Introduction

I've always leaned towards the small independent coffee shops rather than the larger chains, appreciating that some coffee is better than others, but never really understanding why. I've heard people talking about the various flavours they could taste in espresso, but I've always thought that "coffee just tasted like coffee". A small coffee shop in Australia opened my eyes a few years ago by serving the most amazing espresso I'd ever tasted. It was a single-origin and, for the first, it didn't just taste of coffee. It was fruity!

I purchased a Sage/Breville Barista Express in September 2020, as a replacement for a Nespresso machine. The Nespresso machine is very convenient, but I wanted something better, especially as I primarily drink latte. My initial results with the Barista Express were good, but very inconsistent. This is a short guide to my experiences using the Barista Express, and how I achieve good consistent results with the single-wall (non-pressurised) double-shot basket.


Introduction
Introduction
Introduction
Introduction
Introduction
Introduction

This guide should also help to answer the typical question I see people asking too:

I've just bought a Barista Express, my shots are too fast even though I'm at the finest grinder setting and/or have changed the internal burr ... what am I doing wrong?

This guide assumes:

  • You have some basic knowledge of espresso theory (dose, brew ratio, sour vs bitter, dialling in, the effect of adjusting grind size/dose, etc).
  • You are using the non-pressurised/single-wall double-shot filter basket.
  • You have scales, and are using them for weighing your dose in, and espresso out.

Important note

The original version of this guide was written from the perspective of having a Barista Express with a high brewing pressure. I've since done the OPV mod on my machine, and this dramatically changes how the machine operates. Some of the comments below only apply to unmodified machines, where the pressure gauge indicates 1-2 o'clock when pulling a shot. I have tried to indicate this where necessary.

Initial experiences and inconsistent results

By the time the machine arrived in the mail, I'd already watched a bunch of YouTube videos about dose, yield, grind size, timing, sour vs bitter, etc. I'd bought a bag of fresh, medium roasted, fruity, single-origin beans, and was ready to dial them in. I thought I was prepared, but I was wrong.

After filling the hopper with beans, I set the grind size somewhere in the middle ("8"), ground 18g of beans into the portafilter, levelled the coffee, tamped, and brewed a shot. The initial shots ran fast (<15 seconds), smelt sour, and definitely tasted sour. Plus the pressure gauge was only just inside the "espresso zone". I knew that "sour" meant under-extracted, and I wasn't getting enough pressure on the gauge, so I made the grind size finer, and tried again. Same result. Time to grind finer, and try again. Same result. I repeated this a few times, and eventually got down to a grind setting of "1", without any real change.

I did some research, and saw you could change the internal burr setting, to make the grind even finer. I switched this from "6" to "5", reset the outer grind setting to the middle again ("7"), and repeated the process until I managed to choke the machine. After this, I set the grind size one step coarser and left it at that. The resulting espresso was now pouring in the desired 25-35 second range, but still smelled and tasted sour. The tasting notes said, "tangy berries". I wasn't getting that, but I'd not tasted the coffee prepared using this bean, so I thought that was perhaps just how it was supposed to be. It wasn't unpleasant, and I did get some good lattes.

I'd read that light-medium roasted beans are harder to dial in, so I switched beans, with the next bag being a darker roast. These beans were a bit easier to dial in. The grind setting was coarser, the espresso flow looked more consistent, and I could definitely taste the chocolate flavour mentioned in the tasting notes. But the darker roast was a bit too much for me, so I went back to something medium roasted and fruity for the next bag. Dialling in beans was certainly getting easier, and I was now sometimes able to recognise some of the mentioned tasting notes. But everything was just so inconsistent. Some shots would gush, and some would choke. Some espressos would be rich with crema, with others being watery and thin. Some pours started out slow and steady, but then they'd switch to a gushing watery stream half way through. Trying to stop the yield at a specific weight was often hopeless. If I was aiming for a 36g yield, I'd try to stop the machine at 32g, to account for the drips that happen after shutting off the machine. Sometimes that would work, and sometimes I'd get 10-15g of liquid gush through the portafilter into the cup below (even after stopping the machine), completely missing my target.

I did some research on possible causes, which led me to "channeling", where the high pressure forces water through weak spots in the coffee puck. So I tried a few things to better distribute the coffee, including WDT. This didn't help, which surprised me. I then decided to get a palm tamper/distribution tool, in a bid to improve the consistency. This didn't help either - initially anyway, but more on that later.

At this point I was getting some great tasting coffee (especially with milk), but it was hugely inconsistent. Looking back, my resulting shots were very different to what that are now:

  • Then: espresso body was slightly watery; crema would be thin or not cover the entire shot, and dissipate quickly.
  • Now: body is much richer and darker; espresso pours like Guinness (a slow separation of liquid and crema into distinct layers), crema is thick and lasts much longer.

I knew that I was doing something wrong, but I couldn't figure out what it was. So I bought a bag of supermarket espresso blend beans (because they were cheaper) to experiment with. A dozen shots later (don't worry, I wasn't drinking it!), I'd managed to start pulling consistent smooth flowing shots. I'd finally stumbled upon what I was doing wrong - puck prep.

Quick review

The Barista Express is a deservedly popular espresso machine, and there are lots of reviews out there, so I'll make mine quick. It's a fabulous machine for the price, and only needs a few additional accessories (a small 0.1g accuracy scale, a dosing cup, and a dosing funnel) to make fantastic coffee. The major complaints/issues/questions you'll see from people online (e.g. on r/espresso) are:

  • Grinder: You'll see people complaining about the quality and consistency of the grinder, and how the grinder "can't grind fine enough for espresso". I don't believe that Sage/Breville would include a grinder that isn't capable of grinding for espresso, built-in to an espresso machine. That doesn't make sense to me. I've only had one bag of beans that I couldn't quite grind fine enough for my taste (a natural processed bean), and a review of the Breville Smart Grinder Pro (which I believe has the same internals) says that it's one of the better/more consistent entry-level grinders. In a nutshell, the grinder is okay, and the only real issue is that the steps between grinder settings are sometimes (not always) too big. But it's an entry-level machine, and I probably don't have the palate to notice such small changes anyway. Occassionally, with some coffees, there's no mid-point between choking the machine and a shot running slightly too fast. There is a stepless mod that you can do, or you can hold the grinder wheel between the steps.
  • Steaming power: You'll see people complaining about how the machine "doesn't have enough power to make good quality microfoam". It does - see steaming milk for some photos of what you can achieve. Steaming milk is certainly slower than more expensive machines though. It takes me 50-60 seconds to steam enough milk for a 12oz latte, and 30-40 seconds for an 8oz latte (in a smaller jug). I rarely make more than 2 milk-based drinks back-to-back at a time, so this isn't a big issue for me.
  • Consistency: You'll see people complaining about how the machine "doesn't provide consistent results from shot to shot". I've suffered from this, but I've resolved it by working on my workflow and puck preparation (see troubleshooting). If I pull two shots, the shot time for the second will usually be within 2-3 seconds of the first, and is often the same, so the Barista Express can certainly be consistent.
  • High brewing pressure: The biggest problem with the Barista Express isn't the grinder, it's the high brewing pressure that seems to affect some, but not all, machines. Although the instructions suggest that the pressure gauge should be in the middle of the "espresso zone", some machines make this impossible because they are set to run at 14-15 bars, rather than 9 bars (which is the espresso "standard"). You can definitely get good results with the high brewing pressure, but your puck prep must be almost perfect. The OPV mod can resolve this problem and transform your machine, if you're comfortable opening it up and voiding your warranty.

