Nobody likes to be greeted by a soupy mess of coffee grounds and water. A nice dry puck is much more satisfying to clean up and likely produced better espresso as well. What went wrong when your espresso puck is too wet and how can you fix it?
Espresso pucks can be wet because of several reasons. The most common reasons are; The filter basket is not filled enough/too big, The grounds aren’t tamped enough, The grind size is too coarse or the grounds aren’t distributed properly. A wet puck is an indication that the espresso isn’t optimal.
Let’s dive a little deeper into the potential causes for a wet espresso puck, why it is a problem and what to do about it.
Why Is Your Espresso Puck Wet?
There are a few common reasons why the espresso puck comes out wet and soggy. I can’t tell you which one is your problem but the list below should make it easy to figure out pretty quickly.
1. Not Enough Grounds
The biggest reason for a wet puck is not putting enough grounds in the filter basket. Filter baskets are made to hold a certain amount of coffee grounds. If you don’t fill the basket to the design limit, there is too much space in there and the grounds can move around freely. That means there is space between the coffee particles which will be filled with water.
Also, if the level of grounds in the basket is too low, the top of the grounds are further away from the shower head. That means there is more space for water between the shower head and puck. This space is filled up once the pump is turned on and stays there once the pump is turned off. That means more water is mixed with the coffee grounds.
This doesn’t necessarily lead to a very soupy puck if you remove the portafilter immediately after finishing pulling the shot but if the puck is already a bit loose or you wait a long time, it can lead to coffee soup.
A coffee scale is the best way to get the right amount of grounds for your needs. The TimeMore scale works well for measuring the amount of grounds you put in your basket, the amount of liquid in your cup and how long the shot is taking. Check it out here on Amazon.
2. Wrong Size Basket
Using the wrong size basket for the amount of grounds you want to use can also be an issue. This is the other side of the coin mentioned above. Often you’ll want to make a certain size espresso which requires a certain amount of coffee grounds. Getting the right size basket for your recipe is just as important as using the right amount of grounds.
If you don’t have the right size basket for the recipe you want to brew, getting one that is the correct size (like these on Amazon) is a good way to improve your espresso. It won’t only result in dryer pucks but likely also better tasting espresso.
3. Coarse grounds
If you don’t only have a wet mess in your filter but also a very weak and watery cup of ‘espresso’ that brews very quickly, the grind size used might be too coarse. If you used a bag with pre-ground coffee, make sure it’s for espresso machines. And even if it says it is, it’s usually a bit too coarse for a high end espresso machine.
In case you grind your own, simply adjust the grinder finer. A good grinder is pretty much mandatory to be able to get good espresso grounds.
Suggested: Is espresso just finely ground coffee?
Not tamping the grounds can be another issue. Espresso grounds should be tamped (compacted) in the filter basket. Tamping pushes all the coffee particles together and gets rid of the air pockets. If it’s tamped properly, the coffee particles will stay together during brewing. (If the rest of the puck prep is good too).
Most baristas use a tamping force of 30-50 lbs. As long as the air pockets are gone, it doesn’t really matter after that. You’ll probably feel this while doing it. If you push down and feel that there is no more give in the grounds, that’s the right amount of pressure.
You’ll need a tamper to do this properly. This is just a heavy disc with a flat bottom and a handle. Make sure to get the right diameter one for your basket. Espresso baskets come in different sizes. A tamper should just fit inside the basket. If you’ve got one that’s too big, it obviously won’t fit, if it’s too small, the sides of the puck won’t be tamped properly.
You can find a good tamper here on Amazon.
Mind you, before you tamp the grounds, make sure the grounds are distributed evenly in the basket. Tamping doesn’t ensure proper distribution. It will do a little bit of distribution but not enough to properly get the same density of grounds in the whole puck.
How the grounds are distributed in the basket can also be a cause for a soupy puck. You want the grounds to be distributed evenly throughout the basket. This has to be even from side to side but also from top to bottom. Also, the grounds should be even without clumps. Ideally you want the same density of coffee grounds in the whole puck after tamping.
Parts of the puck with lower density provides less resistance to the water which means that’s the place most of the water will flow through. That increased flow will increase erosion of the coffee bed in that spot which leads to pockets that have extra space for water. This will often also lead to very bitter espresso since that small part of the grounds is very over extracted.
A distribution tool is a great addition to your espresso arsenal that makes grounds distribution easy and thourough. And they are cheaply found on Amazon.
