1. Googling espresso tips
Five years ago, I was a new home barista in need of help. A quick Google search exposed many contradictory "facts" and techniques that muddied the waters of my learning. I became thoroughly frustrated. We based most of the Clive espresso education materials on this experience.
We recommend learning the basics from a single place with a cohesive curriculum before venturing out on your own. The basics of dosing, distributing, tamping and brew ratios are best acquired from a source with a focus on teaching home baristas, not professionals. At our showroom in Portland, we teach hundreds of people every year in our Home Barista Class. Our "Learn Journal" documents this approach. While there is more than one way to make espresso, we recommend starting with consistent basics, gaining confidence and proficiency, and then venturing off to more advanced fine-tuning techniques.
2. Using coffee that is not at peak freshness
We don't understand why some new baristas spend so much money on new equipment and then use 30-60 day old beans. And, if it doesn't have a roast date on the bag, it is usually far older than that. It's like buying a brand new Ferrari and using some 81 octane fuel you found in an old garage.
Use "fresh" beans, ideally 7-14 days off-roast and store them correctly. You will enjoy the experience far more. Please don't put them in the refrigerator or freezer. If the bags are nitrogen-flushed with a CO2 valve (like those from Greater Goods, Verve, and Onyx), leave them sealed in the bag until you are ready to brew.
3. Not using a scale
96% of the problems that new home baristas have comes from eyeballing their dose and output and then making adjustments. When you are first learning, you need the feedback of an accurate scale to ensure that you are fixing the right problem. If you are using 20 grams of coffee to yield 30 grams of espresso and you are off by 2 grams, that is 10%.
At Clive, every employee uses an Acaia scale every day. We have been doing this forever, and some of us were professional baristas. We still do it. It only takes a few seconds, yields better coffee, and decreases waste. At a minimum, do it for the first couple months until you have the basics down and your recipe dialed!
4. Inconsistent tamping
All new baristas have fallen victim to this. You pull a shot; it comes out a little fast, so you tamp harder. It's not a sin - but it's not right. Tamping with consistent pressure, completely level every single time is the only way to make great espresso. If the beans have aged a bit and the shot is coming out faster, make the grind a bit finer.
The second tamping issue we commonly see is a bit trickier, especially when there are two baristas in the same house. My wife and I run into this. She tamps harder than me. She will adjust courser, and then I adjust finer. It turns out the solution was a calibrated tamper from St. Anthony's. Marriage saved.
5. Using hard or untreated water
98% of espresso is water. The other 2% are compounds that are created by dissolving in the water. Giving yourself a lovely, filtered palette for execution makes the espresso taste delightful.
Hard water is just a straight no-no. These machines should last a long time. Do not Google descaling an espresso machine. Just make sure it doesn't scale in the first place. Descaling can sometimes cause even more problems than the scale itself. Always keep your water hardness between 35-85 ppm, so that rules out reverse osmosis, unless you are retreating it with Third Wave Water. Every 3-6 months, test your water. Municipal water sources have variability in their hardness seasonally. If you live in a place that gets heavy rains, it can change dramatically.
6. Improper or neglected cleaning
We once opened up an espresso machine and found thousands of moldy ants. Seriously. Moldy ants.
Coffee is a food product. It will rot and get rancid. When it does, it not only tastes terrible, but it can also be harmful to your health. You would never pick up an old banana that is half rotten and say "It's easier just to eat it."
Yes, it's easier not to clean your machine. However, the coffee tastes better, the equipment lasts longer, and our techs will thank you if you do it properly. If you want us to remind you when to do it, simply click here.
7. Using low-fat milk
Aside from all of the employees at Clive, we're not 20 anymore. I certainly understand the need for low-fat milk. However, it is so hard to texture correctly for anything except cappuccinos. As we wrote about in our milk article, we need fat and protein to produce smooth, silky milk. It's essential. Sure, some killer baristas in your local café can nail it. But you are just starting out. If you want to keep that body lean but also want a full silky cup - try Oatly. It's low calorie, textures beautifully, tastes great, and its vegan.
8. Incomplete understanding of brew ratios
The brew ratio is your recipe. You would never bake bread without one, don't pull a shot of espresso without one. The shorthand around "what is a double-shot" confuses everything to great ends. So, remember rule number 1 and read this.
9. Not purging water before your shot
We haven't written about this yet, but temperature is so important for consistent extraction. A difference of just a couple of degrees can underextract your espresso, leading to sourness. As such, always flush some water through the grouphead before pulling a shot. It ensures all of the machine components are at the proper temperature. And while we are at it, please give your machine time to warm up thoroughly and use a pre-heated cup or mug.
10. Being afraid to explore
This should be fun. Try new coffees. We're always here for suggestions...