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Is your espresso not as thick and dark as you would like? There are a few things that could have gone wrong and here’s what you can do to fix it.
Most espresso comes out of the machine looking a little foamy which causes it to look milky brown instead of black. This is normal and a result of foam (crema) being produces by the machine. If it’s still light and watery in the cup, the grind size, puck prep or tamping is likely off.
Let’s get into the details of why your espresso is not as dark as it could/should be and what you can do to fix this to get the thick, dark espresso you’re craving.
- 1 What Causes Espresso To Not Be Dark?
- 2 How To Fix Light Espresso
- 3 Recommended Espresso Equipment
What Causes Espresso To Not Be Dark?
There isn’t one reason that causes your espresso to come out light. Let’s go through the most important ones. After these, you’ll likely be able to figure out the reason and how to improve your espresso.
The main reason why most espresso doesn’t look black when coming out of the machine is aeration. There is air or actually Co2 mixed up in the coffee which gives a milky brown appearance.
Once it gets into the cup, the liquid and foam separate and you get the espresso you’re used to with the dark, thick liquid at the bottom and a thin layer of foam on top.
The foam is created because there is Co2 trapped in the coffee grounds. Under the pressure created in an espresso machine, the Co2 comes out, as well as the other compounds that give the espresso it’s color and taste.
Under pressure, the Co2 gets suspended in the coffee and creates a kind of foam, also called crema.
If your espresso is dark, thick and delicious once it’s in the cup, this light color is nothing to worry about and normal. If the actual liquid in the cup is also too light, weak and watery, something else went wrong. Check below what you can change to improve your espresso.
2. Grind Size
The most likely reason you get light espresso is that the grind size is wrong, likely too coarse. If the coffee particles are too coarse there are big gaps between the particles that let water through too easily. That means the coffee doesn’t get extracted properly and the water just gets through without touching much of the grounds.
Grinding finer means more surface area on the grounds and smaller gaps between the particles. That means the water flows slower and extracts more from the grounds. This means a darker, thicker liquid.
Make sure you use a good grinder. The coffee particles should be similar in size and have little ‘fines’ or coffee dust. A good burr grinder is essential for making good espresso. Blade grinders should not be used to grind coffee for espresso.
On the flip side of too coarse a grind size, too fine can also be a problem. If the grounds are too fine, the puck has too much resistance for the water to get through.
However, the pump in the espresso machine will win somehow (usually). If there are any weaker points in the puck, the water will dig a little hole there which is a process called channelling. This little hole then just lets water through without having to flow through any coffee. And if the water doesn’t touch any coffee, it will be very light and watery.
If your grounds are already really fine, go a bit coarser and see if the espresso improves. Also, if your grinder produces a lot of fines (coffee dust), that could be a reason. Filtering out the fines or upgrading your grinder will be necessary.
4. Puck Prep
The coffee should be evenly distributed in the filter basket and have little or no clumps. If there are clumps and uneven distribution, the coffee bed (puck) in the filter has different densities. Water takes the way of least resistance so it will flow through the part of the puck that has the least density since that provides less resistance.
That means that most of the water doesn’t touch most of the grounds. Coffee grounds have only so much to give so if too much water flows in one spot, those grounds will be ‘empty’ and the liquid will be very light.
Use a dosing funnel and distribution tool (Amazon) to make sure the grounds are spread out in the whole filter basket and doesn’t have any clumps.
Did you remember to tamp the grounds in the filter? The grounds should be compacted with a tamper to push out all the air. You should have a puck that’s nice and flat on the top and has no give anymore.
A tamper is just a heavy metal disc with a handle so you can push down evenly on the top of the coffee. They’re easily available on amazon if you need one.
Make sure to prep your puck properly first though. Tamping without good distribution still won’t yield good results and likely results in watery coffee as much as not tamping would. A good way to get consistent tamping pressure is with a calibrated tamper. These click when you reach a pre-set pressure. That way you never tamp too much or too little. Check out one of the best here one Amazon.
6. Light Roast
If you’re using a lightly roasted coffee, you’ll have a lighter colored liquid as well. Lighter roasts will usually not extract as quickly so the first liquid out of the machine isn’t as dark as you would get with a darker roast but it will stay that color for a little longer.
Also, lighter roasted coffee just produces lighter colored coffee. If your espresso tastes good, there isn’t really an issue although you’ll likely never get that super thick, syrupy texture you would get with a dark roasted coffee bean.
Some espresso machines are just better than other ones. Especially entry level machines are often not capable of brewing really strong, thick espresso. They just make strong coffee. Sometimes the pumps are not up to the task and usually these machines are delivered with pressurized filter baskets.
A pressurized filter basket has only one hole in the bottom. This creates a resistance the pump has to overcome. In the better machines, the filter baskets are ‘open’ which means the bottom is full of holes. Pressurized baskets are made to cover up some errors or shortcomings in the grounds and machine. They allow you to produce drinkable coffee while making a few mistakes where with an open basket, there is much less room for error since you have to create the right resistance with the coffee puck through grind size, puck prep, etc.
