Though I have a long coffee background myself, including not just consulting at Joe Coffee Company but researching and writing Wirecutter’s guides to coffee grinders and drip coffee makers, and serving as associate editor at coffee news website Sprudge.com, I’ve spent nearly all of my time in the coffee industry on the drinking side of the bar. So I asked my colleague David if he might drop by my home testing lab and share his award-winning expertise using the beginner-friendly gear we recommend.
The bare minimum setup you’ll need to get started brewing espresso is the machine itself (which, in the case of the Breville Infuser, comes with a portafilter and tamper already) and, whether you do the grinding yourself or not, some coffee ground correctly for espresso (a much finer grind than you may be used to for filter coffee). Ideally you’ll grind coffee for each espresso right before you pull the shot, because coffee goes stale rapidly once it’s ground.
Selecting your coffee
Even with great gear, you can’t pull a good espresso if you don’t start with good coffee. Although traditionally espresso is made with a darker roast, picking out a coffee bean strictly marketed as “espresso” isn’t necessary. The choice is up to you, and having your own setup means you can experiment. You can find a lot of great approaches to coffee roasting out there, so why not try a few? You’ll discover that the best roasters strive to build coffee blends that taste balanced and pleasing in the espresso brewing process and retain their best characteristics when served with milk. And when a single-origin coffee (versus a blend) is well-suited to espresso, often a roaster highlights this—and it can be a fun way to discover new complexities of flavor in your brewing.
Whatever you choose, freshness matters, so make sure you’re using coffee at its prime. That doesn’t mean you should be grinding beans straight out of the roaster—coffee is usually “rested” a few days in order to allow for off-gassing of CO2, which affects brewing—but depending on how it’s packaged, you should start using the coffee within a couple of weeks of roasting and finish any opened packages quickly.
Quality roasters print roast dates on their packaging these days; look for those stickers or stamps anywhere you’re picking up beans (sometimes at the supermarket you’ll see more ambiguous “best by” dates, which don’t tell you much of anything).
You’ve probably heard advice to stick your beans in the fridge or freezer to keep them fresh, but the jury remains out on that. Rather than risk adding moisture (or odor) to your coffee, simply store it in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, and again, remember to use it promptly. If you think of coffee as you would any other produce and buy smaller amounts more frequently, you’ll always have the freshest and best-tasting results.
Grinding and measuring your coffee
Before pulling your shot, weigh out about 13 to 15 grams of coffee. Just be sure to tare out the empty portafilter before you fill it with grounds. Photo: Michael Hession
For precision, it’s best to use a scale to confirm that you’re dosing each shot (that is, measuring out the coffee grounds) correctly—at least until you’re sure you’re doing the exact same steps the exact same way every time. At Joe Coffee Company in New York City, where United States Barista Champion finalist David Castillo directs the public education program, “Everything we teach first is by weight,” he told us.
For a double shot of espresso (about 2 ounces), a standard dose is between 13 and 18 grams of coffee. But because every espresso machine is different, you may start to home in on your ideal dose by having just enough head space left over once you’ve tamped down the shot to gain good clearance for brewing when you lock the portafilter into the machine. We found that for the Infuser 15 grams was a good place to start for a double shot.
Coffee needs to be ground much finer for espresso (left) than for drip coffee (right)—start by aiming for something a bit finer than table salt (bottom). Photo: Michael Hession
Once you know how much coffee you want to put in and start pulling shots, you’ll have to dial in your grind size to the right parameters so that water saturates the grinds properly, rather than under-extracting (grind too coarse, tastes sour) or over-extracting (grind too fine, tastes bitter). As a general guidepost, coffee ground for espresso should be very finely ground, less coarse than sand, but not so fine that the machine can’t even push water through the portafilter. Trial, error, taste, and visual inspection—call in Dr. YouTube for a consult if you need to—of the shots as they are flowing out will help get you to the right grind size.
When adjusting your grind size, always remember to purge the grinder by letting it run for a couple of seconds to flush out any remaining particles of the previous grind setting, or you’ll get a potpourri of grind sizes in your next shot, and will be none the wiser to what the right grind should be.
Pulling a good shot
After filling your portafilter, gently level the grounds with your hand. Video: Michael Hession
Ready to get started? Fill your portafilter with a double-shot dose of coffee, weighing it if you can. You’ll have a mound of espresso that needs distribution to make sure the portafilter fills evenly without leaving huge gaps or channels for water to seek. Distribute the coffee by hand, then set the portafilter down on a steady surface like the edge of a countertop and tamp as evenly as you can (it’s important to do this with the same pressure each time to ensure consistent brewing from one shot to the next).
Be sure to apply even pressure with your tamper, and make sure the grounds are level in the portafilter. Video: Michael Hession
Run the machine briefly without a portafilter in place to purge the group head (the nozzle where you insert the portafilter). Now lock that portafilter in the machine, get out a vessel—clear glass like the 3-ounce version of our favorite Duralex drinking glass is easiest for beginners to see the consistency and layering of their espresso—and start your shot!
Use a stopwatch to time your shots. It should take around 30 seconds to pull a double shot (about 2 ounces) of espresso. Photo: Michael Hession
Castillo advises timing your shots to get the best brew ratio (the ratio of ground coffee to hot water). “Typically with espresso we use a 1:2 brew ratio, because espresso inherently is a very concentrated drink,” he said. To achieve that ratio