Espresso Guide

How Do I Make Great Espresso?

We’re glad you asked. You can improve the quality of your espresso by practicing your technique with the following guidelines in mind. The most important elements in espresso preparation are the grind, dose, leveling, distribution and tamping. Perfecting how you do these will allow you to make great coffee every time.

Starting Points

  • A double “ristretto” or short shot of espresso contains roughly 1.5oz of liquid, .75oz each shot.
  • The best shots of espresso are pulled in a range within 23-28 seconds from when then brew cycle starts, with espresso dropping from the portafilter after 5-10 seconds.
  • Grind your coffee fresh and be as efficient as possible. Don’t let ground coffee sit in the portafilter, and don’t let the portafilter sit in the group head loaded with espresso grounds before brewing. Coffee stales very quickly once it’s ground.
  • Pre-heat your shot glasses, demitasse or mug with hot water before you begin grinding the coffee and preparing the shot.


Your grind is the most important thing you can change to improve the quality of your espresso. Start with a fine grind – coarser than flour, finer than table salt. Adjust the coarseness to control how the shot pulls. If it comes out too fast and the crema is a lighter yellowish color, make the grind finer to restrict the flow. If the coffee runs too slow or doesn’t drop from the portafilter at all, make the grind coarser.


A range of 14-18 grams of ground coffee is typical for a double-shot, but up to 21 grams or so will work depending on the coffee and the grind. In the average 58 or 53mm double basket, a mound of ground coffee in the center that sticks up above the rim about a half-inch with the base of the mound about will be roughly 19-20 grams, a good starting point. Adjust to taste.

Level And Distribute

Use your index finger (or any other straight-edge) to distribute the grounds evenly in the portafilter basket and create a nice level surface on which to tamp. Distribution and leveling are very important, as the coffee should be spread evenly inside the portafilter without much variation in depth or density.


Grip the tamper handle as though you were grasping a doorknob. Keep the tamp surface in line with your wrist and elbow and tamp straight down using your forearm as a piston to apply roughly 30lbs of pressure. If you prefer, tamp a second time to integrate any loose grounds around the surface. Knocking the portafilter with your tamper is not necessary or advised, as you can create fissures in your puck. Use a bathroom scale to test your tamp pressure. Ensure that your tamp is level by resting the tamper on the compressed coffee and raising the portafilter to eye level to see if it’s tilted at all. Practice until the tamper is as level as can be every time.


Clear any ground coffee from the rim of the portafilter. Flush water through the group head if necessary to regulate temperature. Engage the portafilter in the group head and immediately start brewing. Check the second-hand on your watch or start a timer as soon as you engage the brew process. Dump out the water in your preheated cups and place them under the pour-spouts of the portafilter. Time your shot. A properly extracted shot of espresso will be rich and viscous with a deep brick red color on the top. The flavor will be intense but pleasant and balanced.

Troubleshooting Your Shots

Problem Remedy
Espresso came out too fast Make the grind finer
Espresso isn’t dropping when I start the brew Make the grind coarser
Espresso pulls in target times but tastes harsh Make the grind coarser and increase the dose
Puck of coffee in portafilter is wet and soupy. Increase your tamp pressure
Make the grind finer

Steaming Milk

For a latte, you want to produce milk that mimics the consistency of house paint – thick, smooth and creamy, not foamy like a bubble bath. As described below, a little extra aeration will provide denser foam for a cappuccino. Well-steamed milk will have a uniform texture, a glossy shine on the surface and nice sweet flavor that will support and complement the qualities in your espresso. Whole milk works best but these techniques can be adapted for use with 2%, skim or your preferred dairy alternative.

Read through and practice these guidelines. The steps outlined below will get you on the right track toward steaming for smooth, sweet lattes, macchiatos and cappuccinos.

  1. Before you steam your milk, purge the steam wand. Point it toward the drip tray or into a cup and slowly open the valve by turning the knob to release the water that’s built up in the wand until you get nice dry foam without much water in it.
  2. Bury the steam tip under the surface of the milk but only slightly, not all the way to the bottom of the pitcher.
  3. Gradually turn the knob until you get adequate steam pressure into the milk, not so much that it explodes, but enough to get a nice swirl in the surface of the milk.
  4. Very early in the steaming process, before the milk begins to heat up, you want to aerate (or “stretch’) the milk by gently lowering the pitcher until the steam tip emerges from the surface and injects air into the milk. Again, not enough to make it explode everywhere, but just enough to get that ‘tsst tsst’ sound. After a couple seconds of giving it air, bury the tip back down just a little and hold the pitcher so that there’s a swirl of milk dancing around the surface. Note that low-fat and skim milk will get extra-foamy if you’re not careful with your application of steam pressure.
  5. Use a thermometer in the milk to ensure heating to the desired temperature. OR: use your hand on the outside of the pitcher to monitor the heat as it’s steaming. Juuust as the outside gets almost too hot to touch, close the steam valve by turning the knob, remove the pitcher, and always, always, always immediately purge and wipe your steam wand clean.
  6. When you’re done steaming, there will probably be bubbles at the surface. If you’ve done well, those bubbles will disappear when you knock the bottom of the pitcher firmly on a sturdy countertop. Give the milk a good swirl to integrate the denser foam at the top with the thinner milk underneath and keep a uniform texture throughout the pitcher.

If you give the milk air after it begins heating, you will create tiny bubbles that are impossible to get out by swirling or tapping the pitcher after the steaming is done. With practice you can get the hang of aerating the milk (couple seconds for a latte, couple seconds longer for a cappuccino) before it starts getting hot then maintaining that swirl for a nice consistent texture in your drink. Depending on your steam pressure, you will have to adjust how much air your give it, how far you open the valve and for how long in order to get that rich consistency for pouring the drink.

Keep in mind that milk steaming takes some time to learn well. As with any new skill, the three best ways to improve are practice, practice, and practice.