Home Espresso Guide for Beginners

So you’ve come into a shiny new home espresso machine but you have no idea where to start? Read on for our guide to the basics of home espresso, and you’ll soon be well on your way to cafe quality espresso from the comfort of your home.

The first thing you should know is that espresso is fickle, tedious and often doesn't do what you want. But don't let that get you down - it’s also incredibly rewarding, fascinating and even a little exciting. Let's begin with a quick introduction to your kit. 

  • Espresso Machine
  • Grinder 
  • Coffee
  • Tamper

Easy, done!

Except that's not all. The secret to good coffee is consistency and repeatability, so you also really also need:

  • Tamp mat
  • Scales 
  • Teaspoon
  • Cloth 
  • Cleaning Brush 
  • Timer

First off, just spend some time playing around with your new kit. Read the instructions, press all the buttons and spin the dials so you can understand what they do. Once you’re comfortable with the settings, it’s time to make some coffee.

Grind is the most important part of making quality espresso. If you don’t have the correct grind size you’re not going to be able to make espresso. So, spin your dial to fine, throw some beans in the grinder and take a guess where the correct grind is. This is going to involve a little trial and error. We’d recommend picking up 1kg of cheap coffee you can use to run through the grinder, giving yourself an afternoon to have a play around getting a good feel for how the grinder and espresso machine behave.

When you’re ready to take the plunge, grind a little coffee into a cup and rub it between your fingers. It should feel like soft sand. If not, go finer on the grinder. If it feels like sugar powder you're probably too fine. But, at the end of the day you're just going to have to pull a shot of espresso and try. 

If you have scales, grind 17g into your basket and distribute the coffee evenly across the basket, using your hand to tap the front of the portafilter to encourage the coffee in the right direction. If you don’t have scales, fill the basket loosely - though if you want to perfect or even follow a recipe, you’re going to need some scales (so put that on the shopping list!). Once you’re happy that the coffee is evenly distributed in the basket, run your finger over the top to gently level out your coffee. Even distribution is crucial for even extraction (and therefore, tasty coffee).

It’s time to tamp. Place the portafilter flat on the counter (ideally onto a tamp mat to protect your surfaces), gently lower the tamper in. Keeping your wrist straight and with a 90deg bend in your elbow, tamp down by leaning into the portafilter. You want a good deal of pressure, around 10kg.

Now you’ve got your nice tamped puck of coffee you'll want to get that in the machine and start brewing. Insert your portafilter, ready your timer and set some scales underneath the cup. Press the continuous / manual brew button, start the timer and then stop the shot once the scales read 34g. This is a 1:2 ratio, widely considered the standard in speciality and is a good beginning point for any coffee. Note the time your shot took.

You're looking for a shot to run in anywhere from 28-35 seconds. Once you’re in that range it's all about fine tuning for the optimum espresso. Taste and explore all the flavours espresso has to offer.

Here’s some tips for what to do if your shot doesn’t go to plan:

Too strong: Increase the final yield of espresso, i.e. 34g → 38g 
Too weak: Decrease the final yield of espresso, i.e. 34g → 32g
Tastes sour: Grind finer and try again
Tastes bitter: Grind coarser and try again
Tastes sour and bitter: Make sure your coffee is distributed equally, and try again
Grinds in cup: Make sure your portafilter is securely in the machine and keep your kit clean

It’s going to seem like espresso is the biggest pain the first time you set up your machine, but after you’ve battled with your first dial-in it soon becomes second nature. 

Take your time, keep your kit clean and brew some tasty coffees. 


Ready to take your espresso game a step further? Check out our Edinburgh-based 1-2-1 Coffee Training Courses, including Beginner Barista and Advanced Barista