On some espresso machines, you have to stop the pump yourself. But when should you stop brewing the espresso exactly? Here are some ways you can decide when to stop pulling a shot of espresso.
The best way to know if a shot of espresso is finished is by measuring the amount of liquid out. Around 28 grams of liquid is a standard single espresso. Without a scale, stopping the shot when the liquid becomes transparent usually yields a balanced tasting cup although the weight could be off.
Espresso being finished doesn’t depend on just one factor. There are many variables in brewing espresso and changing one impacts all the others. Using more than one indicator to decide when a shot is done is going to yield the best results. Here are the best ways to do it. But in the end, your taste buds will have the final say since taste and consistency is what it’s all about.
Go By Weight
The best way to judge if you should stop an espresso shot is the weight in the cup. This might seem a little too finicky for your morning coffee but it is by far the best way to do it. That is because by weighing the output, you can get the ratio of grounds to espresso right and make sure it is the same every time.
You’ll need a coffee scale but they don’t have to be expensive and will improve the consistency of your coffee dramatically. They also make it easier to make small adjustments when you want to change the taste.
If you use a scale, you can exactly measure the amount of coffee you put into the filter basket. Getting that part right is just as important as how much liquid you get in the cup. That’s because espresso is very sensitive to getting the right ratio. For a traditional Italian espresso the ratio is 1:4 (7 grams of ground coffee in the basket, 28 grams of liquid in the cup). But modern style espressos are using a ratio as low as 1:2 (14 grams of ground coffee, 28 grams of liquid in the cup). Italian style has much more bitterness while modern styles are more rounded in taste.
The weight isn’t the only deciding factor though. You ideally want it to be done in 25-30 seconds from the first drip. That way you can measure if the flow rate is correct. If you get 28 ml in 10 seconds, the flow rate is way too fast and you’ll likely have a weak cup of coffee. This means you’ll have to adjust the grind size and/or tamp the puck harder.
Color And Consistency
Another possible indicator the espresso is finished could be the color of the liquid flowing out. In general, the first drops of a shot will be very thick, foamy and dark and then over time, the liquid gets lighter, less foamy and transparent. Stopping the shot just after the liquid becomes transparent will usually yield a good tasting, balanced cup although the time and amount might be off from a ‘real’ espresso.
That cup might be outside the normal time/amount constraints that define ‘good’ espresso but for most people, a good tasting cup of coffee is more important.
Brewing any coffee is done by getting the water soluble compounds from the coffee beans into the water. The soluble materials will be brown like the coffee beans. That means the darkest liquid has the most compound in it and the lighter liquid has less.
That doesn’t tell the whole story though. Not all compounds in coffee beans dissolve at the same rate. So while the later liquid is lighter, it does still cary taste with it. Usually the sour tastes come first and the bitter ones come later. For a properly balanced taste, you’ll need both. Of course taste is personal so with this knowledge you can adjust the taste how you like it.
Besides being more bitter, the lighter liquid is also more watery so by going too far, you end up with an overall cup that’s less strong but more bitter. The exact coffee bean you’re using also has a large impact. Some coffees extract faster than others and with some coffee the natural tastes require more or less bitterness to be mixed in. This is all personal preference though. Don’t be scared to experiment a little.
However, trying to stay in the espresso size ballpark is a good idea if you want that strong, thick liquid. That’s likely why you got an espresso machine in the first place.
This way of deciding where to stop the shot can work well. Especially at home where you just want a good tasting cup and exact size/consistency aren’t the most important. It will take some practice to get this right though. Also, it requires close attention to the liquid because changes can happen quickly.
If the liquid never comes out dark and thick even at the start, you likely have to use a smaller grind size and/or tamp the coffee into the filter a bit harder.
Visible Volume In The Cup
If you think using a scale is too much work, the next best thing is actually to go for a certain level in the cup. However, this only works if you use the same cup every time and you have a way to get the same amount of ground coffee in the basket every time.
