Dialing In

Order of Operations: the Art of Dialing in Espresso

Recipes are important, especially when you’re dealing with a coffee you’ve never had before. But it’s equally important to know how to adjust your recipe to bring out the best side of that new bag of coffee you’ve just bought. This act of adjusting the coffee recipe is often called “dialing in,” and it’s a crucial part of every barista’s job. For me it’s honestly one of the more rewarding parts of making coffee at home.

Now, some of you have probably brewed coffee for long enough that you have some kind of intuition regarding how to improve the recipe, but maybe you don’t know exactly why. And some of you might have no idea what adjustment(s) to make at all. This post will break down my thought process when approaching a new coffee, hopefully helping shed some light on what can easily seem like a complete mystery.

First off, if you haven’t read my blog on tasting coffee , you should give it a read. It will help you when trying to diagnose any problems with a cup of coffee.

Second, it’s important to remember that “espresso” isn’t a type of bean or roast; it’s a way of brewing coffee. Some roasters might choose a roast profile that highlights certain characteristics when brewed on espresso, but many “non-espresso” beans taste very good when pulled as shots. The main difference is that espresso is brewed under high pressure. This ensures that you can achieve a good level of extraction in a very short amount of time.

Alright, let’s get to business. There are three easy changes that you can make with any manual espresso machine: grind, dose, and yield. You can make the grind coarser or finer. You can raise or lower your dose. And you can increase or decrease your yield. Note: when I say “yield,” I am referring to the final amount of espresso, whether measured by volume or weight. I’m not talking about extraction yield, which is another blog post altogether. Back to the variables. Each has an effect on the final brew, but to varying degrees, and I find it helpful to think of them visually.

Here we can better see the influence that each variable has on the final brew. Grind has the most obvious effect followed by dose, and finally yield. The very first thing I register when dialing in is, “Is this offensive?” Maybe it’s a weird choice of words, but that’s how I process it. I don’t actually think this question to myself. It’s just my first gut reaction, a simple yes or no response. Either the shot is okay, or it’s objectively bad. If the latter, I adjust the grind. If you never taste a shot that’s so off you want to spit it out, then you might not have to change your grind.

Dose can also impact a shot significantly, but it does so to a lesser extent than grind. And yield has the smallest impact. I use it for fine-tuning. Here’s a brief breakdown of what does what.

Grind: A coarser grind moves you towards less extraction, while a finer grind moves you towards more

Dose: Increasing your dose moves you towards less extraction, decreasing it leads towards more. Increasing dose also increases body, while decreasing dose decreases body.

Yield: Decreasing your yield decreases the level of extraction (and increases body), while increasing yield increases extraction (and decreases body)

Another visual:

Your whole goal, when dialing in, is moving the level of extraction along this spectrum so it lands somewhere in the middle. Of course, there are tools that people use to analyze extraction, but you don’t need all of that. You just want a tasty shot. A tasty shot lies in the middle of this spectrum. You get yourself there, and you’re golden.

It’s that simple! Sort of. With things like this, it can be very easy to think yourself into a circle, so it helps to try to keep thing as simple as you can. If you want to know more about how each variable affects the final cup, you can keep reading. Or you can take the information I’ve already given you and run with it.

A deeper dive:

Grind has the largest effect because it physically changes the size and shape of each coffee particle, which either makes it easier or harder to extract flavor from the coffee. Multiply that by however many particles there are in your dose (spoiler alert: it’s a lot), and you can make a big difference with a small adjustment.

Dose can also have a significant effect on the cup, but not as drastic as grind. If you increase your dose, but keep your yield the same, you’re making it harder to extract. The difference is that you’re making it harder to extract from the whole, not from each particle. But, what you’re also doing is providing more material from which to extract flavor. This leads to a greater percentage of total dissolved coffee solids (TDCS), which is translated to a heavier body.

Yield is mostly about dilution. Yes, increasing your yield does increase your level of extraction, but only slightly. The more noticeable effect this has is on body and concentration. I said above that I use this for fine tuning, and here’s how. If the shot seems just a touch thin, but the extraction seems balanced, I decrease the yield. If the shot seems a little compact, I’ll increase the yield. I often describe this as letting the espresso stretch its legs.

That’s about it. Like I said above, keep it simple! It will save you a lot of confusion and heartache.