What is Espresso Supposed to Look Like?

Coffee educator, Julia, and a shot of espresso for educational video, what is espresso supposed to look like?

When scrolling through the comments on our YouTube videos the other day, we came across several requests to explain what a shot of espresso should look like. That got us thinking — what is a shot of espresso supposed to look like? Can you really tell if it will be good by looks alone? Well, first polled our staff.

Then, we polled Instagram:

Can you tell is a shot is good by looking at it Instagram poll


So, we decided to create this blog post and video to try and settle the matter. So the question lies — can you tell if a shot is good just by looking at it? Well, we hate to break it to you — no, you can’t. Well, not exactly.  

If you’ve been following our last several videos, you know by now that the variables that affect a shot of espresso are seemingly endless. From your coffee beans, grind size, and dose, to elements of your machine like water temperature and pressure, many things can cause a coffee to pull incorrectly, and taste horrible — even if it looks pretty good. Though we can’t guarantee a great shot by looks alone, there are some visual queues that can provide reassurance that things are going right. Or more easily, let you know when things are going wrong.

Here’s what to look for: 

Drop Time

First, drop time — how long it takes for the first drop of espresso to fall from the portafilter. There is no correct amount of time or specific number you’re hoping to achieve, but it will give you a general sense of how your final shot may turn out. If your coffee gushes out in a couple of seconds, that’s an indicator that you may need to grind finer as your final shot may be sour and under-extracted. If 10,15, 20 seconds go by and nothing is coming out, that could result in a bitter and over-extracted shot, meaning you should grind coarser. 

Your dose, machine’s flow rate, water pressure, and tamping pressure can influence drop time and overall shot times. We recommend aiming to keep your tamping pressure a constant variable to rule that out as an issue or reason your shots vary in time. If you’re wondering if the machine is the problem, check out this video for troubleshooting tips on whether it’s you or the espresso machine.

Shot Time

More important than the initial drop time is how the coffee begins to pull. The rate at which your shot flows from the portafilter will tell you a lot about what is happening with the coffee. Like drop time, there isn’t a perfect speed, like two grams per second or something extremely specific like that. What’s important to pay attention to is whether it’s pulling so quickly that it’s spraying everywhere or if it’s just dripping, one drop… every… couple… seconds… that’s probably too slow. You’re looking for steady and consistent. After first drop, the shot should speed up, the stream becoming larger in size and you should reach your final shot yield in the realm of 30-ish seconds. 


Channeling is tricky because it happens whether you see it or not. Channeling causes unevenness in an extraction — it can simultaneously over-extract some areas while under extracting others, leaving you with a confusing shot that just tastes… bad. With a bottomless portafilter, it’s easier to spot the obvious signs of channeling such as gaps in the basket, shaking, or a jet of coffee spraying. If your shots are favoring one side or only coming out of one portafilter spout, if you’re using a double-spouted portafilter, that could be channeling as well. If you notice this, look to your distribution and tamping technique as these are the primary causes of channeling. Simplify your routine and ensure things are level. 


As your shot pulls, you should see a change in color. Depending on the roast level and roast date, this will look different but typically, in the early stages of a shot, the espresso is very strong, syrupy, and dark in color. As it continues to pull, it  changes to a vibrant orange to a pale blonde. Fresh coffee is critical for this to take place. If you pull your shot into a clear shot glass, a lot of the time you’ll be able to see these colors in layers in your cup from the dark cacao color to the crema. 


Crema in Italian means cream — this is the fluffy layer of foam that sits on top of a shot of espresso. It’s mostly carbon dioxide gas produced during the roasting process. This gas remains inside the cell structure of the beans and is released after roasting slowly over time, or in this case, by water forced through the coffee at high pressure. The fresher the coffee or the darker it’s roasted, the more crema it will have. Crema doesn’t indicate a perfect shot but it is signature to espresso though too much can possibly be a bad thing as crema is naturally bitter. 


Lastly, your final shot volume. How do you know when to stop your shot? A shot of espresso is typically between one and two ounces in volume but depending on how long it takes to pull, which will depend on your coffee, dose, technique, and equipment, the extraction will vary. This is why we teach to use a scale and follow a recipe. 

To dial in easily and replicate a great shot, being consistent with how much coffee you put into your portafilter for your dose, and aiming for the same yield will make things easier for you in the long run. 

Looking for coffee basics? Learn how to perfect your espresso at home. Ready to learn how to build an espresso recipe? Check out this blog post. If you're looking for some next steps on how to improve your coffee, check this out. 

Hit us with those questions and comments below.