6. Grind Size Distribution
If the grind distribution is broad, this can also lead to issues. A broad grind distribution means that the particles have different sizes. Better grinders have narrower grind distributions which means that all the particles are closer together in size.
You might see a pattern in the causes above; air pockets. Having air pockets in the puck before putting it in the machine is the most likely cause for getting a wet puck. Air pockets get filled with water and let the grounds float around. This means you get the soupy combination of coffee grounds and water.
Is a Wet Puck a Problem?
Is it actually an issue if your espresso puck comes out soupy? It is an indication that the brew process wasn’t optimal and that likely results in the espresso not being as good as it could be.
If you’re happy with your espresso as it is, wet puck and all, there isn’t an issue. Coffee is all about taste and as long as you’re happy, that’s all that matters. There isn’t an objective ‘better’ in coffee since it’s personal taste. However, better in this case means what more people prefer.
A dry puck makes espresso that more people prefer over a wet one so in that regard it is a problem, especially if you’re making espresso for other people.
A wet puck likely didn’t provide proper resistance to the pressure and that means the grounds didn’t extract properly. The water will also move much faster than it should which results in weak, watery espresso.
How To Fix a Soggy Puck?
Above you can see the main causes of a soggy puck. If it’s a problem for you and you want to improve your espresso, here are some things you should try.
1. Fill the basket with the right amount of grounds
The most important first thing to get right is the right amount of grounds in the basket. The amount of grounds the basket is made for can usually be found on the basket. Often it’ll be etched somewhere on the side.
Some baskets don’t clearly state how much coffee they can hold. You’ll have to figure it out by yourself if this is the case. The top of the puck should be about 5 mm lower than the top of the basket after tamping.
If you don’t have another basket, you might have to adjust your recipe/ratio. When adding or reducing the amount of grounds, it’s important to adjust the output a corresponding amount. For example, while using a 1:2 ratio, for every gram of grounds you add, you have to add 2 grams of liquid in the cup.
2. Get the right basket
Don’t want to change the recipe? Getting the right size basket for the amount of grounds you want to use is the best thing to do. You can easily find baskets by recommended weight on Amazon.
VST or IMS are both great brands that make very good espresso baskets. Just make sure to get the right diameter for your machine. Most baskets will be 58mm in diameter but there are ones that take a different size so make sure to check.
3. Use a puck screen
A puck screen is an extra filter screen that goes on top of the puck. This does a few things;
- A puck screen helps keep the puck together.
- It takes up some space so this leaves less water above the puck after brewing
- Improves water distribution for more even extraction
Especially the first two points can help you reduce a soupy puck but it’s a bandaid, not a fix. Your puck should come out almost dry and solid after brewing without it. But, the screen is a tool you can use to try improve your espresso without having to change your recipe or get a new basket. In the long run, either of those is a better solution though.
You can find a puck screen for a standard size filter basket here on Amazon.
4. Use the right tamping force
Make sure to tamp the grounds with enough force to get all the air pockets out of the puck. Using a proper tamper and enough force is essential to getting good espresso. A puck should already be nice, flat and compacted before brewing. If it’s loose before brewing, it’ll definitely be after brewing.
5. Pay attention to puck prep
Puck prep is important. The goal of puck prep is to distribute the grounds evenly throughout the basket. Ideally, the density of the grounds is the same at all places in the puck. Clumps are also something to pay attention to. Some grinders produce grounds in clumps and they should be broken up to get the best espresso. To do this properly, a dosing funnel and distribution tool are essential.
A dosing funnel (Amazon) is a little funnel you can put on the basket to easily pour the grounds from the grinder basket into the filter without spilling any. A funnel has the added benefit that you can easily swirl or tap the portafilter without the grounds spilling out.
A distribution tool (Amazon) helps break up clumps and spread out the grounds evenly. They’re very simple devices that are just a few needles you can use to stir. Start stirring at the bottom and go around the basket in small circles. Then gradually pull the needles out so the coffee closer to the top gets some attention.
6. Get a better grinder
If there is a big difference is coffee particle size to a point where it’s causing issues with a soupy puck, there is a lot of room for improvement with a better grinder. Espresso is quite sensitive to grinder quality and getting one that can grind finely enough and grinds all the particles to a very similar size is important to be able to brew good espresso.
Not every grinder can grind for espresso. You need one that can do finer grinds, has fine adjustments and has a relatively narrow grind distribution. That means higher precision engineering and manufacturing which costs more money.
The 1Zpresso JX-PRO (Amazon) is a great hand grinder that works very well for espresso. It’s not cheap but it’s the last hand grinder you’ll ever need.