I suspect most of the complaints are the result of user error, by people with no prior experience of making espresso. I say that because I've been there myself! πŸ˜€ It's easy to jump to conclusions about how the Barista Express "isn't capable", but the truth is that making great espresso has a huge learning curve. And that learning curve applies whether you buy a Β£500 entry-level machine, or something that costs in excess of Β£2,000.

Should you buy one?

I would definitely recommend the Barista Express if you're primarily making one or two milk-based drinks at a time, or you want fantastic espresso on a budget. If you're interested in making perfect espresso with absolute precision, you'll be better off looking elsewhere - the large grinder steps and high brewing pressure might not allow you to achieve the results you're looking for. That said, I can still make better espressos and lattes than the majority of cafes I've been to, so I consider the Barista Express to be a fantastic machine for the price.

When should you upgrade the machine and/or grinder?

It's easy to get "upgraditis", and think that upgrading the machine will allow you to make better espresso. So when should you upgrade from the Barista Express? One answer is that you have lots of disposable income, and like shiny new things. If you browse r/espresso, you'll definitely find questions that like, "I just bought a Rocket Appartamento|Profitec 700|ECM Synchronika|La Marzocco Linea Mini as my first espresso machine, and my shots are always sour, and run in less than 15 seconds - is my machine broken?". There's that learning curve again!

Another answer is that you feel the Barista Express is holding you back. Perhaps you're regularly making milk-based drinks for large groups of friends, and the machine is genuinely slowing you down. In that case, a dual boiler machine would be a good upgrade, because you'll be able to pull espresso shots and steam milk at the same time.

Or perhaps you think an upgrade will make your coffee taste better. It certainly might do, but you should ask yourself whether you'll be able to taste the difference. Given three different tasting notes on a bag of beans, I'll always be able to taste one of them (usually the first), and I sometimes might taste one of the other two. Upgrading to a Niche Zero grinder might unlock those other tasting notes, and allow me to dial in shots with more precision. But I have doubts as to whether I'd be able to taste them to be honest, and I usually drink lattes anyway. I find wine, single malt whisky, IPA, and single-origin chocolate the same - I can taste one or two of the tasting notes, but usually not the others. So I'm not sure that I have a capable/trained enough palate to notice the difference in a grinder upgrade.

Workflow - tl;dr

So let's step back, what steps are required to get consistent espresso shots? Here's a quick summary of my workflow:

  • Check the water level.
  • Warm up the machine for at least 15-20 minutes, with the portafilter and basket inserted.
  • Pull an empty double shot through the portafilter and empty basket, to flush the machine and ensure everything is hot.
  • Weigh and single-dose 16-21g of beans into the grinder.
  • Grind into a dosing cup.
  • Weigh the ground coffee (add or remove to match the desired dose).
  • Gently shake/stir the ground coffee to get it "fluffy", removing any large clumps and air pockets.
  • Prepare your puck.
  • Tamp flat and hard (and/or use a distribution tool).
  • Do a quick flush with the single shot button, and to pre-heat the cup.
  • Insert the portafilter and start the shot.

Some other things to keep in mind:

  • For best results, weigh the output rather than relying on the default shot button timings. A 1:2 ratio in 25-35 seconds from button press is a good starting point; e.g. 18g of coffee in, 36g of espresso out.
  • Don't worry about too much about the pressure gauge.
  • Use freshly roasted beans, and keep them fresh by storing them properly (away from moisture, with as little air as possible).

Check the water level

This sounds obvious until you forget, and run out of water half way through a shot. This has happened to me, more than once! πŸ™„

Warm the machine

It's tempting to skip this step, especially early in the morning, but do wait at least 15-20 minutes, to ensure everything is warmed up (including the portafilter, and basket). A warm machine does resolve some of the sourness and consistency problems. If you're in a hurry, pull a couple of double shots through an empty portafilter (no coffee; just the basket) to speed up the process. If you find that your first shot in the morning flows okay, but your second shot chokes, the machine probably wasn't warm enough - see Troubleshooting below.


SwitchBot

A SwitchBot comes highly recommended as a way to switch on your Barista Express before you need it.

Brewing temperature

Changing the brewing temperature can make a difference. A higher temperature can help tame sourness, and a lower temperature can help tame bitterness. Whenever I get a new bean, I will adjust the brewing temperature as follows:

  • Light-medium roast: +1/+2C
  • Medium roast: +0C (default)
  • Medium-dark roast: -1/-2C

See Adjusting Temperature On A Breville Espresso Machine - Seattle Coffee Gear for details of how to adjust the temperature. If in doubt, use the default temperature and only adjust the temperature if you're having issues with a sourness or bitterness that remains after what looks a perfect shot.

Dose

I initially started with the single-wall single-shot basket because I thought I'd use fewer beans this way, but it turns out that the single-shot basket is notoriously difficult to work with. So I switched it out for the single-wall double-shot basket. So that would be tip number 1: the double-shot basket is easier to work with.

Recommended dose

You'll see many people saying that the "recommended dose" for the double-shot basket is 18g. And that's a good starting point, but it's not the best way to think about dosing. 18g of a light roasted and/or high altitude coffee bean will be a significantly smaller volume of ground coffee than 18g of a darker roasted and/or lower altitude coffee bean. The former is more dense than the latter. This difference in volume will result in the tamped pucks sitting lower and higher in the basket respectively. Having too little coffee in the basket causes problems (e.g. channeling because there's too much space above the puck), and having too much coffee in the basket also causes problems (e.g. channeling because there's too little space above the puck). So you're really looking for that "goldilocks zone" - not too little, and not too much. The best way to do this? Dose by volume, and aim for the level of your tamped puck to be somewhere in the region suggested by the Razor tool. You have two options for dosing.

Option 1: choosing your own (recommended for 9 bar machines; e.g. after the OPV mod)

With this option, you pick a number for a particular coffee bean, and stick to it. Every coffee is different but I find, for the standard single-wall double-shot basket, 18g is a good starting point for medium roasted coffee beans. You may need to increase this for lighter roasts, and decrease it for darker roasts. Whatever dose you choose, be consistent, and be precise every time you pull a shot. +/-0.5g dose difference between shots can and does make a difference.

The downside of choosing your own dose is that there's a lot of potential to under or over fill your basket, which could lead to problems such as channeling and soupy pucks, particularly if your machine is not running at 9 bars of pressure. Also, at lower doses, many untamped coffees don't reach the rim of the basket, making distribution (e.g. Stockfleths method) difficult. Whatever dose you choose, you do need to make sure that it sits within that goldilocks zone (see above). I've found that dosing so that the untamped coffee is flush with the level of the basket generally gives you a dose in the right ballpark - not too much coffee, not too little.


Dose

Dosing so that the untamped coffee is flush with the level of the basket generally gives you a dose in the right ballpark - not too much coffee, not too little.

If your Barista Express is running at 14-15 bars of pressure, I'd recommend that the level of your tamped puck doesn't venture too far from the level suggested by the Razor tool. I found that the combination of high pressure and smaller doses tended to result in channelling, particularly towards the mid-end of the shot. Those same lower doses do generally work better with a 9 bar Barista Express though, so don't be afraid to experiment.


Option 2: use the Razor tool (recommended for 14-15 bar machines; e.g. before the OPV mod)

You'll see a lot of people online telling you to not use the Razor tool, but it can be incredibly useful if you're struggling to dial in a coffee, especially if your machine is running at 14-15 bars of pressure. With some coffee beans, especially denser varieties from higher altitudes, a dose of even 18-19g might be too little volume for the size of the basket. And I think the Barista Express is very sensitive to the volume of coffee used, and the headspace above the puck. I really struggled to dial in a high altitude coffee from Costa Rica. Every single shot ended up channeling, regardless of whatever dose and/or grinder setting I was using. I could see that the coffee was sitting low in the basket, so I kept increasing the dose, right up to 20g, but that didn't resolve the problem. Eventually I decided to change tack, and use the Razor tool to determine what dose I should be using. To do this:

  1. Weigh out 22g of beans.
  2. Grind the beans.
  3. Weigh the ground coffee, to make sure you still have 22g (add or remove coffee as required).
  4. Tip the ground coffee into the basket, distribute, and tamp.
  5. Now take the Razor tool, and use it to trim the dose, as shown in The Breville Razor- Precision Dose Trimming Tool - Breville Australia.
  6. Weigh the discarded coffee, and subtract it from 22g to get your dose.

