July 14, 2020

A Guide To Dialling In Espresso

Dialling in espresso is a daily routine for every barista. It is an essential process that ensures customers receive the best tasting and most consistent coffee possible. 

While mastering the process of dialling in espresso can be rewarding, it can also be difficult. Without the appropriate experience or knowledge, dialling in can be a confusing or frustrating task.

Read on for a detailed step-by-step guide on how to dial in your espresso successfully and efficiently.

Lee este artículo en español Guía Para Calibrar el Espresso

What Is Dialling In?

The phrase “dialling in” is used to describe the process of making espresso taste as delicious as possible. Essentially, you are looking to extract the right amount of soluble flavour from the coffee using the right amount of water. 

In order to achieve this, you must change the parameters of the espresso. The three main parameters are the dose, yield and brew time, all of which have a massive impact on flavour. 

When dialling in, you should only adjust one parameter at a time, otherwise you can easily lose track of which has affected the espresso’s flavour in a certain way. 

Extraction levels are also important when it comes to dialling in. When not enough coffee extracts into the water – under-extraction – the espresso often takes on a sour taste and a viscous consistency. If too much coffee is extracted, however – over-extraction – then the espresso can taste dry, bitter, or burnt. 

You will need the following equipment to dial in as successfully as possible:

  • Two sets of accurate digital scales. One will weigh your dose whilst the other will measure your yield. Some espresso machines may have scales built into them to automatically weigh your yield.
  • A flat tamper that fits tightly into your portafilter basket. This creates an even, flat coffee puck that enhances the process of extraction.
  • Precision portafilter baskets. By using these, you ensure that your tamper doesn’t get stuck and disrupt the coffee puck.
  • A bottomless or “naked” portafilter. This is designed without a spout, so you can see the bottom of the basket. This will allow you to spot channeling – which is when the coffee puck becomes damaged or uneven – much more easily.

Parameter One: Dose

The dose is the amount of dry grounds that you place into your portafilter, typically measured in grams. Many baristas consider this the first step of dialling in.

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The dose should not be used to directly change the brew time or flavour of the espresso. It should only be used in order to establish the yield – the “wet” weight of your extracted espresso. Your dose and yield should be increased in proportion in order to maintain a reasonable ratio of coffee to water.

Baristas often use between 18 and 21 grams of ground coffee for a single espresso, measured to a tenth of a gram. However, there are a number of factors that will affect your dose.

  • Portafilter baskets vary in depth and diameter. You need to be dosing a suitable amount of coffee into your basket. For example, an 18-gram basket will allow for between 16 and 20 grams of coffee in the portafilter. Go any higher or lower, and you’ll affect the pre-infusion (when the water meets the grounds) of your espresso by leaving too much or not enough space.
  • The roasting date of the coffee. As soon as your beans are roasted, their CO2 and moisture levels start to increase. In order to reduce the impact of both factors, it is advised to increase your dose size as time passes from the roasting date.
  • The roast level. Lighter roasts are less soluble than darker roasts, meaning that extraction generally takes longer for doses of the same amount. Lower doses (between 17 and 19 grams) tend to work better with light roasts to counteract their decreased solubility.

Choosing a dose weight can be tricky; you may find that it needs to change throughout the dialling in process. This will then affect your yield and brew time, meaning you have to start over.

If you think your espresso might need a higher dose, try increasing it by small increments, such as 0.2 grams, to reach the right level. Similarly, if the flavour is too intense, decreasing the dose by a similar amount may help.

Once you decide on a dose for dialling in, you should try not to change it throughout the rest of the process. Keeping your dose fixed will make the other main parameters – brew time and yield – much easier to control. 

Parameter Two: Yield

The yield is the wet weight of the espresso that you have extracted. To understand yield, there are two main things you need to consider:

  • The higher the yield, the more water has been passed through the coffee – meaning a higher extraction level. 
  • The higher the yield, the less concentrated the espresso will be. 