However, sometimes they are also used to cover up shortcomings of the machine itself.
Is Light Espresso a Problem?
If your espresso is light brown or just not as dark as you’d like, there could be a problem, especially so if you don’t like the taste or it’s nowhere near as strong as you’d like, you probably have to change some things to get the results you like.
If the taste is to your liking but the color is a little off, there isn’t really a problem. Just like any food or drink, it’s all about your taste. If you like it, its good. However, if you feel your espresso could be better, below are some fixes you can try.
How To Fix Light Espresso
Here are a few things you can try to make your espresso darker and stronger.
1. Grind size
The most important thing to get right with espresso is the grind size. It has to be quite fine. The particles should be slightly finer than table salt.
However, there isn’t a single grind size that’s perfect. It depends on the specific machine, basket, coffee, etc. That means that the bag of pre-ground coffee you got from the supermarket probably won’t get you the best results. A good burr grinder with small adjustments is best. A good hand grinder like the 1Zpresso JX-pro is great and while not cheap, it costs a lot less that a comparable quality electric one.
If your espresso is too light, and coming out quickly, it’s likely that the grind size is too coarse. Try to adjust your grinder a bit finer. If finer makes it better, try another step finer until you hit a point where it’s too bitter, flows too slow or suddenly becomes lighter again, back off one or two settings.
Sometimes, your grounds are very fine already but the espresso is still very light. What’s likely happening is channelling. This means the water digs little holes in the coffee puck which the water flows through without touching the coffee grounds. This happens when the coffee is ground too fine or the puck prep isn’t right
2. Puck prep
What you do with the coffee grounds before locking the portafilter in the machine is more important than you might think.
Getting the right grind is important but preparing the coffee in the filter basket the right way has a big impact too. The goal is to distribute all the grounds evenly throughout the basket. Tapping, shaking and a distribution tool all help with this.
If the grounds are distributed properly and all the clumps are broken up, the density of the coffee puck is the same everywhere. That means the water flows at the same rate everywhere and you get even extraction which leads to a balanced taste but also generally darker espresso.
An uneven puck will let water through some parts much faster than others. The water that flows through the less dense parts touches fewer coffee particles for a shorter amount of time which means you get very light coffee. Also, because water chooses the path of least resistance, most of the water will flow through the less dense part of the puck and so your espresso comes out weak and light.
Make sure there are no clumps in the grounds and there is an equal height of coffee grounds all over the basket before tamping. Use a distribution tool to do this. It’s a super simple tool that doesn’t cost much but can make a big impact.
Check out this video from James Hoffmann for some puck prep techniques.
After preparing the puck properly, tamp the grounds. Tamping is basically compacting the bed of coffee. You use a tamper, which is a metal round disc with a handle that fits exactly in the filter. Push straight down on the grounds until it stops moving. This doesn’t have to be super hard, just until there is almost no give in the grounds anymore.
You can find a calibrated tamper on Amazon by clicking here. A calibrated tamper prevents you from pushing too hard. Make sure you get the right diameter one, filter baskets can have different sizes. Measure if you have to.
After this, there will be a smooth puck of ground coffee in the filter basket.
Don’t think that tamping will distribute the grounds correctly. If you start with a heap of coffee in the middle of the basket and then tamp it, it might look flat afterwards but the edges of the basket will have much less density than the middle. Tamping just pushes all the grounds straight down and doesn’t do much distributing.
4. Use a Darker Roast
For espresso, it’s generally better to use at least a medium roasted coffee. Especially if you crave that real intense dark taste. Depending on where you buy your coffee, the roast may or may not be on the bag.
In the supermarket, many bags don’t list a roast. However, you do often get a ‘strength’ indicator. The higher the strength level, the darker the roast tends to be. Usually it’s a scale of 1-5. Number 4 is going to be the sweet spot for many people.
Buy your coffee at a coffee shop? Ask the barista what he recommends based on what your preferences are.
Also, going for a blend of beans that has about 20% Robusta beans in it can also help make your espresso stronger and darker. Robusta will also add some extra caffeine and crema to espresso.
5. Open basket
Using an open basket (one with many holes in the bottom instead of just one), might not immediately lead to better, stronger espresso. In the beginning, it might lead to some really bad shots. However, after you
Pressurized baskets are like training wheels for espresso. They make sure you get at least some form of drinkable coffee even if you make a few mistakes. For most people this produces something they’re happy with. However, if you’re not, it’s time to take the training wheels off and learn some new skills.
You can find espresso baskets here on Amazon. IMS or VST are good brands to get. Make sure to get the right diameter that fits in your portafilter.
In some cases, the machine you’re using might just not be up to the task. Many entry-level espresso machines aren’t actually capable of making ‘real’ espresso like you get in a coffee shop.
All the tips above can help you get on the right path towards excellent espresso. However, if you’ve tried everything, maybe it’s time to upgrade.
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.