Troubleshooting Your Espresso Shots: How To Make That Perfect Espresso

perfect espresso

So you finally have your all singing, all dancing espresso coffee machine sitting there on your kitchen worktop looking proud, stylish, and awesome. Your burr grinder is licking its conical lips anticipating all those deep dark roasted coffee beans it’s about to grind.

Your First Espresso Attempt

You have read manuals, watched videos, and studied baristas, and its time to put those skills into practice. You put your burr grinder into action. You then let your super espresso machine fire into life while you anticipate those wonderful, velvety, deep espresso tones as rewards for your endeavor. Excitedly you take your first sip on the espresso nectar in your cup. This optimism is quickly replaced by utter disgust aimed at the crema free, watery blend of burnt-acorn tasting brown liquid.

You followed the instructions, you thought it looked simple enough but your apparent espresso failure has you in a state of frustrated bewilderment. That sexy looking espresso machine suddenly looks like a giant expensive paperweight!

Does this sound familiar? I think at some point we have all been there, I certainly have! Just like everything in life, you haven’t failed, you have simply tried to make an espresso that didn’t work. You don’t pick up a guitar for the first time and expect to play “Stairway to Heaven” from the get-go. It takes practice, bleeding fingertips, and an abundance of enthusiasm and patience to get there.

Thankfully, to make the perfect espresso coffee, you do not need to make your fingertips bleed but you may need some patience. You also have us here to help with all your espresso problems, so fear not, we can help you.

The Secret To Great Tasting Espresso

The secret to great-tasting espresso and an end to all your espresso problems is balance. It sounds very “Zen-like” but it is true, it is about getting the right balance with everything. You need to get the balance right between the amount of water to coffee ratio. You need a balance between getting the right grind setting to ensure the optimal flow of the water through the grounds. You need a balance between over-extraction and under-extraction. Do not worry I will expand on each of these things through this article. It is just important to understand this concept of balance first.

To begin your journey toward espresso nirvana, you must start with a good idea of the end goal in mind. What I mean is you need to understand exactly what a good espresso should look and taste like. Of course, we all have our own taste preferences, but knowing what makes for good quality, perfect espresso is paramount here.

Choosing the Best Coffee Beans For Espresso

Choosing the best beans for espresso really does come down to taste and plenty of trial and error. The bad news is, there are literally thousands of coffee bean blends and roasts and some are amazing and plenty are not. The good news is that you have plenty to choose from though.

There are a few tentative guidelines that might help you find a good coffee bean roast.

  • Darker roasts tend to be better for espresso than lighter roasts.
  • Try to stay away from supermarket beans as they usually don’t have a “Date of Roast” date on the packet.
  • Try to find a coffee bean supplier and roaster that you are happy with.
  • Use beans that have been roasted around a week to 2 weeks ago.

Ultimately, you need to kiss a few frogs to find your prince among coffee beans. In short, try as many beans as you can until you find a blend that suits your palate.

What Does a Good Espresso Taste Like?

You know when you have tasted a good espresso as your face will have that satisfied expression upon it. Seriously though, the taste characteristics of good espresso are:

  • A richness of flavor that should coat your tongue. The balance has to be right though as too rich and it becomes a bit overpowering, too little, and it will taste watery and insipid.
  • Slight bitterness. You should be able to taste a little bitterness on the back of the tongue but once again, not too much.
  • There should be no taste of sourness. You will know if it is, as there will be a slight acidic taste on the front sides of your tongue.
  • It should have a roundness of flavor with layers and not just one taste sensation.

Only experience and plenty of coffee tasting will enable you to get your taste buds in tune with what you like.

What Else Makes For a Great Espresso?