Ratios help us to define yield in relation to dose. A 1:2 ratio is recommended by professional coffee institutes as the starting point. This means that for every gram of coffee in the basket, you will add two grams of water. A 1:2 ratio usually allows the barista to pick up on any nuanced or subtle flavours.

If you are struggling to reach good results with a 1:2 ratio, then you should consider altering the proportions after a few attempts. A ratio with less water, such as 1:1.5, will mean your espresso is more concentrated, while a ratio with more water, such as 1:2.5, may allow some more delicate flavours to emerge.

Parameter Three: Brew Time

The brew time is how long it takes the espresso to extract. It is the last variable that you should focus on throughout the dialling in process, and it’s also the most flexible parameter.

Most coffee shops generally use brew times between 22 and 40 seconds – and often between 25 and 32 – to achieve their desired result. Espressos that are extracted in less time will typically be more acidic and have less of a body, while espressos that are extracted for longer are often sweeter and more bitter.

You also need to recognise that changing the grind will affect the brew time of your espresso. The “rocks and sand” analogy is often used to help inexperienced baristas understand how this affects the flow of water through coffee.

Consider how water runs through rocks and sand. The space between two rocks is much greater than it is between two grains of sand. Water makes its way through larger gaps more quickly. The coarser the grind, the faster the water passes through the coffee, and vice versa.

If you find that your shot is extracting too quickly, then a finer grind will result in a longer extraction time, and consequently a more balanced flavour. Similarly, if you want a shorter brew time, then you should use a coarser grind.

When altering the grind, always make sure that you adjust in small increments. Over or underestimating your grind size even slightly can make huge differences to the espresso’s extraction. 

You should also regularly “purge” your grinder by grinding a small amount of coffee. This clears out any old or stale coffee that may be stuck on the grinder’s burrs.

Tasting The Espresso

Once you have locked in your dose, reached your desired yield, and decided on an appropriate brew time, you need to stir and taste your espresso.

You should look to balance the acidic, sweet, and bitter flavours in the coffee to allow the more delicate tasting notes to emerge.

Tasting also helps you to identify what you should do next:

  • Sour or salty notes, a lack of sweetness, and a quick finish on the tongue all point to your coffee being under-extracted. Increase your yield or make your grind finer.
  • Bitterness, dryness, and a hollow finish often mean that your espresso is over-extracted. Decrease your yield or grind more coarsely.
  • Sweetness, refreshing acidity levels, cleanliness, and a lasting finish are all signs of a well-extracted espresso. 

It’s also important that you also taste the espresso with milk, as your customers are more than likely going to order milk-based drinks. The sugars and fats in milk can drastically alter the flavour of an espresso, often heightening its sweetness and softening its acidic or bitter notes.

Tips For Further Improvement

To help continuously improve and hone your dialling in skills, here are some other tips:

  • Only change one parameter at a time. This will help you keep track of how your extraction is changing, and what’s causing it. For example, if you’re adjusting your grind, then keep the brew time, dose, and yield the same.
  • Keep other variables constant. Create an evenly distributed bed of coffee in the portafilter, and tamp using the same method every time you pull a shot. Not distributing evenly enough or tamping too lightly will affect extraction.
  • Make a dialling in journal. Every time you dial in, record your parameters, and figure out what works best. This will help you dial in more quickly and successfully.
  • Stay hydrated. Dialling in often involves tasting a lot of espresso in a short period of time, which can affect your palate and obscure the more subtle flavours of each individual espresso. It can also mean you end up being over-caffeinated, which can cause dizziness, shaking, shortness of breath, and an increased heart rate. You should drink plenty of water before, during and after the entire process.

Whether you are an experienced barista or not, dialling in can be a daunting task. However, once you understand every step of the process, it can be highly rewarding. Take your time, be meticulous, follow this guide, and you’ll end up producing delicious espresso in no time at all.

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Photo credits: Tasmin Grant, Miguel Regalado, Cris Flores and Studio Tdes

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