An alternative way to do this, if you don't mind discarding the puck and wasting some coffee:

  1. Grind too much coffee into the basket, tamp, and use the Razor to trim the puck.
  2. Gently knock the dry puck out of the basket, and weigh it to get your dose.

The volume of ground coffee will change slightly as you change the grinder setting finer/coarser, but you'll now have a starting point for your dose. I did this with the Costa Rica coffee that I was having trouble dialling in, and the resulting dose came out at 20.9g! The first shot I pulled at this dose was far better than any I'd pulled beforehand - there was much less channeling, and I could finally identify the tasting notes.

The following videos all mention the importance of getting the correct dose, and may provide some assistance if you're struggling.

Accurate scales

For consistency, you'll definitely need some scales with an accuracy to 0.1 of a gram. I was initially using some cheap kitchen/jewellery scales and they worked really well until they stopped working one morning. I suspect water/espresso got into the electronics. 😒

While waiting for some new scales to arrive, I used my regular kitchen scales, which are only accurate to 1g. The resulting shots were all over the place, and getting any sort of consistency was nigh on impossible. I didn't even get good results with a bean I've had before, with shots running fast and channeling. As I later discovered, these scales, although accurate to 1g, were also off calibration by 1g. So "18g" of measured beans was really only in the region of 17g.

Although I wouldn't necessarily recommend it, I actually got more consistent results from dosing out beans into an egg cup, so that's something to try if your scales ever stop working. Or just over fill your basket and use the Razor tool. Rather than buying cheaper scales again, and ultimately replacing them when they fail in a few weeks, I decided to buy the Acaia Lunar. They're expensive, but built to last, and the auto-tare/auto-start feature is fantastic.


Dose

Regular kitchen scales with 1g accuracy are not sufficient for making espresso.
Dose

If your scales break, you might find visually dosing into a small cup more consistent than regular kitchen scales.
Dose

The Acaia Lunar is expensive, but built to last with some great automated features to streamline your workflow.

Grind size

Every coffee is different, and every Barista Express is different, so it's impossible to say "use grind size X for bean Y". Because I'd not made espresso at home before, it occurred to me that I didn't actually know what the ground coffee should look like. "A little finer than table salt" is what you'll read online, so I ground some beans at varying sizes and pulled some shots. The first image below is a photo of the grind size that worked (for that bean), and with some table salt scattered on top for comparison. The other photos show a different ground coffee, which resulted in a 1:2 ratio in ~30 seconds.


Espresso grind
Coffee - untamped
Coffee grind - tamped

I appreciate that each bean requires a different grind size, but this is coarser than I thought. Once I saw this, I realised I'd been grinding too fine with those early bags of beans. The probability of channeling increases with finer grind sizes too, and I definitely saw this early on with shots that would gush after a few seconds.

A final note, about grind size. When changing the grind size dial, do so with the grinder running.

Single dosing vs filling the hopper

I've tried both, and now single dose. Filling the hopper with beans is convenient, but:

  • the dose control ("Grind Amount") dial is time-based, which leads to inconsistent doses (in terms of coffee weight)
  • the fineness of the grind changes depending on how full/empty the grinder is (I dialled in a bean with a full hopper, and needed to change the grind size as the hopper emptied ... ageing will also have contributed to these changes)
  • although the hopper is "air tight", it still contains air, which will allow the beans to age more quickly than if you keep them in an air tight container (with the air pushed out), or in a vacuum

Single dosing is less convenient, but:

  • it results in less waste of beans (my day-to-day coffee waste is practically zero)
  • you get a more consistent dose (you can weigh the beans in, and weigh the grounds out)
  • you get a more consistent grind size from shot to shot

To single dose, set the "Grind Amount" dial to maximum, and the "Filter Size" to "Double". Put your weighed dose of beans into the grinder, and press the button underneath the grinder (where you'd usually put the portafilter), with your cup underneath. You don't need to hold this button in. The grinder sound will change to a high pitched noise when it's empty, and you can stop the grinder by pressing the "Filter Size" button.

Grinder retention

The grinder on the Barista Express does not have zero-retention. In other words, there is always some ground coffee in the grinder. If you take out the inner burr, you'll see this. I've not measured it, but I suspect there's a few grams of ground coffee in the gaps between the top and bottom of the grinder. For this reason, especially when you're dialling in a new bean, you'll need to purge a few grams each time you change the grinder setting, to discard the coffee ground at the previous setting. The same is true when you switch beans. In other words, grind a few grams of beans (~5g seems to work), and throw away the grounds.

After dialling in a bean, during daily use, if I put 18.5g of beans into the grinder, I typically get 18.5g of ground coffee out ... +/- 0.2g. During the grinding process, you're pushing out some of the ground coffee stuck in the grinder, and replacing it with fresh coffee. In other words, out of that 18.5g of fresh beans, you might be getting 15g of freshly ground coffee, plus 3.5g of coffee from the previous grind, with 3.5g of freshly ground coffee now being stuck in the gaps. I use my machine every day, and don't notice any effect on taste of this, so I wouldn't worry about it too much. This might be different if you only use your machine once a week though.

Occasionally I'll get more coffee out of the grinder than expected, and sometimes less. It's easy to fix this by removing some grounds, or by grinding a few more beans into the cup. If you want consistent shots, I definitely recommend weighing the beans in, and the ground coffee out.


The "hopper lid pumping" technique - not recommended while the grinder is running!
If you put 18g of beans into the grinder and consistently get less out, Zero Retention | Breville Build in Grinder? - Hoon's Coffee shows a technique for "pumping" the hopper lid on the built-in grinder to help push out any coffee that gets stuck. I've tried this, and it does work, but I do not recommend it when the grinder is running. I took out my top burr for cleaning and noticed that one side is showing wear from the burrs touching. I initially suspected that my grinder wasn't aligned properly, but I don't think that's case. Performing the "hopper lid pumping" technique causes more pressure to be exerted on one side of the burr casing (especially once you have whole beans stuck in there), and the burrs can end up touching for a brief period of time when you're on the finer grinder settings. 😬 Try it when running an empty grinder and you'll likely hear this for yourself.

Grinding into the portafilter vs a dosing cup

Grinding straight into the portafilter is convenient, but:

  • it's messy (coffee tends to overflow from the portafilter)
  • it's uneven (coffee tends to form a mound in the centre of the basket)

Grinding into a dosing cup is less convenient, but:

  • it's less messy
  • it's easier to distribute the coffee more evenly (see below)
  • you get a more consistent dose (you can weigh the beans in, and weigh the grounds out)

The built-in grinder doesn't always give you fluffy ground coffee, so needs a little help. I initially ground straight into the portafilter, but that limits the options you have for fluffing up the ground coffee unless you have a dosing ring or funnel.

Certainly on the finer grind settings, you might notice some clumps in the ground coffee. If you've ground into a cup, just give it a shake to break the clumps up. Don't shake the cup in circles though, as you'll probably see the clumps getting bigger as they roll around the surface. Alternatively, use WDT to de-clump the coffee grounds.

