11 Common Espresso Problems and How to Fix Them

cup of espresso

When it comes to making the perfect espresso, you can use all the best equipment and still have problems. Unfortunately, this means that the espresso you thought would brighten up your day might not be quite as pleasant from the start. 

Common espresso problems include no or bubbly Crema production, espresso that is too weak, strong, sour, bitter, or lacks flavor, unevenly flowing water, the first espresso used is bad, a clogged Portafilter, or the espresso machine is dirty.

Fortunately, these issues are not unresolvable, and many of them have pretty simple solutions. With this knowledge, you can be the next at-home barista who is set to produce the ultimate shot using delicious grounds, keen equipment, and ideal settings for your morning espresso. Let’s take a closer look at the 11 most common espresso problems and how to fix them.

1. No Crema Production

If for some reason, you are doing everything the same way you normally do when attempting to make the perfect espresso, but there’s no Crema, then you will not find a delicious resulting brew. No Crema production is most likely due to stale beans that were roasted more than 21 days earlier. Grinds that are not used immediately will start to dissipate in flavor and can also result in no Crema for your espresso.

However, if you know for certain that your beans are freshly roasted, they could actually be degassing (the scientific process by which the beans result in what you will soon use for your espresso. This could also be the cause of no Crema.

Solution

If you are noticing that no Crema is being produced with your espresso, be sure to check the expiration dates on the coffee packaging that you are using. Coffee beans should be brewed within 21 days from their roasting date. 

In addition to this, don’t grind the beans more than 15 minutes before you plan to brew them. Grinding the beans ahead of time will release the delicate flavor and compact components that make up your delicious soon-to-be cup of espresso.

Buying pre-ground beans will also cause a weaker tasting coffee minute-by-minute due to the same concept, so it is best to use whole beans and grind immediately before brewing your espresso when possible. Espresso shots need extremely fresh coffee to get decent results, more so than other coffee making methods.

On another note, if you are growing and preparing your own espresso beans, and the beans have been roasted less than 48 hours ago, they need some time to degas and settle before brewing. Otherwise, you may find that this is another reason for no Crema production. If this is the case, then give the beans a little longer to complete the degassing process.

2. The Crema Is Bubbly And Quickly Disappears

If you are getting some Crema in minimal to moderate portions (but not what you are used to seeing), or if the Crema is dissolving quickly, your espresso beans are likely too freshly roasted. This is incredibly possible when preparing your own coffee (espresso) beans at home. The beans need 2 to 3 days to degas after being roasted, or you will find little to no Crema for your espresso.

Solution

If the espresso beans that you are attempting to use have been roasted less than 48 hours ago, then you will need to wait a little longer before beginning to use them in your machine. Wait for 2 to 3 days after the roasting date for the beans to completely degas before grinding them for espresso. Then, once the beans have degassed, you may begin your roast.

3. A Weak Espresso

Of course, stale coffee will result in weak coffee, but there are some other likely causes for a weak espresso as well. If you have not evenly distributed the grounds and tamped them down properly, you might have channeling in the grounds which leads to weak, bitter-tasting espresso. This is not the way that you want to start your day.

If you notice that the espresso is weak, this is likely because the water did not make contact with the coffee (grinds) for long enough. Alternatively, if your espresso is weak and bitter, it is possible that it over-extracted flavor from the little coffee that the water did come into contact with.

Solution

If you are experiencing a weak espresso (something that nobody wants to see happen again), then you will want to ensure a proper setup of your espresso grounds and machine before you attempt a new brew. To do this, be sure to evenly distribute the grounds in a portafilter before tamping them. Then, you will also want to tap the side of the basket to get the grinds to fall in place. Once secure, you can attempt to brew a stronger espresso for your next cup.

4. Too Strong

On the other hand, if you are noticing that your espresso is too strong (for example, if it is making you jittery within moments of drinking it, or you begin to feel even more anxious than you otherwise might), then this may be a sign that your espresso needs to be turned down a notch. Fortunately, this is usually caused by loading up too many grinds- an easy solution for next time.

Solution

If you have accidentally made your espresso too strong, and you suspect it is because you overloaded your grinds, then you will need to find a more consistent measuring system for your process. One way that you can do this is to weigh your grinds every time you load them into the basket to make sure you are consistently adding the right amount. This little step can go a long way to ensure a delicious espresso every time.

5. The Espresso Lacks Flavor

Unfortunately, if your coffee beans are stale, there’s nothing you can do to produce a flavorsome espresso. Coffee beans usually go stale and lose flavor after around 21 days from when they were roasted. Coffee that has been specially packaged can last longer while sealed but will also go stale after around 21 days of being opened.

Even further, fresh coffee beans used for espresso will begin to lose their flavor within 15 minutes of being ground. This means that if you grind your espresso beans and do not use them or properly store them, you could find a flavorless (or simply gross) espresso as a result.

Solution

If you just brewed your espresso and found that it lacked flavor, you may want to check the expiration date on your beans. Otherwise, you can also assume that if you are not storing the beans correctly, then they will likely not taste as they were intended. Use all the coffee beans in a container within 21 days of opening it. Finally, don’t buy pre-ground beans in bulk unless you plan to make bulk espresso soon after opening the package.

6. Water Isn’t Flowing Evenly Through Grinds

Another common espresso problem is that water is not flowing evenly through the grinds as it passes through the machine. The problem occurs when we insert the coffee grounds into the portafilter and tamp them down without first evenly dispersing them throughout the puck.

