn’t go according to plan. These potential pitfalls include burning the milk when steaming, over-extracting (shot tastes bitter) or under-extracting (shot tastes sour), or simply that for some unknown reason it tastes disgusting. Sadly this does happen and we have found that it especially happens when you decide to take your espresso from beginner level to slightly more advanced. As soon as you move to single-walled baskets and grind your beans for a specific espresso recipe you can expect the trials to come. 

If your coffee shot is off then there are basically three things you can alter in an entry-level espresso setup:

  • The grind sizeThis really ought to be the primary parameter you change if something is off in your shot. If the yield of your shot for the given extraction time is too high then the flow is too fast and you need to grind your coffee finer. If there is not enough liquid then the flow rate is too slow and you need to be grinding the coffee more coarsely. The general rule of thumb is only to change your grinder one setting at a time. Each time you change it you also need to ‘purge’ some of the coffee grinds which will get rid of any old-sized grinds in the chamber (unless you have a zero retention grinder). To do this change the grind setting and then grind out around 10g of coffee. This is a painful and sometimes costly process but try and see it as an investment into future cups of coffee. Once you have the grind setting right for the given recipe you shouldn’t need to change it again.

  • The coffee-to-water ratio This should not be done lightly but over time you can and should experiment with the dose to see how it affects taste. So if you want it stronger you could try adding an extra gram of coffee grounds in the portafilter or keep the dose size the same but aim for a slightly smaller yield. 

  • Tamping– Finally, you can adjust the strength with which you push down the tamp. This is generally not advised as you should be aiming to have an even and consistent tamp and primarily alter the grind setting. However, we have found that sometimes the ideal grind setting seems to be right in the middle of two of the settings on your grinder. If so one way around the dilemma is tamping slightly harder for the coarser one or slightly lighter for the finer one. Not ideal but making great espresso is often not ideal and certainly not easy. 

How to Make Espresso- Takeaway

We hope this has been a helpful introduction for you to the wonderful world of espresso. It is a world that we have fallen in love with and in which you can always grow and develop. While it can feel overwhelming initially we can say from experience that it does get easier. Skill and mastery will come with time. The wonderful thing about espresso is that even a complete beginner can produce a really enjoyable coffee! 

As always we would love to hear from you so if you have any questions or comments post them below. What has your experience with espresso been? 

Happy Brewing!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *