You’ve heard that you need finely ground coffee for an espresso machine. That’s true, but are you afraid you went a bit too far? Here’s how you can find out.
While espresso machines require finely ground coffee to brew good espresso, it’s possible to grind too fine. If the grounds are too fine the coffee will likely taste very bitter and come out of the machine slow. It’s also possible too fine a grind causes channeling which results in watery espresso.
Here’s how you can find out if your espresso grounds are too fine and what you can do to improve your coffee.
Can you grind coffee too fine for an espresso machine?
While you do need finely ground coffee for making espresso, there is such a thing as too fine. This can result in a few things you don’t want in your espresso:
- Very bitter taste
- Espresso comes out of machine too slow
- Residue in cup
- Watery espresso
- Channeling in the puck
If your grounds are too fine, you’ll likely notice one or more of the symptoms above. You probably won’t have all at the same time because there are different things that can happen with fine grounds.
If your espresso is too bitter, that’s a telltale sign you should grind a touch coarser. While espresso is supposed to taste intense and have quite a bit of bitterness, there is a point where it’s too much. The point where the bitterness isn’t a nice part of a balanced cup anymore but it becomes a very hollow and almost sharp attack on your tastebuds it’s too much.
This is because the grounds are extracted too much. The finer the grounds, the more surface area for the water to interact with. That means the grounds can be extracted quicker. If you extract too much from your coffee grounds, you get too much of the super bitter compounds. You want some of those but not too much.
A single shot of espresso should be done in about 30 seconds. If it takes much longer than 30 seconds to get your single shot (28 ml), the grind is probably too fine. The finer the coffee the more resistance the coffee bed will give. That will have as a result that the water interacts with the grounds longer and this extracts the grounds too much.
In some rare cases, you can even get some residue in the cup. This is normal with brewing methods like a French press but shouldn’t happen with espresso. The holes in an espresso filter are very fine and the correct size particles shouldn’t be able to get through. If it’s super fine, some particles can get through.
Suggested: How fast should an espresso shot be?
However, if your espresso tastes good and comes out fine otherwise, it might be your grinder causing the residue. When you grind coffee beans, you always get some very fine particles. Better grinders do this less but it’s hard to avoid completely.
If your espresso comes out too fast and is watery, it can actually either be too coarse or too fine. If it’s too coarse, the water can just flow in bewteen the particles without actually extracting the grounds. Rub some of the used grounds between your fingers. If it feels like salt, it’s proabably too coarse.
However, if it the puck looks muddy and there are a few holes through the coffee bed, it’s too coarse. The process of making these holes is called channeling. This happens when there is too much resistance. The water can’t flow through the grounds and will look for the path of least resistance. Once it found this path, all he water will flow through there and so dig a little tunnel. This means most of the water doesn’t touch the grounds and you get very weak and watery espresso that comes out too fast.
Importance of a good grinder
If you’re grinding your own beans, you need a coffee grinder. There are many different coffee grinders. There are handgrinders and electric grinders. Also, there are blade grinders and burr grinders. And some of those grinders are more suitable for espresso than others.
Because for espresso you have to be able to grind quite fine but also very consistently and be able to make small adjustments, selecting the right grinder is important.
Consistent particle size is important because it means all the particles are extracted at the same rate. If there are some particles bigger than ideal, they’ll be under extracted which leads to a sour taste. Some other particles will be smaller than ideal which means over extraction and excessive bitterness. This goes for any type of coffee but with espresso it’s even more important. Because espresso coffee particles are already small, even a small variation will be noticeable.
Any blade grinder is not suitable. Blade grinders just have a blade that spins quickly just like a blender. This type of grinder doesn’t grind the particles even enough. You’ll have some big pieces and some small pieces which is not good for any type of coffee. There is nothing to adjust on a blade grinder either. You can only use it longer or shorter.
A burr grinder is much better in producing consistent particles. However, some are much more focused on filter coffee while others are more suitable for espresso. In general, grinders that are good for espresso are going to be more expensive because they have to be built with tighter tolerances and finer adjustment range.
There are a few hand grinders that can produce grounds for espresso well and be adjustable enough but they’re not cheap but still cheaper than a good electric grinder. However, you’ll have to do a lot of work yourself with a hand grinder. The best hand grinder for espresso is the 1Zpresso JX or JX-PRO. It’s a beautifully made hand grinder with 20 clicks of adjustment for espresso which is plenty. This is the rare grinder that can do everything well. Click here to find it on Amazon.
An electric grinder requires quite a bit less effort since you only have to flip the switch and the motor does the rest for you. A good electric espresso grinder does not come cheap though.
If you have an espresso machine with built in grinder, it can sometimes be necessary to recalibrate it. Grinders are mechanical pieces of equipment and things can change/wear slightly over time. On most grinders that are built into an espresso machine you can’t really adjust the grind size easily. They’re supposed to be easy to use and adjustable grind sizes are not very customer friendly. However, on some models it is possible to recalibrate the grinder. If this is possible and the correct procedure is different for every model so it’s a good idea to check your user manual.
Pre-ground coffee in an espresso machine
Is it possible to use pre-ground coffee in an espresso machine? That depends on which type of ground coffee you buy and your espresso machine.
Normal ground coffee will not produce good coffee when used in an espresso machine. Regular coffee grounds are meant to be used for drip or pour over coffee brewing. For those brewing methods a bigger grind size is better. That means regular coffee is too coarse for an espresso machine and It’ll produce weak, watery espresso.
However, you’ll also be able to find bags that are meant to be used with an espresso machine. It’ll often just say espresso blend or something similar on the bag. Often bags of coffee also have some information on the side that indicates for which brewing methods it’s suited. Bags of coffee that say espresso somewhere on them are ground much finer so that type of coffee will work in an espresso machine.
It’s also possible to buy your coffee from a local coffee shop or roaster. In that case you can often choose to get the beans ground for you. You’ll have to indicate which brewing method you want to use the coffee for and often they can grind it for you. This is much better than supermarket coffee because it’s likely going to be much fresher and more aromatic. Supermarket coffee is often quite old before you actually drink it.
Most entry level espresso machines are actually shipped with a pressurized filter. This is basically a filter basket with only a single hole the coffee can escape through. A normal filter has holes all over the bottom which creates much less resistance. That’s because the resistance is supposed to come from the coffee bed and not the filter.
However, because most people just want to make a simple espresso at home and often don’t get the right coffee grounds, manufacturers have adapted. The pressurized basket creates resistance by only having one way out instead of many. This means the coffee grounds get to hang out in the water longer and under higher pressure which means they’re extracted more than they would in an open filter. With this type of filter, it’s possible to use normal ground coffee. That’s the whole reason this type of filter was invented and it works reasonably well. However, you’ll still get better results with finer coffee grounds and an open filter basket.
The portafilter of an espresso machine has three parts:
- Handle: This is the part you grip to twist into the machine. It also holds the other two parts.
- Filter basket: This is the part you put the ground coffee in and clips into the handle. You usually get a few different types and sizes with your machine.
- Spout: Under the filter basket you have the spout which collects the coffee and directs it into the cup.
The difference is in the filter basket. It’s pretty easy to identify which type of filter basket you have. If the bottom is covered in tiny holes, it’s open. If you can only see one hole, it’s pressurized.
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.