A quick note: When I started using a cup to grind into, I would give the cup a gentle shake to fluff up the grounds, and often the shots would choke. My initial thoughts were, "oh, shaking the cup causes the shot to choke, so I should shake it more gently". Actually, I was interpreting the results in the wrong way - shaking the cup was eliminating the clumps and air pockets that form when grinding at finer settings, and now the machine was choking on the more consistent grounds, rather than channeling from finding weak paths through the clumpier grounds. Grinding into a cup was what transformed my espresso experience for the better.

Dosing cups

I initially used a small cup (left) that I found in the local kitchen store. The diameter of the cup almost matches the portafilter, so I could place the portafilter upside-down on the cup, and flip both over in a single movement, to transfer the ground coffee to the portafilter. Although it worked, I'd sometimes lose ground coffee out of the sides because the cup wasn't a perfect fit. I now use the Crema Coffee Products 54mm dosing cup (right), which has been specifically designed for the Barista Express. I highly recommend it.

Puck prep

First of all, the portafilter basket needs to be clean and dry before adding your ground coffee. A wet basket causes all sorts of problems. Here's my "no WDT" technique for preparing pucks.


Puck prep

Grind into a dosing cup. The built-in grinder tends to deliver "clumpy" coffee, but we can fix that.
Puck prep

Give the dosing cup a gentle side-to-side shake to mix everything up, and you'll see the clumps break apart.
Puck prep

Place the portafilter on top of the dosing cup, and flip both so that the dosing cup is now upside-down. Holding both together, do a few vertical shakes to mix everything up. While still holding both together, do a few gentler horizontal shakes to level everything out, side-to-side and back-to-front. Carefully remove the dosing cup.

Puck prep

If the coffee bed is flat and even, skip this step. If the coffee looks like this though, place a dosing funnel over the basket and do a few more very gentle horizontal shakes to move everything around, level the coffee out, and collapse the bed down. A couple of gentle taps can also help.
Puck prep

This is the sort of result you're aiming for, and it can take a bit of practice. The flatter the better. If, as in this photo, the coffee bed is slightly uneven, you might want to continue with the gentle horizontal shaking, or just level it out with your finger (e.g. Stockfleths). At this point, I find there's no need to use WDT or a puck rake.

This puck prep process may look involved and time consuming but, with practice, I find that it only takes a few seconds. It tends to give me more consistent results than WDT too. Your mileage may vary, of course. As a side note, you'll see in the last photo that the untamped coffee bed sits level with the rim of the basket. I find this tends to indicate that my dose for the current bean is in the right ballpark for the basket size.

Tamping pressure (and the Razor tool)

You'll read a variety of thoughts on tamping; either that you need 30lbs/15kgs of pressure, or that tamping pressure doesn't matter so much provided you are consistent between shots. Having never made espresso before, I had no idea how much pressure to apply. Occasionally I'd get a good shot, but most would either run too slow or too fast.

So I decided to get a palm tamper, specifically the 53mm Tamper & Distributor Combo from Crema Coffee Products. Palm tampers can be set to a specific depth, allowing you to consistently tamp to that same depth every time. Does this provide the suggested 30lbs/15kgs of pressure? No, a palm tamper/distribution tool will not provide a constant pressure of 30lbs/15kgs, but it will provide a consistent pressure because of the consistent depth, and therefore consistent compression of the ground coffee ... when you're grinding the same beans, at the same setting, with the same dose. For this reason, I use a regular tamper for dialling in, and the palm tamper for consistent results afterwards. But how deep do you set the palm tamper?

I followed the advice on How to Set Palm Tamper Depth | Breville Barista Express - Lifestyle Lab which basically sets the tamper to the same depth as the Razor tool that ships with the Barista Express. This didn't work at all for me, because I was using my own dose rather than using the Razor tool to set the dose (see Dose above).

How Hard Should You Tamp? is a great article on tamping, and it made me realise that although you can't "tamp too hard", there is a minimum tamp that you need to compress the ground coffee. With some beans and doses, tamping to the level suggested by the Razor tool isn't enough. The Razor tool depth is really the maximum/recommended volume of coffee in the basket. If you're dosing less than this, tamping to the depth of the Razor will likely result in a tamp that is too light, so you're not compressing the coffee enough. The thing that really fixed my lack of consistency and channeling was tamping harder - I wasn't compressing the coffee enough, and the shots were channelling, which ultimately led sour/acidic shots. A good starting point is to just tamp hard, and don't be tempted to use tamping pressure to influence the extraction time.

Back to the tamper/distributor combo tool. When dialling in a new bean, I will keep the distribution side at the minimum level, and use this to distribute the grounds in the basket. I then still need to tamp to compress the coffee, because the distribution tool provides very little compression on the minimum setting (it's just levelling the surface). I will still use a regular tamper at this point.

Once you have a bean dialled in, there are a couple of ways in which you can use a distributor/tamper tool. Prepare a tamped puck as above, and:

  • Option 1: Keep the distribution side at the minimum setting, and set the depth of the palm tamper to that tamped puck. With future pucks, you distribute first, then use the palm tamper to tamp at that consistent depth.
  • Option 2: Set the distribution side to the depth of a tamped puck. With future pucks, you can use the distribution tool to provide distribution and compression (i.e. you don't need to tamp, see How To: The Jack Espresso Leveler Setup and Use)

Setting the depth of the distribution tool

To set the tamper or distributor depth, prepare a tamped puck, set the depth to the maximum setting, and spin the (black) ring around to reduce the depth until it hits the basket.
Setting the depth of the distribution tool

Reassemble and you're done.

Of course, if you change the grind size or dose, you may need to adjust the depth of your distribution tool/palm tamper. Also bear in mind that a distribution tool/palm tamper has a maximum depth that it can be set to, and that maximum depth might not provide enough compression for smaller doses, especially at finer grind settings. My palm tamper doesn't quite have enough depth at doses of ~16g and below. On a related note, there's also a limit to how far you can insert any tamper or distribution tool into the basket given the slight curvature of the basket wall, so make sure you don't under fill your basket. Similarly, if you're using the Razor tool to work out your dose based upon the recommended volume of coffee in the basket, then you can set the palm tamper to the depth of the Razor tool and forget about it.

The distribution tool isn't a magic tool to eliminate channeling. In fact, the distribution tool works best when the coffee bed is already mostly flat and even. Using the distribution tool on a mostly flat coffee bed seems to defeat the purpose of the tool. That's true, but trying to distribute a huge mound of coffee doesn't work - you just compress the puck unevenly. If you're using the puck prep approach above, or you're using WDT to even out the coffee bed, I'd skip the distribution tool and just tamp.

Quick flush and wipe

Before making the espresso shot, I press the single shot button to flush the group head for a couple of seconds, to help ensure the water temperature is consistent. You can use this water to pre-heat your cup. After this flush, I give the group head a quick wipe to remove any excess water/coffee.

Pre-infusion

Pre-infusion is the process of wetting the puck at low pressure, before exposing it to the full brewing pressure. In automatic mode, the Barista Express will apply pre-infusion for between 7-10 seconds - I imagine that the machine waits until a specific pressure is reached before applying full pressure. In manual mode, you have full control over the pre-infusion duration. Pre-infusion essentially does 2 things - it saturates the puck in the aim of achieving a more even extraction, and allows you to grind finer for a higher extraction.

You can easily test this yourself. Use automatic mode, and dial in a shot. Take a note of the time taken to extract your known yield. Next, prepare another puck in the same way (same dose and grinder setting), and run the shot in manual mode with a very short pre-infusion duration. You'll likely see that the shot will take a lot longer to achieve the same yield. Sometimes, the extraction will look very uneven too, often with first drops appearing at the back right corner of the basket (this is underneath the water delivery pipe), before the stream moves towards the centre. When this happens, the extraction is generally very uneven, with a mix of under and over extraction happening. Given the way in which water is delivered through a single off-centered pipe above the shower screen, I do find that pre-infusion does contribute to more even extractions and better tasting espresso.