There are a few other important factors that make for a great espresso experience:

  • Temperature – The espresso drink when first served should be too hot to drink. It will cool within a couple of minutes but it should never be served tepid after extraction.
  • Crema – The crema is a visual sign of whether you have a good espresso or not. The crema is a velvety, creamy layer that sits on top of your espresso. It should have a light tan color to it and be around half an inch thick. It is created by the carbon dioxide released during the pressured extraction of the coffee. It should also not disappear soon after the coffee has been served.
  • Aroma – The aroma of a great espresso is unmistakable. It should just smell of a pure and rich coffee. It certainly should not have a sour smell to it.
  • Texture – The texture of a good espresso will be thicker than water but not like syrup. An empty espresso cup should have a slight residue on the sides and bottom.

Top 7 Espresso Problems and How To Fix Them

When espresso is being extracted through the portafilter group head, it goes through three separate extraction stages. The first stage is the initial extraction stage and lasts for several seconds.

During this stage, the flavors that are extracted from the beans are acidic and sour tones. The pressure pushing the water through the coffee grounds is lower, typically at around 4 bar. The reason for this is because at this point the coffee grounds are powdery and high pressure would disturb the grounds and potentially introduce channeling in the grounds (gaps in the grounds). During this stage, the espresso is dark and syrupy and gives it, its viscosity.

The second stage of extraction lasts for several seconds. This is where most of the richer flavors are extracted from the beans and the oils and sugars are released into the coffee. Now that the coffee grounds are wet they will have a more puck-like appearance in the group head, and the water pressure will now increase. This stage is where the crema is formed from the carbon dioxide released from the beans. The pressure will increase to around 9 bar. You may be wondering why most domestic espresso machines claim to have 15 bar or more of pressure. The reality is that when that pressure hits the group head it will be no more than 9 bar. Incidentally, 9 bar is the optimum pressure for espresso.

The third stage of extraction lasts for another 4 seconds or so and the espresso turns lighter in color. At this stage, most of the deep espresso ingredients are already in the cup and this will just balance out those deep rich velvety tones with lighter and weaker layers. Without this stage of extraction, the coffee might taste too bitter and strong.

The other important factor is the ratio of coffee grounds to water volume. The simplest way to get this right is to measure the weight of your coffee grounds that end up in your portafilter. As a general rule, the ratio is around 1 part coffee to 2 parts water. So for 10 grams of coffee, you need 20 ml of water. Just weigh your coffee on some accurate scales and then adjust the length of time your water flows through your espresso machine into the cup to change the volume of water accordingly.

So you know what a good espresso should look and taste like but what do about obvious espresso coffee fails and what are the most common fixes?

Thin and Watery Espresso Shot

It is easy to spot a thin and watery espresso shot because there will be little to no crema and it will have the appearance of a regular long coffee drink. It will also taste insipid and weak.

The first thing to check is the roast date of the beans. Sometimes if they were only roasted a couple of days ago then they haven’t had a chance to mature properly yet. Big bubbles in your crema that dissipate quickly are a sign of immaturity in the beans. There is definitely a sweet spot in the age of roasted coffee beans and it is usually between 5 days and 2 weeks after roasting. Likewise, if the coffee beans are a bit old and going a bit stale then this will also have a thin and watery taste.

The second thing to look at is the extraction time. If your coffee’s appearance is thin and is taking a long time to extract, it could be that your grind is too fine. The finer the grind can sometimes make it harder for the water to pass through the coffee grounds resulting in oily dark water rather than rich crema. Conversely, if the extraction time is too quick and you have watery espresso then your grind could be too coarse. I know, its contradictory and confusing but the key here is to look at the length of time that extraction is taking to make you decide how to fix the problem of watery espresso.

The third thing to look at is your ratio of coffee to water, remember, it should be around 1:2 ratio (1 part coffee to 2 parts water) If you have too much water to coffee the it will become weaker with the longer extraction time. If this is the case, adjust your coffee machine settings to slow down the extraction time. This will reduce the amount of water being used in the extraction process.

In short, to fix watery and thin espresso, check:

  • The roast date of the beans.
  • The length of time it takes to extract the coffee.
  • The ratio of coffee to water volume.

