How to Dial and Pull Espresso at Home

Published on 02/08/2024 · 9 min readAchieve barista-quality shots: Discover how to dial and pull espresso at home, mastering the art of the perfect espresso with our step-by-step guide!
Levi Rogers, Coffee Expert
By Coffee Expert Levi Rogers

Photo by Goffkein Pro

Tl;dr: Master the art of making the perfect espresso at home with these tips and tricks. From choosing the right beans to adjusting your grind size, we've got you covered.

If you’re serious about having cafe quality espresso at home, you need to master the art of dialing in your espresso. Here, we’ve assembled the perfect list of tips and tricks for making quality espresso at home.

Coffee, unlike many other beverages, requires the consumer to play an active role in the making of the drink. With wine or beer, you simply pop the cork or bottle cap and imbibe. With tea, you merely need to pour hot water and let it steep for a certain amount of time. Coffee, however, requires a more active hand in its creation. But with a little practice and knowledge, one can brew amazing coffee, even espresso, at their own home.

So, how do you pull cafe quality shots at home? It’s all about the dial in.

What Does It Mean to “Dial In” Espresso?

Dial in refers to the adjustments you’ll make on your espresso grinder as you adjust or “dial” the grinder between various settings of fine versus coarse on your grinder.

Why is this necessary? Every coffee roast or bean is different, and every coffee changes over time. As the beans degas (process of releasing carbon dioxide inside the bean after roasting), and as they sit on the shelf and age, they require a slightly different grind each morning. Each time you buy a new coffee or try a new roaster, blend, or micro-lot, you’ll have to make adjustments and dial in the espresso for the perfect shot.

The dialing in process might seem like a lot of work upfront, but once you understand and are practiced in it, the process will be simple and ensure delicious tasting espresso each morning.

How to Dial and Pull Espresso

What You’ll Need:

  • A timer (a smartphone works)
  • A measurement tool
  • Pro option: Scale and/or distributor

Why is it so complicated? The goal here is to reduce variables as you dial in so you know how to replicate the process in the future. By using a scale and weighing your shots, you'll start to tune in to how much coffee you need for the initial dosing, the final yield, and what tastes best on each machine.

Step 1: Grind

Photo by Lili Rose

The first step is to grind the coffee. A solid espresso grinder is often more important than even the espresso machine itself. On an espresso grinder, there will be a larger range of notches to rotate between for more precise adjustments. Keep in mind not to over-adjust the grind settings and instead adjust only in minute turns of the dial as you’re dialing in. If you’re using a general burr or other grinder, you’ll want to grind on a “fine” to “very fine” setting, not so much that it’s a powder or “Turkish,” but finer than drip or pour over.

Each espresso machine is slightly different depending on the dose size (the amount of coffee you weigh into the portafilter before tamping and pulling), but, generally you’ll be grinding between 15-20 grams of espresso per shot.

If you don’t want to use a scale, you can use a measuring tool like a scoop or tablespoon to weigh out the coffee and find a scoop amount that works for your machine.

Remember that the portafilter basket should not be filled to the brim. If you overload the portafilter basket, you’ll notice the shots will take too long to pull. Too heavy of a dose will hinder the water as it makes its way through all the coffee and produces a smaller yield of espresso. Likewise, if you use too little of a dose, the water will move through the coffee too fast. This all has to do with the main element of dialing in–extraction.

Step 2: Extraction

Photo by Andreas Behr

As water moves through coffee grounds during the brewing process, it absorbs the flavors and solubles of the coffee. Coffee extraction is both the time it takes for coffee to brew and the rate at which water moves through the coffee. Now, unless you're using instant coffee, the grounds will not dissolve into the drink itself. A filter will separate the non-soluble elements. In espresso, the filter is the portafilter basket, which has tiny holes to allow the soluble elements of the coffee grounds to pass through.

In the simplest terms, if espresso comes out too fast (under 10 seconds), the coffee will be under-extracted. If the espresso comes out too slow (over 30 seconds), it will be over-extracted. If the espresso drops too fast, adjust the grind finer. If it's too slow, then you need to adjust the grind coarser. The extraction time is the main method of measuring our dial in.

As you “pull the shot”--usually with a touch of a button, though you might have an old school, manual “pull” lever, which is where the term “pulling a shot” comes from--start a timer to see how long the shot takes. Within the first five seconds, you should see some coffee start emerging through the portafilter. If not, the grind might be too fine. A finer grind will slow the rate at which water flows through the coffee puck. Likewise, if the coffee sputters or explodes right out of the gate, the grind might be too coarse and is not properly extracting all the elements from the coffee. Continue to make adjustments.