Pre-infusion duration

If you are pulling shots in manual mode, do note that you may see some variation if you try to run pre-infusion for a set duration (e.g. you hold the button down for 5 seconds to get 5 seconds of pre-infusion). Water doesn't always start flowing from the grouphead immediately after pressing the button to start a shot, and sometimes it takes a few seconds to get started. Again, you can see that for yourself. Remove the portafilter and press the single/double shot button to start the water. Sometimes water flows after 1 second, and sometimes after 3 seconds. With that in mind, if you want consistent pre-infusion in manual mode, you may want to hold the shot button down until you see the first drops on the bottom of the basket, or perhaps a specific pressure on the pressure gauge (e.g. 8-9 o'clock) is achieved. I generally use the latter method.

Measuring time - button press or first drop of espresso?

The Barista Express has a 7-10 second pre-infusion phase, which wets the coffee puck before full pressure kicks in. Some people start timing their shots from pressing the button, others from when the first drops of espresso appear on the underside of the basket, or hit the cup. This raises the question of whether shot timings should include or exclude pre-infusion. From what I can tell, there's no "correct" answer. I would just choose one timing option and stick with it, trying different timings to see what tastes best.

I start the timer from when I press the button, because it's easier and includes the total time in which water and coffee are in contact. Every bean is different, but in general I find the following pattern with my shot timings:

  • <25 seconds: Underextracted and sour.
  • 25-30 seconds: Tasting notes evident, but often a hint of sourness.
  • 30-35 seconds: Smooth, sweet, and balanced ... this is where I usually get my best shots with most coffee.
  • 35-40 seconds: Tasting notes evident, but often with a hint of bitterness, especially if the shot almost choked initially.
  • 40+ seconds: Overextracted and bitter.

I don't find shots with a hint of sourness or bitterness to be a problem once mixed with steamed milk, but when dialling in a bean, I'll initially aim for 30-35 seconds. On that note, many (most?) of the "suggested recipes" that you see from roasters are probably based on a 58mm portafilter, so they need translating to the Barista Express, and its smaller 54mm portafiter. For the same dose (and therefore an equal volume of ground coffee), a puck in a 54mm basket has a depth that is ~15% more than a puck in a 58mm backet. I don't think the physics related to extraction are as simple as "make shots 15% longer to compensate for the smaller basket size", but I do seem to get the best results when pulling shots for slightly longer than the recipes suggest. I imagine the 7-10 second pre-infusion factors in somewhere here too.

For 14-15 bar machines: I've found that some coffees will tend to always channel towards the end of the shot, and I think this is caused by a combination of high brewing pressure, long pre-infusion, and small doses. I've found that a shorter manual pre-infusion time of (for example) 5 seconds can help considerably here, with the espresso flow being much more consistent throughout.

Stopping the shot

The double-shot button is designed to deliver 2oz (by volume). Although you can re-program this, it's just easier to press the double-shot button (again) to stop the shot. Or to use manual mode. This does, of course, mean that you will need to weigh your shot while it's pouring, by placing your cup on some scales.

You also need to take into account that liquid will flow for a short while after stopping the shot. For example, if you're aiming for 40g, you'll need to press the button to stop the shot when your scales indicate ~37g, to allow for the remaining drips after the pump stops. This will vary depending on whether you're using a spouted or bottomless portafilter. After pressing the button to stop the shot, I find that I get 2-3g more of liquid with a spouted portafilter, and 1-2g with a bottomless portafilter.


Espresso
Espresso

Pressure gauge

A quick note about the pressure gauge. Having watched many videos about the Barista Express on YouTube, I suspect the brewing pressure is very inconsistent between machines. Before doing the OPV mod to reduce the brewing pressure, my shots would run incredibly fast if I aimed for the middle of the "espresso range". All of my best shots were made with the pressure gauge at the very top end of the espresso range. Why?

Out of the box, before the OPV mod, my machine runs at a brewing pressure of 14-15 bars, which corresponds with 1-2 o'clock on the pressure gauge. To test your machine, use an empty double-shot double-wall (the pressurised) basket or the cleaning disc and run an empty shot. The pressure you see on the gauge represents the normal brewing pressure of your machine. If the needle points to the middle of the espresso zone, congratulations, you have a 9 bar espresso machine! πŸŽ‰ Mine always hit 1-2 o'clock though. πŸ˜•

When preparing your puck, you need to prepare it to withstand the normal brewing pressure of your machine. Using a smaller dose or a coarser grind in an attempt to pull a "9 bar shot" from a "14-15 bar machine" won't work. Your puck is exposed to 14-15 bars of pressure, and you'll just see horrible channeling as that high pressure destroys your puck. With that in mind, the pressure gauge is useful as a general guide, I guess, but I don't really pay much attention to it any more, because it tends to work like this:

  • Lower than 1-2 o'clock: the shot will probably be too fast, leading to a thin sour espresso shot.
  • 1-2 o'clock: the shot is either okay, chokes the machine, or starts channelling because of the high pressure.

With all of my good shots being in the 1-2 o'clock range, the gauge doesn't tell really me anything, and it distracts me from what I should be doing, which is watching the shot. So I'd rather ignore the gauge completely and look more carefully at the shot flow and time ... when are the first drops?, is the flow smooth/even?, is there channeling from the bottomless PF?, is the shot blonding too quickly?, etc.


Espresso pour
Espresso pour
Espresso pour
Espresso pour

Your shot should pour as a thin, slow, smooth stream; dark at first, slowly getting lighter. When brewing into a glass, especially with fresh beans and a bottomless portafilter, you'll see the espresso pour like Guinness ... a very crema rich flow that will slowly separate into distinct layers of dark espresso and lighter crema. Once you understand how to do that, then you can focus on taste.

Yield (brew ratio and taste)

Unless the coffee roaster provides a recipe, I generally start with a 1:2 ratio (e.g. 18g in, 36g out) and adjust from there. With lighter roasts, I often find a slightly higher ratio helps bring out some of the fruity flavours and tame the sourness (e.g. 18g in, 40g out). And for darker roasts, a lower ratio (e.g. 18g in, 30g out) helps tame any bitterness. You'll need to experiment and see what works. Some useful articles to read/videos to watch include:


As a final note on the topic, I've seen too many people (on YouTube, Reddit, etc) aiming for "a 30 second shot", because that's what they believe the goal is. The "1:2 ratio in 30 seconds" is just a starting point. The majority of my shots are around ~35 seconds from button press, with some beans being too acidic at a 1:2 ratio, and others being too bitter at a 1:2 ratio. Taste first, time second. If in doubt, stop timing your shots and focus on taste, using The Espresso Compass to adjust as needed. When you get it right, some of the tasting notes are usually very evident, even in milk-based drinks.

Minimising waste

This might be an unpopular opinion but ... when you're starting out, you're going to waste a lot of beans getting to know the machine, and also when dialling in new beans. I generally drink latte, and although I'll try to chase the tasting notes of a particular bean, I'm not necessarily seeking espresso perfection. Unless the shot is really fast and gushes out (<20 seconds), or really slow and barely drips out (>45 seconds), I'll usually drink it as a latte. Once mixed with steamed milk, any sour or bitter flavours are tamed somewhat, particularly in larger (e.g. 12oz) lattes. I will make a note to change the grind setting next time I make a shot though. Having said that, I will usually have a quick taste of every espresso I make, to get a feel how/whether it can be improved next time. But my goal is to also minimise wastage.