Big Bubbles In The Crema

Big Crema Bubbles

Big bubbles in your cream are another sure indicator that your espresso is too thin and watery again. The first thing to check here is the date your beans were roasted on. If it was only a couple of days ago then it is too soon. The roasting process creates carbon dioxide that dissipates as the roasted beans mature. Too much carbon dioxide produces bigger bubbles. The sweet sport for roasted beans is around a week to 2 weeks.

The other things to check are your tamp pressure, volume of coffee in the portafilter and maybe even the quality of the beans used. Just adjust one thing at a time until you find out the root of the problem.

No Crema

If you are seeing just a black oily coffee from your extraction with no crema at all, then this is almost certainly due to the grind of your coffee. Your coffee grind is probably too fine and you need to make it coarser. The problem occurs because the water under pressure finds it hard to pass through the finer particles of coffee in the portafilter and backs up into the grouphead. This leads to a slow drip extraction and no crema.

After the process has finished you should notice that the coffee puck that you remove will be almost solid like a brick. This will confirm that your grind is too fine.

Espresso Shot Channelling

Espresso Shot Channelling

Espresso shot channeling occurs when there are uneven areas or small channels in your tamped coffee grounds in the portafilter. What occurs then, is that the water does not flow evenly through the coffee grounds during extraction. This results in a poor extraction where some parts of the coffee grounds are over-extracted and some parts are under-extracted. You may notice in the crema that there are dark spots and spots where no crema at all. In extreme cases where there is a gap in the coffee grounds, pressured water will pass through the gap as a jet of water and possibly hit your favorite shirt!

To fix this, you need to ensure that before you tamp your coffee grounds, that they are spread and distributed evenly through the portafilter. There is a great tool you can buy that will do this for you.

Another thing to check is that your grind maybe too fine. A fine grind will accentuate any channel as the high pressure water will find the path of least resistance through the extra compression in the finer coffee grind.

Early Blonding During Extraction

Blonding refers to the stage during extraction where the coffee moves from the rich velvety, reddish, chocolatey pour into the lighter (more blond) stage. When this stage occurs to early, the resulting coffee can taste slightly bitter and loses those nicer coffee notes.

A sure sign that your espresso has early bonding is a poor crema that disapears quickly. A bitter taste to the coffee and of course you can see as it extracts that the coffee lightens in appearance too soon.

The reason for this could be first of all, your coffee beans are too stale. So check the roast date first. Another reason is that your ratio of coffee to water is not right and probably not enough coffee in the portafilter. Check that you have the right ratio by using scales to weigh your coffee first. You could also try a finer grind as well to slow down the extraction but be wary of the problems this can lead to as well.

Bitter Tasting Espresso

A bitter taste to your espresso is most likely to be that your extraction time is too long and/or you have early blonding. When I say the extraction time is too long, I mean your extraction is too long in the third stage of extraction.

To rectify this, check your volume of water to coffee ratio is correct. If there is too much water, change the length of time of extraction in your machine and shorten it.

Another important thing to check is that your coffee beans are not stale, so check the roast date.

Sour Tasting Espresso

The sour taste is caused by an imbalance in the extraction stages. It is spending too long in the first stage and not enough time in the second stage. You will probably notice the coffee extracts too quickly and there will be little to no crema.

The reasons for this start with the grind settings. Your coffee grind could be too coarse. A coarse setting results in water passing too quickly through the group head leading to under extraction. Another thing to check is the ratio of coffee to water again. Too little coffee and the water will flow too quickly once again. A good clue that this is the case is when you look at the coffee puck left after extraction, if it is slushy and mud-like then the grind is too coarse and/or too little in volume.


As you can see, the quest for perfect espresso is fraught with all sorts of issues and problems. The secret to proper espresso troubleshooting is to observe the basic rules of espresso making.

  • Use freshly roasted coffee beans (but not too fresh).
  • Get your ratios of coffee to water right.
  • Get your grind right.
  • Ensure your water is the right temperature.
  • Get a nice even distribution of coffee grinds in the portafilter.
  • Tamp with the right pressure.

It is all a bit of trial and error but when you finally get the balance right between all the factors you will almost guarantee that the quest for perfect espresso has been won.