Solution

After inserting the grinds into the portafilter, give it a gentle tap on the side so that the grinds even out in the puck. You can gently tap the filter on a countertop if that works better for you. You can even out the grinds with your fingertip without pushing down on them. 

When you tamp the grinds down, make sure that the tamping handle is pointed directly upward to confirm a level coffee bed. Then, the water will have a better chance of flowing evenly throughout and creating a perfect espresso.

7. The Espresso Is Bitter

Another frustrating problem with espresso in terms of flavor is that it can become bitter. This is most typically due to stale coffee being used or if the shot of espresso takes too long to pull. The best espresso shots take between 20 and 30 seconds to pull. If you are waiting over 30 seconds, you will probably end up with a bitter brew. High brewing temperatures can also cause bitter coffee.

Solution

To avoid bitter espresso, make sure your beans have been roasted less than 21 days ago (and have degassed for at least 2 days prior to use). Next, grind the beans slightly more coarsely to allow the water to flow through quicker. Finally, you can check the machine to make sure it’s set between 195-205°F to ensure proper brewing temperatures are being used to avoid bitter espresso.

8. The Espresso Is Sour

In the same way that overly fresh beans can cause the dissipation of Crema, it can also lead to a sour espresso. This will have a different aftertaste than bitter espresso as sour espresso will hit you once you first take a sip and will continue to linger for a while.

One of the main reasons that this happens is that the beans need a couple of days to degas and settle down before brewing. If the beans have not had a chance to complete this process, the resulting espresso will likely be sour. Additionally, the brewing temperature might also be slightly low if the coffee is continuing to come out sour.

Solution

To avoid sour espresso, store freshly roasted beans in a cool dark area for 2 to 3 days before brewing an espresso. You will also want to double-check your brewing temps and make sure the machine is warm before starting the process. Again, keep the temperature between 195-205°F to ensure a delicious shot.

9. The First Espresso Is Bad

No matter where you live, the espresso machine that you will be using to brew your cup will be extremely cold when you first begin to use it. This causes the water flowing through the machine to cool down quickly and results in a lower than optimal brew temperature. Consequently, if you begin to use the espresso machine before it has had a chance to heat up, you will find a bad cup (or bad cups) of espresso as a result.

Solution

To avoid a bad first espresso of the day, start and let the brew cycle run adding no coffee grounds. This will warm the machine up and ensure the brew temperature is correct (between 195 and 205°F). Then, load up your grinds and start the actual brew. This will ensure that enough hot water has passed through to avoid the consequences of a cold espresso machine.

10. The Portafilter Clogs Up With Dark Coffee

Dark roast coffee has more oils and other solubles in it. When you grind dark roast coffee too finely, it will clog up the portafilter. If you do manage to pull the shot through, it will come out far too strong and bitter in my experience.

Solution

To avoid clogging the portafilter with dark coffee, grind dark roast coffee more coarse than light roast coffee to account for the extra oils it contains. The water will flow through the coarsely ground dark coffee without clogging the filter, and because dark roast coffee is so strong, it will still extract all the flavor you are looking for without clogging up the filter.

11. The Espresso Machine is Dirty

A dirty espresso machine will lead to scaling and also reduce the brewing pressure. This can cause the coffee to come out weak and may even have an odd taste. If you have not properly cleaned your espresso machine (or have used products like vinegar without thoroughly ensuring that the flavor has been extracted), you will surely see the consequences of your resulting espresso brew.

Interestingly, while vinegar is a common cleaning ingredient for coffee machines, it can also create strange tastes that linger, and it can even damage some machines. For example, it can damage the pipes inside Nespresso machines, so you will want to read reviews specific to your machine before trying this out.

Solution

As an alternative to cleaning your espresso with vinegar, you can use a descaling solution like this one on Amazon. This will eliminate limescale and other hard water mineral deposits. It won’t leave a pungent odor in the machine and it won’t damage the internals like vinegar can. You should clean your machine with this solution at least once every three to four months. Cleaning your machine regularly will also extend its life span for continued delicious brews.

How To Make The Perfect Espresso Step By Step

Now that we have talked about common espresso problems, I wanted to share with you an easy process for avoiding the common mishaps listed above. 

To achieve the perfect espresso, consider taking the following steps:

  1. Hot flush the machine by running it through a brew cycle without coffee. (This is especially true if it’s the first brew of the day.)
  2. Grind 14 to 20 grams of coffee beans depending on the size of the basket.
  3. Insert the grinds into the portafilter.
  4. Even out the grinds by tapping the side of the portafilter.
  5. Once the grinds are evened out, tamp the grinds down.
  6. Make sure the tamping created a flat coffee bed and not a sloped one.
  7. Attach the portafilter to the machine and start the brew.

Sounds simple enough but if it were, there wouldn’t be a list of 11 problems and solutions above.

The Takeaway

Making a great espresso is all about consistency. You need to use fresh beans every time and brew them straight after grinding. Use the right amount of coffee for your machine. Perform regular descaling clean-ups to keep the clean taste and avoid loss in pressure.

Don’t treat dark and light coffee the same. Dark coffee will almost always require a coarser grind because it has more oils and solubles compared to light.

If you follow all the advice in this article, you will be able to make a perfect espresso every time.

Tim S.

Tim loves roasting, brewing, and experimenting with coffee. After years of perfecting this craft, working as a barista, and owning a small coffee service in college, he has decided to share his knowledge with the world.

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