Storing beans

I originally used a large airtight mason jar for storing beans, and that did work when the jar was kept relatively full. The beans did age quickly once I had a large amount of air in there though. I bought two 250g bags of the same beans, opened the first and stored it in the mason jar, with the beans only filling about one third of the jar's capacity. On day one, the espresso shots were fantastic, with lots of crema and identifiable fruity tasting notes. On day two, everything changed. I had to grind two steps finer to slow the shots down, and the resulting shots had much less crema and flavour. Sufficient for milk-based drinks, but definitely not the same. Once those beans were finished, I opened the second bag, reset the grinder to the original coarser setting, and everything was good once again. I stored these new beans in a resealable bag, with the air pushed out. Shots for the rest of the bag were consistently good, with no grind size changes required.

All of this made me realise that having an airtight jar is meaningless if there's more air than beans. I now use an Airscape canister to store my beans. It's a total game changer for increased shot consistency.


Airscape
Airscape

The bottomless/naked portafilter

My bottomless portafilter arrived just in time for Christmas, and just after my scales broke. πŸ™„ So my first attempts were less than spectacular, with coffee being sprayed over everything within a metre radius! I tried a few more times, on and off, but most shots ended up a spurty mess (example video). Over the next few weeks I had the odd attempt here and there, but mostly stuck to the spouted portafilter. I will admit that the mess was somewhat discouraging, but that's exactly why I wanted a bottomless portafilter - to help fix the inconsistencies I suspected due to channeling.

After a while, I was starting to wonder whether it was actually possible to pull a clean bottomless shot on my Barista Express, because I just seemed so far away from anything like that. But after dialling in a bag of beans, I noticed that my shots were reasonably consistent, with a nice smooth flow from the portafilter spouts. So I switched to the bottomless portafilter, and to my surprise I only saw very light channeling. Over the following few days, I made a point to only use the bottomless portafilter, and started tweaking my routine around distribution and tamping. I also started doing some WDT, just using a regular wooden cocktail stick, and managed to get some better results, including a couple of almost completely clean bottomless shots. They looked almost perfect! A nice single steady stream of espresso, no visible gaps, beautiful tiger striping, and a lovely even change of colour from dark to light. And, most importantly, super delicious too!


Bottomless portafilter
Bottomless portafilter
Bottomless portafilter

I definitely found the bottomless portafilter frustrating initially, because it was just messy all of the time. And that mess did discourage me from using it. But I'm so glad that I perservered, because what I've learnt has made all of my shots taste better, regardless of which portafilter I choose to use now.

With an unmodified machine running at 14-15 bars of pressure, getting perfectly clean shots from a bottomless portafilter is difficult. Not impossible, but certainly difficult, and your puck prep needs to be almost perfect. After doing the OPV mod to reduce the brewing pressure, I rarely see any spurting, and use my bottomless portafilter on a daily basis. If you want to elimate channeling and spurting entirely, doing the OPV mod is ultimately the solution.

Troubleshooting

Here are some tips for troubleshooting your espresso shots.

Water only flows from the right side of the shower screen

That's normal for the Barista Express. If you take off the shower screen (and you should do this for cleaning), you'll see a single water outlet pipe on the right side. If you're seeing a very unequal flow of espresso, with more from the right portafilter spout, that's most likely channeling (see below) caused by incorrect dose/grind size/puck prep, and not an issue with the machine.

The grinder setting is either too fine, or too coarse

I've had that with a few coffees, where a setting of X will choke the machine, and X+1 will make shots run slightly too fast. The grinder on the Barista Express has discrete steps, each represented by a number on the outside dial. These steps can sometimes, but not always, result in a large change of extraction time. For this reason, if you find that, for example, a shot at grind setting "5" is running too fast, and grind setting "4" is too slow/chokes, you could try:

  • A grind setting of "5" with 0.5-2g more coffee (increasing dose will slow the shot down, because it provides more resistance).
  • A grind setting of "4" with 0.5-2g less coffee (decreasing the dose will speed the shot up, because it provides less resistance).

You may find this affects the taste slightly (because you're changing the extraction), but it's worth trying if you're stuck between grinder settings.

Shot too slow?

If your shot is too slow, or no espresso is coming out at all (and the machine is choking), try reducing the dose, or making the grind size coarser. Also check the holes in the filter basket are not clogged, as this can also choke the machine too.

First shot okay, second shot chokes

I've had this a lot, especially when I use the machine for the first time in the morning - you get a perfect extraction on the first shot, and repeat everything the same way but the second shot chokes. I'd be tempted to ignore that perfect first shot, the second shot choking is feedback that you are grinding too fine or using too much coffee. So the first shot could be running "fast" for a couple of reasons:

  1. Stale beans: The grinder has a degree of retention, which can go stale overnight, causing the first shot in the morning to run faster than it would otherwise. Grind a few grams (3-5g) of coffee to purge your grinder, before making your first shot, to see if that helps. I don't do this myself, and still achieve consistent shots back-to-back in the morning.
  2. Machine temperature: This is the real cause of the inconsistent shots. There's a thread on the UK Coffee Forum that discusses the importance of warming up the machine, and How brew water temperature effects espresso extraction says that "increasing temperature decreased the flow rate through the puck". So that second shot, with it's higher temperature is running slower than the first, and choking the machine. The fix is to leave the machine to warm up for 15-20 minutes (portafilter and empty basket locked in), and to flush the portafilter/basket with a double shot before use. I do this myself, and I've never experienced a choked second shot since.

Shot too fast?

The problem of shots running too fast is sometimes tricky to resolve, and there are a number of possible causes.


Use freshly roasted beans

Older beans (including those bought from supermarkets that don't have a "roasted on" date) often can't be ground fine enough to enable them to build up any pressure. I bought some fresh beans as a "standby pack", and opened them after 3 months - the beans looked very dry and shrivelled. I tried pretty much every grinder setting, including a very fine setting where I could hear the burrs just touching. The coffee grinds came out as a clumped fine powder, and I still couldn't get anything more than a thin acidic 15 second shot. Old beans just do not work for making espresso.


Look at your puck preparation

So, that aside, if you're using fresh beans, the first thing to look at is your puck preparation, as this by itself can cause fast shots due to channelling. Understanding Coffee Extraction Defects from an Espresso Machine - Artisti Coffee Roasters shows the difference that good puck preparation makes.


Increase the dose

Although you'll see many people online talking about 17-18g doses, every coffee is different. See Dose for some tips about choosing a dose, particularly if your machine is running at 14-15 bars of pressure. It's also possible that your scales aren't accurately calibrated. Even a 1g inaccuracy is huge with espresso.


Grind finer

If you're happy with your puck preparation and dose, much of the advice you'll read online about slowing down fast shots will be to grind finer. But it's worth carefully watching your shot before setting the grind size finer, because this could potentially make things worse. Take a look at the flow from each of your portafilter spouts. It is an equal stream from both, or do you tend to get much more liquid from the right spout (assuming your machine is level)? The easy way to test this is to pull a shot with two glasses, one underneath each spout, and compare the volume.

If the shot is fast from the outset (perhaps espresso also flows freely during preinfusion), with a more or less equal flow from both portafilter spouts, then this is probably caused by a lack of pressure being created by the puck. Although I don't tend to look at the gauge on the Barista Express, it will usually register low pressure in this case. Low pressure can typically be fixed by increasing the dose and/or making the grind size finer.

If you feel that you can't grind fine enough, you may need to calibrate your grinder by adjusting the internal top burr setting.


Grind coarser and/or increase the dose

If the shot starts out slow and even, and then gushes to fast finish, often with more flow from the right portafilter spout, this is probably caused by channeling, often giving you a horrible sour and bitter combination, and you don't need a naked portafilter to see it. The Barista Express delivers water from a pipe on the right above the dispersion screen (you'll see this when you take off the screen for cleaning), so more extreme channelling seems to favour the right side as water just pours through/around the puck.