This is dialing in! It's what a barista does all day, every day, but particularly in the morning as they dial in for the day. The good news is that once you have a general grind setting for your espresso, you will not need to make as many adjustments.

Step 3. Taste

Photo by fizkes

The next part of dialing in revolves around the taste of your espresso. Does the shot taste sour? Or bitter? Because espresso is a concentrated beverage, it will have a "bitter" taste, but it shouldn't be too bitter. Likewise, a good espresso shot will have some acidity, but if it tastes sour or salty, it could result from under-extraction (the grind could be too fine.) If the espresso starts to taste watery or bitter, then it could be over-extraction.

Often, the taste of espresso can be manipulated simply by the dose and not necessarily by changing the entire grind. Maybe a certain coffee tastes better, dosed up a few grams or down. This will all depend on what coffee you use.

Using Color and Taste as Your Guide

Since coffee is both an art and a science, we can also pull espresso without any measurements at all by simply observing the coffee with our senses. One way to do this is by color. As espresso flows through the filter basket, it should usually appear dark brown, even reddish, and slowly transform into a caramel color, then turn yellow or blonde as it finishes. If the espresso falls all blonde from the start, that could be an indication that your grind is too coarse and the coffee is thereby under-extracted. If it never turns to that blonde color with a thin level of crema (that silky, cream-looking layer on top of your espresso), the dose might be too large or the grind too fine.

What Makes a Perfect Shot?

A perfect shot of espresso should cascade into a demitasse between 15 to 35 seconds (this varies from machine to machine and super-automatic versus semi-automatic) and yield 1 to 2 ounces of espresso (approximately 40 to 60 ml or 30 to 50 grams, depending). This varies slightly depending on preference.

Most people and coffee shops produce espresso shots at a 1:2 ratio. This means one part of dry coffee grounds will yield twice the amount of liquid espresso. An 18-gram dose would yield a 36-gram shot. A ristretto shot is one in which the time it takes for the espresso is still the same, but the yield is closer to a 1:1 ratio. Eighteen grams of coffee going in, yielding 18-20 grams coming out. The difference is the concentration of the coffee.

Some people or places might even prefer a 1:3 ratio, though this would produce a shot of espresso bordering on the "watery" side. Your coffee dose and brew time will make up your espresso recipe.

What Kind of Coffee Should You Use?

Photo by Mila Supinskaya Glashchenko

Many people think “espresso” is a different type of coffee. Espresso is not a type of coffee but a brew method–like French Press, Moka Pot, Filter, etc. A bag of coffee beans labeled “espresso” simply means the coffee roaster has found this coffee (single-origin or blend) works well using the espresso brewing method.

Generally speaking, espresso beans will be more developed or darker roasts because this seems to taste best to most people using the espresso brewing method. However, many specialty coffee shops will serve light roasts of espresso. Either way, the roast level will undoubtedly change how your coffee tastes as a final product. It's all based on personal preference and whether you prefer coffee that has more fruit-forward tasting notes and acidity upfront or whether you prefer body and more dark chocolate-like flavors.

While you want your coffee to be fresh, you want to wait at least three days after the roasting date so that the coffee is finished degassing and not changing too much. You also want a roast date that is within a few months of the roast date; otherwise, the coffee will start to taste stale.

A Few Other Tips and Tricks:

  • Make sure to use filtered water for espresso. Hard mineral water or general tap water can change the taste of coffee and calcify your machine over time.
  • Clean your machine daily! If your espresso tastes “dirty” it’s likely because old grounds have gotten stuck in the gasket or screen. Make sure to descale and clean your machine regularly.
  • Another way to improve your espresso at home is to invest in a better tamper and/or a distributor. Make sure to use approximately 30 lbs of pressure (You can use a weight scale to try this out) as you push down. A distributor or WDT (Weiss Distribution Technique Tool) can also help to reduce channeling, which happens when the uneven distribution of espresso leads to “channels” in the espresso, which the water flows through, thereby prohibiting full extraction.

With a little practice, learning how to dial in espresso will get easier each time you do it at home. Once a coffee is dialed in, you might not have to change any parameters for a day or two or make only small adjustments. Yet it’s all totally worth it for those perfect espresso shots. If you still have any questions, reach out to a Curated Coffee & Espresso Expert!

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