If you’ve spent time in a specialty coffee shop, chances are you’ve overheard a barista using the term “dialling in”. In simple terms, this refers to the process of balancing dose, grind, output weight, and extraction time to achieve a delicious tasting coffee. In this article, I will focus on the dialling in process that, in our coffee shop, we use for espresso, and how altering the input and output variables can dramatically affect the taste and mouth feel.
Equipment Standards and Settings
Espresso extraction involves forcing hot water through a finely ground coffee puck to produce a viscous, intensely flavoured drink. A number of factors influence the taste of the espresso itself, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll assume a few constants: pump pressure at 6.5 bar, 15 gram VST baskets, and water temperature set to 93 degrees celsius at the group head. These are what we use and, although it’s slightly different from industry norms (many coffee shops use larger baskets and run higher pump pressures), they remain the same for every espresso we brew and produce excellent results on our equipment.
Dose and Grind
The first stage of dialling in is to adjust the grind. I generally start with the setting used for the previous beans, unless there is a vast difference in their respective roast profiles. I also use a specific starting dose of 16 grams and a 50% brew ratio initially (this is the weight of the dose as a proportion of the espresso itself, so 50% with a 16g dose would yield a 32g espresso).
Weighing your shots when dialling in is a must.
I’ll pull a shot using this recipe, and, if it’s within my target time range (usually 28-35 seconds), taste it. If the extraction is too slow or too quick I’ll throw away the shot and adjust the grind until it hits my time parameters.
This, however, is just a starting point, and I’ll adjust dose, grind, output weight and extraction time from there in order to optimise the espresso. Before we look at how this is done, it’s worthwhile considering what we mean by extraction yield and the related terms, “over extraction” and “under extraction”.
Extraction and Taste
Extraction yield refers to the percentage by mass of the coffee grounds that are dissolved in the espresso. So, if you started with a 20g dose, made an espresso, then found the used grounds, after all retained moisture had been removed, weighed 16g, your extraction yield would be 20% (20g minus 16g equals 4g, which is 20% of the input dose of 20g).
Over extraction and under extraction are terms that refer to extraction yields that fall outside of general taste preferences and, consequently, are not absolutes. Many studies have found that people have a preference for coffees that have extraction yields in the 18-22% range. However, it has recently become increasingly common for specialty coffee shops to extract at higher yields—up to 25%—so it’s important to remember that these aren’t set in stone.
In relation to dialling in, I’ll be looking to find the optimum extraction yield for a given coffee, and, again, there are no absolutes here; some espressos taste their best at 19%, others at 23%. The important point is to recognise when the optimum extraction has been achieved.
Specialty coffee is usually roasted fairly light which, due to the lower solubility of the beans, makes it harder to extract than traditional dark espresso roasts. Shots pulled early in the dialling in process with light roast coffees, then, are more often under extracted than over-extracted. This typically reveals itself in an overpowering acidity and astringency. Sweetness, also, will often, be absent. We can counter this in a number of ways, but the primary one is to grind a little finer. This increases the surface area of the grinds and raises the extraction yield. We can also reduce the dose slightly—by 0.5g, perhaps—which provides the water with a lower workload, and, again, increases extraction. The brew ratio, at this point, needs to remain the same, so if we drop from 16g to 15.5g, we need to decrease the output slightly, from 32g to 31g, to compensate.
Over extraction is revealed as an ashy, smoky flavour that goes hand in hand with a lack of any lingering finish of the espresso in the mouth. When these flavours become apparent, we need to drop the grind back a touch coarser until they disappear.
Consistency and practice is the only way.
At this point, I will start to adjust my brew ratio slightly. Higher brew ratios produce more viscous espresso, usually with lower extraction yields. Lower brew ratios extract more from the beans, but have a less prominent mouth feel. I favour the latter, as the higher extraction yields produce more complexity, especially through the interplay of the hard-to-extract burnt distillates and the more easily extracted fruit acids.
I’ll always try a lower brew ratio than my starting point of 50% but, as this increases extraction, I will usually adjust the grind slightly coarser. This means the extraction time is moderately shorter and I can ensure that I don’t over extract. Usually, I will go no lower than 40% (for example, a 16g input to produce a 40g espresso), as beyond this point the espresso becomes a little too thin for my tastes.
There are occasions when I will increase the brew ratio to above 50%, but this only really happens when the beans are darker than I would like. Darker roasts increase the solubility of the beans, making them easier to extract, but, beyond a certain roast profile, they overpower the more delicate, complex flavours, meaning they often taste best when pulled quite short.
At the end of this process, we have an espresso that, hopefully, tastes complex, sweet, and well-balanced. Unfortunately, though, this is not the end; as the grinder temperature changes throughout the day, the flow rate of the espresso alters, meaning that adjustments need to be made to the grind fineness to keep the brew consistent. The reason for this is not, as commonly thought, the burrs moving as they become hotter and colder, but is related to the grind distribution changing at different temperatures. This is a subject for a separate post, though!
The Three Signs of Good Espresso
Espresso is a complicated beverage, and there is no one solution that provides the perfect outcome. The machine, the mineral content of the water used, and the grinder all influence its taste, and what works in one environment may not translate well to another. However, if you keep in mind the trio of balance, complexity, and sweetness when dialling in, you shouldn’t go too wrong.
Written by J. Prestidge and edited by T.A.Jay
Perfect Daily Grind.