In my experience, I've seen channeling/gushing from grinding too fine, or not having a large enough dose. When dialling in a new bean recently, my machine would choke with a grinder setting of 6 and 7, with shot times being 50+ seconds for 36g out. But at a grinder size of 5 or below, the machine never actually choked, and the water was forced straight through the puck! In fact the shots would start with a good looking slow and even flow, but I would still see shot times of less than 25 seconds because I'd get huge gush of espresso from the right spout only about half way through the shot. Unfortunately I started dialling in this bean at the grinder setting of 5, so I never saw the choking at first. In this case, making the grind size even finer did nothing, often exaggerating the problem further. In summary, with my Barista Express running at 14-15 bars, the machine doesn't tend to choke when I grind too fine, and I might see something like this:

  • Grind size 9: ~30 seconds
  • Grind size 8: ~40 seconds
  • Grind size 7: >50 seconds
  • Grind size 6: >50 seconds
  • Grind size 5: <25 seconds
  • Grind size 4: <25 seconds
  • Grind size 3: <25 seconds

If you keep grinding finer and your shot times are not changing, it's very possible that you've gone past the choking point. To fix this, counterintuitively, you might need to try a coarser grinding setting. It's worth noting that I don't see this behaviour of "going past the choking point" after doing the OPV mod, and the machine now chokes much more easily when running at 9 bars of pressure.

Channeling

If you've not done the OPV mod, the Barista Express is not a typical 9 bar espresso machine, and I find that channelling is very prevalent with poor puck prep. Bad channeling is usually pretty obvious, even with the spouted portafilter ... the flow isn't smooth, it looks watery, it's uneven, etc. And bad channelling will lead to thin acidic espresso without much crema, and hard to identify tasting notes. If you're happy with your puck prep routine and your espresso flows well to start with, but the puck channels towards the end of the shot, try experimenting with a shorter pre-infusion. To do this, start your shot but keep the button pressed to start the manual pre-infusion, and release the button to end the manual pre-infusion. At 14-15 bars of pressure, I think the default pre-infusion time is too long for smaller doses, and often causes pucks to breakdown and channel towards the end. In these situations, try a 3-5 second pre-infusion time instead of the default 7-10 seconds.

No consistency?

I see a lot of people online saying that it's not possible to get consistent shots from the Barista Express. If I pull two shots, the shot time for the second will usually be within 2-3 seconds of the first, and is often the same. It takes practice, but the key to consistent results includes:

  • Good bean storage: Either keep your beans sealed in the bag they came in, or buy something like an Airscape or Atmos coffee canister. Being "airtight" is not good enough - you need something that minimises the quantity of air during storage.
  • Warming the machine: Be patient, and let the machine warm for 15-20 minutes with the empty portafilter/basket locked into the machine. Flush an empty double-shot through before using the machine too. The portafilter should be almost too hot to touch before you get started.
  • "Post-processing" the ground coffee: Don't grind straight into the portafilter and tamp. Either grind into a cup and shake, or grind into the portafilter and do some WDT.
  • Tamping consistently: Consider buying a calibrated or palm tamper.

And finally, whatever you do, repeat it every time you pull a shot. For example, if you flush the machine for a few seconds before each shot, do that every time. The Barista Express is definitely capable of providing consistent outputs if you provide consistent inputs.

Steaming milk

Steaming milk and latte art is definitely something that needs to be practiced. Getting silky smooth micro-foamed milk is half the battle, and getting this right makes pouring anything much easier. Some useful tutorials are:

The steam wand on the Barista Express has less power than many other machines, which I think is a good thing, because it gives you enough time to think about and see what's happening. With "whole milk" straight from the fridge, the basic steps are:

  • Point the steam wand over the drip tray (no jug), and turn it on.
  • Wait until you hear the pump kick in, and a consistent steam of stream is produced (typically 10-15 seconds).
  • Turn off the steam wand, and insert it into the jug, with the wand tip underneath the surface of the milk.
  • Turn the steam wand back on, and steam your milk as they show in the tutorials. πŸ™‚
  • Clean and purge the wand before starting your latte art pour.

I usually introduce air until I can feel the milk jug is just starting to become just ever so slightly warmer than my hand, perhaps just before that, (10-20 seconds, depending on jug size), and then quickly switch to incorporating the air by creating a vortex until the jug is too hot to touch for more than a couple of seconds. If your jug has a thermometer sticker, use that and aim for 60-65C.

The result you're aiming for is a glossy/shiny micro-foam, where you can't see visible bubbles on the surface of the milk. From the initial positioning of the wand tip underneath the milk, small vertical changes of the wand into the milk are all you need (you'll see this in the tutorials), and I aim to keep the process as quiet/controlled as possible.


Micro-foam

Latte art

I'm no expert in pouring latte art, and don't really have any tips, so I'll leave that to the tutorials. It doesn't take long to learn the basics though, and you'll see improvement through regular practice. Here's a snapshot of my latte art during the first 2 months.


Latte art
Latte art
Latte art

Choosing your milk jug

My Barista Express came with a milk jug, which I've had great results with, and it's a perfect size for steaming milk for a 12oz latte. It's a little large for steaming enough milk for an 8oz latte though, because the steam wand doesn't quite reach far enough into the jug when you use less milk. So I decided to buy a smaller jug. I didn't want anything fancy, just something smaller, which I picked up from a local coffee shop.

While I was happy with the size, I really struggled to get any half-decent looking latte art with the new smaller jug, and I couldn’t work out what I was doing wrong. After much frustration, and after watching Milk Pitchers Explained - Seattle Coffee Gear in desperation, it turns out that the smaller jug has a couple of issues. First of all (not shown in the photos below), the handle isn’t quite mounted perfectly vertically, so you’re always pouring at a slight angle. Secondly, and more importantly, the spout isn’t straight, so the milk tends to flow more to one side! πŸ™„ I guess that's what you get from buying a cheap unbranded product.


Milk jug
Milk jug

So I picked up another (this time, branded) milk jug and immediately had better results. In this case, the tools were definitely to blame!


Milk jug
Milk jug

Hot chocolate

I wanted to figure out how to make hot chocolate with my Barista Express, mostly as an excuse to practice latte art, but it's also great for those cold winter nights. It's surprisingly easy, and I've successfully made delicious hot chocolate with instant hot chocolate, and Hotel Chocolat's Classic Hot Chocolate.

  1. Ignore any instructions on the packet. πŸ™‚
  2. Make up an espresso sized, super-concentrated hot chocolate. I typically use 3 teaspoons of instant power/chocolate flakes with 30-40ml of hot water (either from the Barista Express hot water spout, or via your kettle).
  3. Stir until smooth, and add a little water to thin out the mixture if it's too thick/gloopy.
  4. Measure our your usual volume of milk, and steam/pour as usual.

You can adjust the initial espresso sized hot chocolate as needed for taste, with more or less powder/chocolate flakes Making an espresso sized hot chocolate base means that you can stick to your usual recipes. For example, I make a 230ml/8oz latte from 30ml/1oz espresso (double shot) plus 170ml/6oz of pre-steamed milk. I can follow the same quantities for hot chocolate, and the result is delicious.

The consistency of hot chocolate is slightly thicker than espresso, which does make pouring latte art a little harder. It's a great way to practice though (both steaming milk, and pouring latte art), without the caffeine intake. I even do cortado size portions for my kids.


Hot chocolate

Recommended accessories

Here are some of the accessories that I use and recommend to complement the Barista Express.

