How to Make Espresso: A Complete Guide

If you are looking to start making your own espresso drinks at home, this is a must-read! Coffee Expert Jeff Sutton details all the steps you'll need to follow for the perfect shot.

A portafilter is filled with freshly ground coffee.

Photo by Nguyen Tong Hai Van

I spend a lot of my time looking at and thinking about coffee! I’m a coffee roaster and there is little I enjoy more than a perfectly pulled shot from the beans that I have put my love and knowledge into roasting. The process of making espresso is one that only has a few important steps, but there are a million ways to screw each one up along the way!

This delicate skill is what keeps me interested in both roasting beans and creating the perfect shot of espresso. Let's break down the process and look at each individual step so that you can start your own journey of making the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had.

Bean Selection

Selecting a bean for your espresso is a very personal choice. Some people will say that an espresso roast has to be a certain way, but I completely disagree. As a roaster, I create delicious espresso blends with a variety of coffee beans that are used all over in high-end restaurants and cafes. This doesn’t mean that the blend I am making now is the best for espresso, it just means that a wide variety of people find it pleasing to the taste.

Some traditional espresso blends use dark roast coffee, which I am personally not a large promoter of, but once again, what I think is ideal you may not. I create medium-roast espresso blends for milk-based drinks, but I personally don’t drink a ton of them, so when I’m making a shot for myself, I prefer a lighter roasted bean.

Everyone’s taste is unique, so I would recommend starting with freshly roasted beans you’ve previously enjoyed as espresso and trying to replicate that flavor. You can then begin experimenting with different roast levels and their extractions!

Deciding Dose Size

Some ground espresso sits on a scale.

Tare a digital scale to zero with your portafilter, then verify the exact amount needed for your extraction before distributing and tamping the grounds. Photo by Jeff Sutton

Once you’ve decided on the beans, the next step is to figure out your dose size. First, what size portafilter do you have? If you have a 19g basket in your portafilter, start with 19g of ground coffee for a double shot. The basket size is a variable that will stay constant, while the amount of time that the coffee is extracted and the amount of espresso created in your shots can be adjusted depending on flavor.

Espresso Amount

Start with a 2:1 brew ratio of espresso to ground coffee. 19g in a portafilter should yield 38g of espresso. If you make the shot that is dramatically more than 38g, then it ends up watered down, thin, or weak, and a shot significantly below 38g tastes thick, strong, and under-extracted, leaving a sour taste in your mouth.

You may prefer a 36g or a 40g shot, but odds are against you loving a 20g shot from 19g of coffee. We now know how to get a 38g shot, but then the time variable comes into play.

Timing

The taste of a shot that takes 20 seconds to reach its desired weight has a dramatically distinct flavor compared to one that takes 40 seconds to reach 38g. I recommend targeting between 23 and 28 seconds to reach optimal weight with 25 seconds being ideal.

Distribution

A man holds a wedge distributor.

A wedge distributor commonly used in cafes. Photo by Jeff Sutton

Making your espresso puck a uniform structure ensures that the extraction will be even across the ground coffee. Keeping everything the same and repeatable is key in the world of espresso. Therefore, one of your most vital tools to have is a quality digital scale. A scale will be necessary to make sure you are beginning with the exact amount of ground coffee desired and later on to determine the weight of the espresso shot pulled.

Properly distributing coffee within the puck and evenly tamping leads to a product you can repeat with consistency. After filling your basket and measuring the exact weight of the grounds, the next step is to evenly distribute the grounds within the portafilter. There are many techniques on how to best distribute your espresso puck.

Until the 2000s, almost all coffee shops taught their staff to distribute the coffee for an espresso by tapping the portafilter on its side and smoothing out the grounds with their fingers. This definitely works, but it lacks consistency. Lots of coffee distribution tools have appeared in the last 20 years for this very reason.

The most common one used today is a wedge distribution tool. They fit on the portafilter and then spin around so its wedge moves over the coffee within the basket, creating a smooth surface. It’s much more consistent than fingers but doesn't always collapse hidden clumps that can form near the bottom.

To make sure that the puck is evenly distributed from top to bottom, you can use a Weiss tool. A Weiss tool consists of a thin prong, like a needle or group of needles, that is circled around the basket to break up any clumps in the coffee after grinding. This method takes longer, so it's not always best in a busy setting, but for making yourself a shot at home, it works great.

Tamping

A man holds an espresso tamper.

A tamper specifically sized to fit your portafilter. Photo by Jeff Sutton

After breaking up any clumps in your puck and creating a relatively smooth surface, it’s time to tamp the grounds. There are many tamping tools on the market, but they're all designed to do the same thing—condense the ground coffee into a puck that water flows through to create the shot.

The most important thing when using a tamper is to ensure you are creating a flat, even surface on the puck so water will distribute evenly through it and not find places to channel in the grounds. As long as a decent bit of downward pressure is put on the puck, the job is complete. You really can’t put too much pressure on the tamper, but there’s no reason to go overboard.

Grind Size

An espresso grinder sits in front of some tools.

The Mahlkönig dual hopper grinder. I adjust it when attempting to get the perfect shot. Photo by Jeff Sutton

The grind size of the coffee in your puck determines how long it takes to extract your espresso, as long as you are using a mechanized 9-bar espresso machine. If your shot takes too long, then make the grind coarser so it extracts faster. The inverse applies if your shot goes too fast. A finer grind fixes the problem.

Once you have achieved the ideal 38g extraction in about 25 seconds, you can begin to decide what the perfect strength is for you.

Deciding What You Like Best

A cup of espresso sits under a machine.

A 25-second, 39g extraction suits my palate perfectly with this Brazilian and Guatemalan blend. Photo by Jeff Sutton

Now that you have a basic recipe dialed in, it’s time to adjust it to your taste perfection. With most of the variables covered, subtle adjustments are easy for you to tweak until your drink is just right.

If it tastes too bitter, it’s probably over-extracted. This means you took a little too much flavor out of the grounds. Try a slightly coarser grind and extract again, leaving the dose size and amount of espresso yielded the same. This will shorten the time the coffee is exposed to the extraction process.

Another problem may be a sour taste in your mouth. This happens when espresso is under-extracted. Remedy this by grinding your coffee a little more finely. Assuming you leave all the other variables the same, this extracts more from the espresso puck and adds flavor that will even out your shot.

Once you find the flavor that suits you best, record the time of the extraction and keep this as your personal recipe for the future.

Now that you have your perfect recipe, it's time to enjoy the heart, body, and crema of your espresso shot. Maybe you want to pour it into your favorite mug for a latte, cappuccino, macchiato, or an Americano, or perhaps you want to just enjoy the fruits of your labor by itself. One thing is for sure—it’ll be hard to drink plain-old drip coffee now!

Like this article?
Share it with your network

Written By
After Graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in supply-chain management I moved west to the Colorado mountains in order to take the road less traveled. I started my western experience working in the ski industry. I opened and managed a demo ski shop for 8 years in Telluride, Color...

Curated experts can help

Have a question about the article you just read or want personal recommendations? Connect with a Curated expert and get free recommendations for whatever you’re looking for!

Read Next

New and Noteworthy