The Tip Jar - Brewing 101: Espresso Basics

Tuesday May 13, 2014 // By Landon Christensen

Portafilter? Grouphead? Tamper? Knock box? What on earth do these terms mean? If you’re like me when I first started, you may be feeling a little confused and possibly even overwhelmed at this point. If so, take a deep breath and relax, I'm here to give you confidence in your abilities as a barista by teaching you the basics and 101 on brewing espresso. If you haven’t already, I recommend watching our “Espresso: Basics & 101” video, which can be found at the end of this article or on the BPS® Youtube channel. Please note, everything shown in the video or discussed here are my personal preferences. If you find something that works or better for you or your shop, go for it!

First, there are a few things you’re going to need in order to brew a quality shot of espresso. An espresso machine, this is what actually brews the espresso itself. A conical burr grinder, this is used for grinding the beans. A burr grinder is preferable over a blade grinder since it crushes the beans as opposed to chopping them, it also provides a consistent grind every time. A scale with gram units, used for weighing the beans. A portafilter, this is what holds the grounds and locks into the machine. A tamper, used for compacting the grounds into the portafilter. A knock box, used for knocking out dry pucks after you brew the espresso. A shot glass or two, used for measuring the volume of espresso. A timer, used for timing how long it takes to brew the espresso. And lastly, a dry rag which is used to wipe out the portafilter in between shots.

Let’s talk about different kind of espresso machines, depending on what kind of machine you have some of the content here may or may not apply to you. There are numerous types of machines, but for now I’ll stick with three. Semi automatic, these machines require you to grind, dose, and tamp the espresso. Also, there is a manual on/off button or lever which means you have to measure the volume of espresso you are brewing. Automatic, which is very similar to a semi automatic with one slight difference - the machine stops brewing at a predetermined volume. Last, super automatic, these machines are fully automated and require nothing more from you than the push of a button. For this tutorial I will be referring to a semi automatic machine.

To prep for brewing espresso, you’re going to want to remove the portafilter from the grouphead and briefly start the machine allowing water to run through the grouphead. The grouphead is where the portafilter locks into the machine. This will flush out any grounds stuck to or lodged in the grouphead screen. Next, take a dry rag and wipe out any grounds from the portafilter. A dry rag is important because if you get the portafilter wet the grounds will stick to the sides and clump together making later steps a little more difficult. Once the portafilter is clean you are going to take your scale and make sure it’s set to grams. Take the portafilter, set it on the scale and zero out the scale.

Level Coffee GroundsOnce you’ve prepped the machine and portafilter you can begin dialing in or setting the grind. Dialing in is a trial and error process that can take a while before you get an espresso you are happy with. Dialing in has a bit of a learning curve before you get the hang of it, just be patient and don’t give up. You can do it! The grind setting should be at a point where the grounds clump together in the middle when pinched with your fingers. You don’t want it so fine that you can see your fingerprint in the grounds or too coarse that the grounds just fall apart. The grind setting is a key part in how the espresso will taste, so you want to make sure you get this right. When you are ready to grind, place the portafilter on the grinder, most machines have a place to rest a portafilter when you are grind the beans. As the grounds come out, slowly rotate the portafilter in a clockwise and counterclockwise motion, this will evenly distribute the grounds so they don’t accumulate on one side of the portafilter. You want to have 18-20 grams of grounds in the portafilter for two shots of espresso, remember to use the scale. After the grounds are in the portafilter you want to lightly tap the portafilter on a hard surface to settle the grounds, this removes little pockets of air from the espresso which can cause problems while brewing. The grounds should settle together without flying out of the portafilter, practice until you get a feel for how hard to tap. Once the grounds have been settled in the portafilter you are ready to even them out with your finger or palm. I do this by placing my finger or palm on the edge of the portafilter and rotate clockwise then counterclockwise until the grounds are level with the top of the portafilter. Please see our video for a clear example of how this is done.

Tamping coffee groundsAfter the grounds are settled and level, you are ready to tamp the grounds. You want to have a tamper that fits into your portafilter as tightly as possible without being too big. Your tamping is something you want to be second nature as a barista. To tamp, you want to place the portafilter on the edge of the bar and hold the tamper in your hand with your arm at a right angle. Move your arm straight down and apply between 30-40 pounds of pressure to the grounds. After you complete your tamp, flip the portafilter upside down to dump out any loose grounds. Also, wipe off the edges of the portafilter so loose grounds don’t get lodged in the grouphead. If you want to practice I would recommend practicing applying pressure with the tamper to a scale. When I was learning how to tamp I did this over and over AND over. This built up muscle memory while letting me see how much force I was actually applying.

Now, it’s time to actually brew the espresso. You want to preheat the grouphead by turning on the machine, briefly allowing the water to flow through the grouphead (do this before locking your portafilter in the grouphead). Lock the portafilter in place and place your shot glasses under the spouts. Start the machine immediately after locking the portafilter and at the same time you want to start your timer. It should take roughly 22-30 seconds to brew around 2oz of espresso. If it is pulling too slowly, try grinding the beans a little coarser. If it is pulling too fast, try grinding a little finer. An analogy that helped me when I was learning is sand and rocks. Sand is more compact, water would flow through this much slower than rocks. This same thing applies to espresso. You never want to tamp with a different pressure to control the flow, always adjust your grind settings. The consistency of the espresso should be that of warm honey and the streams should look like what some people call, “the mouse tail.” Coloring will vary, but for the most part it should be golden brown with some dark spots in it. Once the espresso is done pulling, add it to a demitasse and serve proudly! You’ve done a fine job brewing a quality espresso. After the shot is pulled, knock the puck out of the portafilter using the knock box, wipe out the portafilter with your rag and return it to the grouphead to await the next shot of espresso.

Demitasse espressoI just want to reiterate that everything mentioned above is what works best for me. Brewing espresso is a fine craft so experiment, make mistakes, and find what tastes best for you. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact us at 1-866-776-5288. Good luck and happy brewing!


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