By using the same cup you can get used to the level in the cup and eyeball the amount that came out of the machine. It’s not as accurate as a scale but if you’re not too worried about consistency, it’s possible to make it work. Using a cup with easily visible markers at certain levels makes this easier.
A cup for a single shot can usually contain 2 oz. So if you’re going for a single espresso, filling one of those cups halfway will get you close to the correct amount.
Getting the same amount of ground coffee in the basket every time can be done by using the same scoop every time and have a method to level it off. Use your finger to level off the scoop or tap it against something. This won’t be 100% accurate every time but it’s close enough for most people that aren’t espresso geeks.
You’ll still need to figure out when to stop the machine though. This will take some experimentation. You’ll just have to go by taste. In general, if the espresso is too bitter, you kept going too long. If it’s sour, you didn’t keep going long enough.
Aiming For a Time?
Many sources say pulling a good espresso shot should take around 25-30 seconds, give or take a few seconds. This is not quite true though. Yes, most good espresso shots take around that amount of time to pull. However, that doesn’t mean by just counting to 30 and then stopping the pump, you’ll get good espresso.
A more accurate statement would be; Good espresso takes 25-30 seconds to get +-28 gram of liquid out. That means you’re actually measuring something else; flow rate. If it takes about 30 seconds to get 28 grams of espresso, it means the other settings are correct so you get the right flow rate for proper espresso.
Can you pull shots faster? Click here to find out.
Just using 30 seconds as a benchmark completely ignores the weight/volume part and could completely ruin your espresso if the flow rate is wrong. If the coffee flows faster than it should, you’ll end up with much more than 28 grams of liquid in 30 seconds and vice versa.
The 30 seconds benchmark should be used as a check to see if your grind size and puck prep are in the right ballpark. If you get +-28 grams in about 30 seconds, you know you’re at least close. That doesn’t mean you can’t make adjustments for taste after that but you’ll have something that should be close to good espresso.
There is discussion on when to start timing your espresso shot. Some people say from the moment the pump starts, others say from the first drip. My preference is timing from the first drip since this takes the variability different espresso machines have out of the equation. Not all espresso machines build pressure at the same rate and some designs have more room to fill with water before the water starts flowing through the puck.
Recommended Espresso Equipment
Besides an espresso machine, there are a few other tools that can make your espresso better. Here are my favorites:
- Espresso Machine: The Breville Barista Express (Amazon) is the sweet spot in price and quality for most casual home baristas. It comes with a built in grinder and most tools you need to brew espresso.
- Tamper: A nice tamper helps you tamp your grounds in the filter for the best result. Any correctly sized tamper can do the job but a nice heavy one just feels so much better in your hand than a plastic model. This Luxhaus one (Amazon) has a nice trick up it’s sleeve to make tamping very consistent.
- Beans: Good espresso starts with good beans. Using fresh beans is a big improvement over pre-ground coffee.
- Scales: Getting consistently good espresso means you have to know how much grounds is going into the machine and how much is coming out and how long this takes. A coffee scale is going to make your espresso much more consistent and also makes adjustments a lot easier. The Apexstone coffee scale (Amazon) is cheap and doesn’t look too sleek but is just as accurate as more expensive scales. The TimeMore scales (Amazon) look and feel a lot nicer but cost a bit more.
- Grinder: To make the best of your fresh beans, a good grinder is necessary. Espresso requires a good grinder to get the best results. The Baratza Sette 30 (Amazon) is a good espresso grinder that can also be used for other brewing methods and while not cheap, is good value for money. If you prefer hand grinders, the 1ZPresso JX-PRO is one of the best options (Amazon)
- Distribution tool: After grinding you can get some clumps in the coffee grounds. Those clumps should be broken up so the water can extract all the coffee grounds equally. Distribution tools are very simple things but this one (Amazon) is beautifully made and will look good in your kitchen.