Adjustments and mods

Calibrating the grinder

From what I've read online, many people can't get a fine enough grind size even at a grinder setting of 1. Unfortunately, much of the advice online is to "change the internal grinder setting" (the adjustable top burr). This internal grinder setting is designed to account for wear over the years, or perhaps when a grinder has left the factory and isn't quite able to grind fine enough. If you change this setting to make it finer (i.e. using a lower number), you do risk damaging the burrs.

When I first bought my Barista Express, I couldn't get a decent shot, even at a setting of 1 on the outside grinder dial and, after reading lots of stuff online, fell down the rabbit hole of adjusting the internal burr setting to make the grind finer to slow down my shots. It turns out my problem was user error caused by my inexperience.

If you are tempted to change the internal burr setting (which shouldn't be needed on a new machine), it's worth first understanding how the grinder adjustment works. First of all, there are two burrs:

  • Top burr (the ring shaped burr; adjustable)
  • Bottom burr (the cone shaped burr; fixed in place)

As shown in this video, the bottom burr is fixed, while the top burr moves up and down, via the outside dial. Moving the dial coarser moves the top burr up, away from the bottom burr (making a larger gap between the burrs, for a coarser grind). And moving the dial finer, moves the top burr down, closer to the bottom burr (making a smaller gap between the burrs, for a finer grind). At some dial setting, both burrs should touch. On my machine, as I write this, my burrs touch at: internal 6, external 2-3.

Adjusting the top burr via the internal 1-10 setting does the same thing. Setting it finer (the lower numbers) pushes the burr downwards in the casing towards the bottom burr, and setting it coarser (the higher numbers) pushes it upwards in the casing away from the bottom burr.

The top burr adjustment is designed to account for wear and tear, and perhaps where burrs aren't quite calibrated from leaving the factory. In effect, adjusting the top burr via the internal setting allows you to change the number at which the burrs touch - essentially providing a way to calibrate your grinder. I don't know exactly how a single number adjustment on the internal setting translates to the outside grinder setting, but it seems to be quite small - perhaps 2-3 steps. On my grinder, with an internal setting of 6, the burrs touch at an external setting of 2-3. With an internal setting of 7, the burrs touch at 1-Fine. In other words, these two settings are equiavlent, and result in the same grind size. An internal setting of 5, with an external setting of 4-5 would also be (more or less) the same, causing the burrs to touch in this case.

To make this very explicit, changing the internal setting by 1 does not give you 16 more settings on the external dial. The internal and external settings overlap. Lifestyle Lab came to the same conclusion - see Upper Burr vs Outer Dial Grind Setting | Breville Barista, which has a handy chart of which pair of internal and external settings are (more or less) equivalent.

If you're still tempted to change the internal grinder setting, I'd recommend doing the following beforehand:

  • Take the hopper off, clean the grinder, and replace the hopper.
  • Set the outside grinder dial to the coarsest setting ("Coarse" on the Barista Express), and run the grinder empty.
  • With the grinder running, slowly decrease the outside grinder dial until you hear the burrs starting to touch, or you hit the finest setting ("Fine" on the Barista Express).

If you hear the burrs touching, make a note of that number, and don't use anything below that setting - you probably don't need to change the internal burr setting. If you hit the finest setting and still don't hear the burrs touching (it's a unnatural metal-on-metal noise), then you have some room to decrease the internal burr setting if needed. Breville Barista Express Top Burr Adjustment - Lifestyle Lab shows you how to do this.

Change the internal setting by a single number adjustment at a time, and repeat the process above to find where the burrs touch. I would aim for your burrs to be touching when you set the outside grinder setting dial somewhere between "Fine" and "3". Make a note of this number, and remember not to go down that far during normal use.

To make this very explicit, if you don't follow the process above and jump from an internal setting of 6 straight to a much lower number (e.g. 1 or 2), you won't know at what outside number your burrs will touch, and you risk damaging the grinder by trying to grind too fine.

Stepless grinder mod

If you're frustrated with the large steps between grinder settings, you might consider doing the stepless mod - this just removes the spring and peg that keep the grinder wheel in place at each numbered setting. You'll need to hold the grinder setting dial while grinding, so that it doesn't move by itself. Or you could just set the grinder setting between the numbers, and hold the dial while grinding to ensure it doesn't move.

OPV mod

If you're frustrated by the high pressure of the Barista Express, and the pressure gauge is always maxed out (even when you do get a good shot), then you might consider doing the OPV mod. The pressure on (perhaps only some?) Barista Express machines seems overly high (especially when compared to Breville - How to check pressure on the BES870, Barista Express - Breville Product Guide), so the OPV mod will reduce the brewing pressure. It's relatively straightforward, but requires you to open up your machine (unplug it first), which will void your warranty.

The OPV (over pressure valve) is used to regulate pressure out of the pump, and into the machine. Adjusting the OPV counter-clockwise will reduce the pressure at which water will pass through, and therefore reduce water pressure into the brewing components of your machine. Unscrew the OPV too much and it'll pop out and leak water inside the machine, so be careful. Figure out how many turns you have until the OPV becomes lose, and don't get too close to this point. Perhaps start with a half turn, secure everything again, and test it for a few days. Repeat if needed. Some links to get you started:

Decreasing the pressure delivered to the brewing components of the machine means that more water will pass through the over pressure valve into the drip tray. With that in mind, one side-effect of the OPV mod is that it will decrease the volume of espresso produced using the default single and double shot button settings - the flow meter controlling the volumetrics is located before the pump and only registers water flowing into the pump, not where that water goes afterwards. Although the machine is delivering the same volume of water into the machine, a larger percentage of that water will now be flowing through the OPV and into the drip tray. If you find this happens (your shots will stop early), you'll need to re-program the buttons, or use manual mode.

Is the OPV mod easy to do? Yes, it's 10 screws to get the casing off, and adjusting the OPV is straightforward. Does it help? On my machine, the brewing pressure decreased a little. The pressure gauge registered at just over 12 o'clock with an empty pressurized basket (previously 1-2 o'clock), and 2 o'clock when backflushing (previously the end of the scale). Would I recommend it? If your machine is out of warranty and you're not scared of opening the machine up, then sure, it's worth a try. I reverted mine as it didn't make enough of a difference, and I couldn't adjust it further as there wasn't enough thread to keep the valve in place.

My initial attempt at the OPV mod did reduce the brewing pressure slightly (see above), but further adjustments didn't seem to change anything, so I reverted the change. This was fine for a while, but I went through a couple of weeks where my shots were awful - every shot channelled and the needle on the pressure gauge was always hitting the end of the scale. I tried a few things (backflushing, cleaning, etc) but nothing helped. I then ran some shots without the drip tray in place, and saw only a tiny amount of water coming out of the pipe at the back of the drip tray. It seemed like the OPV valve was stuck, so I re-opened the machine and took a look. When you unscrew the valve and pull it out, there's a small spring. On the end of this spring should be a small rubber plug. You can see it in this photo. Mine was stuck inside the tubing - sideways, preventing the OPV from opening/closing properly. I don't remember seeing this plug before, and I imagine it's come loose from not being seated properly. I dug it out with a small screwdriver, reseated it onto the spring, and reinserted the OPV. My Barista Express now runs in the middle of the espresso zone, even when backflushing. πŸŽ‰


Shot after OPV mod
Pressure gauge after OPV mod
Shot after OPV mod

The only outstanding question I have with the OPV mod is whether it affects the brewing temperature. The Barista Express heats water on demand via a thermocoil, and the speed of the water flowing through the coil determines the temperature of the water leaving the coil (slower = hotter; faster = cooler). Although I've had some fantastic espresso after the OPV mod, I don't seem to get as much acidity and fruity (especially citrus) flavours as before. This makes me wonder whether the brewing temperature has been affected by the OPV mod, and the reduction in pressure is resulting in hotter water, reducing those tasting notes.