How to Make Espresso At Home: A Beginner's Guide

Published on 02/23/2024 · 10 min readMaster the art of home espresso! Follow our beginner's guide to learn the essentials of making rich, flavorful espresso shots without leaving your kitchen.
Jason Gass, Coffee Expert
By Coffee Expert Jason Gass

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TL;DR: Many of us want to enjoy espresso at home instead of heading to the local coffee shop. Constructing high-quality espresso requires three things: consistency, quality equipment, and practice. Making espresso at home is a process that can be learned easily with this simple guide for the beginner barista.

Whether you are looking to save a little money, or if you are just wanting to learn a new skill, making espresso at home is a great skill to have. For many beginners, the process can seem daunting. However, once you’ve practiced a few times, it is actually a fairly simple process.

In this guide, I will walk you through the steps for making espresso at home that I have been using for decades. I’ll give you step-by-step instructions, along with some helpful hints to make the process easier, and your espresso even more delicious.

What is Espresso?

Espresso, in layman's terms, is a concentrated form of coffee made by forcing hot water (with pressure) through finely ground coffee beans. Espresso is well-known for its rich and intense flavors, as well as the creamy layer that forms on top of a well-made shot of espresso, known as crema. Espresso serves as the base for several popular coffee beverages such as cappuccinos, lattes, and my favorite, cortados.

Equipment You'll Need to Make Espresso at Home

Before you jump into homemade espresso, you will need to gather the essential equipment. These basic pieces will get you started, and once you’ve learned the process, you can start adding to your tool kit!

Espresso Machine

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There are several ways to make espresso, but an espresso machine is the easiest. You will find that there are a number of different types available, including automatic, semi-automatic, and manual machines. I recommend that beginners select a semi-automatic machine for the best results, while also allowing for experimentation. Semi-automatic machines allow you to control the brewing process in many aspects, but they are also very user-friendly.

Most espresso machines will brew espresso in shots. These, like a shot of alcohol, are approximately 1.5 to 2 ounces of liquid. Typically, you will be given the option for a single or double shot of espresso. They both require the same dose of grounds, but the difference is in the extraction time and the amount of water used in the extraction, which affect how strong the shot is. Many people prefer to use a double shot of espresso when making drinks like lattes and cappuccinos.

Coffee Grinder

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A coffee grinder is not essential, but you will quickly find that fresh-ground coffee makes better espresso than pre-ground. I recommend a good quality, automatic burr grinder. These give you a good consistency, and will grind beans with just a push of a button.

Fresh Coffee Beans

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Never use old beans or old grounds. They will give you subpar espresso results, such as stale flavor, bitterness, and decreased crema. Select a good quality bean, such as Intelligentsia Coffee, that is espresso-roasted for the best flavor.

Portafilter

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The portafilter holds the espresso grounds in your espresso machine. Most have a handle and a removable filter basket. Portafilters come in a variety of sizes, depending on the machine.

The amount of grounds that you add to your portafilter before you smooth and tamp is referred to as the dose size. This amount will be a constant in your brewing process, and it is based on the size of your portafilter. Some portafilters will mark the dose level on the inside of the basket, and some may require you to weigh out a proper amount of grounds. Do not overfill your basket, this may result in a poor extraction or grounds backing up into your water reservoir.

Tamper

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A tamper is a weighted disc that is used to compress grounds into the portafilter. This compaction requires force to push water through the grounds, and it is this force that gives espresso its bold, strong coffee flavor.

It is important to compress your espresso grounds so that you get a full extraction of flavor during brewing. Before you run out and purchase a tamper, you need to know the diameter of your portafilter. You will want a tamper that fits easily into the filter basket, but with minimal space around the edges. Basic tampers are simply weighted metal disks, which you compact as firmly as you can. More advanced (and expensive) tampers are often calibrated to provide around 30 pounds of pressure to your grounds. If you are looking for a consistent espresso shot, a calibrated tamper is a great investment.

Scale

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A scale is not a must-have tool, but it is helpful. Many people find that their consistency improves when they weigh their grounds, instead of just scooping them into the portafilter.

The Steps to Make Espresso at Home

Once you have your espresso brewing equipment, you can start experimenting with making espresso. Here is a basic step-by-step guide:

1. Grind Your Coffee Beans

Pour a good helping of beans into your coffee grinder. Set the grinder to the fine grind setting, or the espresso setting if it has one. Select the quantity of grounds that you want the grinder to make (18 to 20 ounces is usually sufficient). Push the start button on your grinder and wait for it to finish grinding the beans.

2. Preheat Your Espresso Machine

Fill the water tank with water, then turn on your espresso machine. Following the operating manual, take the steps necessary to preheat the machine and water to the proper brewing temperature.

