Dialing In Espresso By Taste

Dialing In Espresso By Taste

Welcome back, friends. Now that we've covered the fundamentals of dialing in your espresso grinder, making grind adjustments, and building an espresso recipe, let's discuss how to make grind adjustments to dial in your espresso by taste. We'll discuss how to understand what you are tasting and why and how to adjust based on those outcomes. If you missed the first part of this series, we recommend going back and reviewing our How to Dial In Your Espresso Grinder blog.

A Quick Refresher

Dialing in espresso with a scale and using a basic espresso recipe as your anchor is the perfect foundation to begin tasting espresso. Every espresso recipe is comprised of three parts.

  • Dose—the amount of ground espresso in your portafilter basket. The amount of coffee is determined based primarily on the size of your basket
  • Yield—the resulting amount of liquid espresso yield weighed in grams 
  • Time—the length of extraction from start to finish (including pre-infusion time)

We’ll mainly focus on yield and time as the main variables and adjust based on what we taste. 

1:2 Brew Ratio or Brew Strength

While you can start with a 1:1, 1.1.5, or 1:3 ground coffee to liquid yield brew ratio, 1:2 works best for most medium-bodied coffees; medium-bodied coffees are a great middle ground. They tend to taste great on their own as a straight shot and work well with milk. We recommend starting with an espresso blend. A 1:1 ratio tends to be a stronger, more concentrated espresso, whereas a 1:3 ratio tends to be a mild sipper and easy to drink. This tends to come down to personal preference, so if a 1:2 ratio tastes too strong and intense for you, try increasing your yield and extraction time. Try every shot when figuring out which ratio you like the best. Keeping a shot journal helps you visualize information and trends more easily.

Espresso Tasting Log table by Clive Coffee

Adjusting Shot Time 

As hot, highly pressurized water touches the espresso puck, it extracts solubles from the ground coffee. The longer water is in contact with the puck, the more flavor is extracted. However, the longer the puck is extracted, the faster those solubles break down, and we run the risk of over-extraction. 

  • Extraction—the act of pulling flavors out of the coffee. The goal is to extract the right amount of flavors based on taste.
  • Over-extraction—Coffee is brewed too long, and/or too many solubles are extracted from the puck. Leads to bitter, ashy, astringent, and woodsy flavors and mouthfeel.
  • Under-extraction—not brewing for long enough leads to sour, sharp-tasting espresso, almost like a battery. 

Is it Sour or Bitter?

For untrained palates, tasting the difference between sourness and bitterness can be tricky until you’ve tasted a lot of espresso. When a shot is bitter or over-extracted, you will usually notice the bitterness at the tail-end of the shot—typically leaving an unpleasant aftertaste or having a drying mouthfeel. Sourness or under-extraction will be noticeable on your tongue immediately, with an intense flavor, perhaps making your mouth pucker up as though you were sucking on a lemon. 

All coffees have a natural bitterness and sourness. Still, the key to finding a balance between sourness, sweetness, and bitterness is to start by tasting a high-yield and under-extracted shot—a shot that is extracted between 15 and 25 seconds where your total yield is double your extraction time. 

Grind Finer

person adjusting the grind on a Eureka Atom 75 lifestyle by clive coffee

Say that your final shot yield is 50g, which took 20 seconds to extract. We know that there is too much espresso yield based on our guiding 1:2 espresso ratio, that our shot is under-extracted based on how long it took us to reach a yield of 20 seconds, and based on its punchy, sharp, and intense sour flavor. To get our shot into a range with more balanced flavors and less upfront acidity, we will need to grind finer to slow down the water’s contact time with the espresso puck and extract more flavor from the puck. 

Incremental adjustments are essential. If you have an infinite adjustment dial, make a quarter to a half number adjustment finer. After the first adjustment and a quick purge of your last grind settings, pull another shot, note how long it takes to reach your desired yield and taste the shot. If it’s still intense and under-extracted, make another fine adjustment and pull another shot. Repeat until you are in range. This exercise will help us gain a frame of reference for how making adjustments impacts the individual variables of our espresso recipe and the flavor of the coffee. 

How Fine is Too Fine?

After making too many fine adjustments, you will reach a point where too little espresso will yield a long extraction time, leading to bitterness and astringency will begin to creep in. This is useful because once you reach that point of over-extraction, you know you are pulling too much flavor from the coffee. Once you reach this point of over-extraction, you only need to make a slight grind adjustment in the coarse direction and repeat until that bitterness goes away and your shots taste more balanced again. 

Remember that when attempting to find the balance between over- and under-extraction, maintain the same desired espresso yield in your espresso ratio. If you’re looking for 40g of liquid espresso, keep that constant. This way, we can find the optimum balance between desired coffee strength and extraction. 

To get better at dialing in by taste, we must taste a lot of espresso. We recommend tasting those under and over-extracted shots to get your palate comfortable with parsing out bitter and sour flavors while also knowing how to strike a balance between the two to allow sweetness and other flavors. Keep a log of all the shots you pull to understand patterns and adjustments you make for the different coffees you try. Go to your local cafés and talk to your barista about their espresso recipe. All this will help make your palate stronger and make you a stronger barista.