3. Distribute and Tamp

Fill your portafilter with grounds. Most will have a fill line that indicates a single or double espresso shot. Use these lines as your guide. Then, use your finger or a flat instrument like a butter knife or chopstick to smooth the grounds. Using your tamper, apply enough pressure to compact the grounds into a firm puck.

4. Brew Your Espresso

Insert the portafilter into your espresso machine group head. Turn the portafilter so that it is locked securely in place. Place an espresso or coffee cup under the portafilter. Using the instructions provided with your machine, start the brewing process. This will normally require pressing the ‘brew’ or ‘start’ button, or opening up the steam valve to the portafilter. Espresso should begin to flow into your cup(s) in a steady stream. As the extraction progresses, you will notice a golden foam, or crema, form on top of your espresso. Programming for a single shot of espresso will normally result in 1 to 2 ounces of brewed espresso.

5. Serve and Enjoy

Once your espresso is finished brewing, you can serve it directly from the cup that it was brewed from as a plain shot of espresso. Or, use your espresso as a base for espresso drinks such as a latte, cappuccino, or Americano. You should enjoy your espresso while it is hot. Cold espresso, if not served over ice, can be bitter and unpleasant.

6. Clean Your Espresso Machine

Once you are done enjoying your espresso, make sure that you clean your espresso machine. The most important thing you need to do is remove the grounds puck from the portafilter. It is much easier to remove the grounds puck when it is still damp, rather than after it has dried. After the grounds are removed, follow the cleaning procedures provided in your machine’s instruction manual.

What to Know Before Making Espresso at Home

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Now that I’ve covered the basic steps for making espresso, let’s delve into some factors to be aware of, as well as some pro tips, to take your morning espresso drinks from average to excellent:

Bean Selection

Never underestimate the value of selecting a good quality bean for your espresso. A dark roast bean is usually the best option for brewing espresso. However, many people like to use a bold medium roast bean or even light roasts. You will learn the type of bean that you prefer as you experiment with different beans and roast styles. Everyone has a different taste preference, so if you do not like your first bean selection, don’t give up! Try other options until you find one that you like best.

Just remember, a better quality bean, no matter the roast quality, will give you a better quality espresso. So, do not skimp on your espresso beans.

Timing

While you may be able to just select a single or double shot option on your espresso machine, you may find that you get a better espresso shot by altering the timing of your shot. If your machine takes 45 seconds to extract a shot, you may want to stop the extraction at 35 seconds, giving you a more mild taste, or less bitterness, in your shot.

Grind Size

Most espresso machines will function best if you use a fine or extra-fine grind coarseness. The finer grind size allows for tight compaction when tamping, and gives more surface area to extract the espresso flavor from. If you find that your machine struggles to extract your espresso with a fine or extra-fine grind, try a slightly coarser grind size. Conversely, if your extraction is fast and the result is weak, reduce your grind size for a more flavorful result.

Distribution of Grounds

In order to get a full extraction and a flavorful espresso, your grounds should be distributed evenly in the filter basket. To do this, simply use your fingers to smooth the grounds across the top of the basket. This isn’t terribly precise, so you may choose to use a flat surface or a wedge tool. These will help distribute grounds more evenly across the filter basket than your finger. Remember, even distribution of grounds means that water will also be evenly distributed through the grounds. This results in more flavor being extracted from your grounds.

Final Thoughts: How to Make the Best Espresso at Home

Most of us do not end up with a perfect shot of espresso the first time we make one at home. Like all life skills, making espresso at home takes practice. It also takes a bit of experimentation. This guide has given you the basic steps for brewing espresso. Once you have these down, you can start experimenting with the process to find your perfect shot of espresso.

Here are some final tips that you can use as a shortcut to make the best espresso at home:

  1. Whenever possible, use freshly roasted coffee beans, and grind them just before you use them. This will give you the best espresso flavor profile.
  2. Filtered water is best. Not only will it give you a more flavorful espresso shot, but it will also keep your espresso machine free from mineral build-up.
  3. While fine grounds are typical for making espresso, they may not be best for your machine or taste preferences. You may need to experiment with different grind sizes to find what works best for you.
  4. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning your machine. This includes following the recommended schedule and cleaning agents.
  5. Espresso that is under-extracted will taste sour. If you notice this in your brewing process, extract your next shot for longer.
  6. Espresso that is over-extracted will be bitter. If you do not like the bitter flavor, reduce your extraction time just slightly.
  7. Practice really does make perfect. When you find what you like, practice that technique so that you do the process every time.

If you have more questions about brewing espresso, the best espresso machines, or even suggestions to make this process better, reach out to me personally, or another one of our Coffee Experts here on Curated. We would love to hear from you! Happy brewing!

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