Home Espresso Hacks: Puck Screens, Naked Portafilters, and Other Tricks
There are few methods of brewing coffee that drive such passionate debate as espresso. Although by no means the most historic (or even caffeinated) way to drink coffee, it is considered an art form by many - the pinnacle of coffee drinking and the brew method by which most coffees should be judged.
Do we agree with this? Well, kind of - it is undoubtedly an enjoyable challenge to achieve the perfect extraction, but we are firm believers that the best cup of coffee is the one you like the most. Whether that’s made using a cafetiere, aeropress, V60, Nespresso machine, or any other way is up to you, as long as you love how it tastes!
There are lots of aftermarket products that you can use to try and get the most from your home espresso machine, some more effective than others. But first, let’s lay the groundwork for pulling a great shot.
Every machine has its quirks, but they all fundamentally do the same job: push hot water through a compacted bed of ground coffee, with around nine bars of pressure.
Let’s start with the most basic things you can do to improve your home espresso set up:
- Use a grinder specifically designed to grind espresso coffee with burrs rather than blades, such as the Sage Smart Grinder Pro.
- Only use filtered water (a BRITA type filter is great for this).
- Have a set of scales handy that is small enough to fit under the cup during extraction.
- Follow a recipe - a precise weight of dry grounds, plus a precise weight of hot water passing through the grounds for a precise time. Check out our suggested espresso recipe here, and when experimenting don't forget to only change one variable at once.
- Choose a high quality suitable coffee, such as our Brazil Signature Epresso or Ethiopia Nano Challa.
Now we’ve got the basics right, what other tricks and gadgets exist to maximise your home espresso flavour? Let’s go through the options in the order they appear in the process:
Tampers and Distributors
Taking this obsession with perfect pucks to the nth degree, coffee distributors such as the OCD claim to eliminate inconsistencies and clumps of ground coffee - giving you a channel-free bed every time.
To learn more about achieving the perfect tamp without additional equipment, check out our article Getting Your Tamp Right.
Although they may look uniform to the naked eye, stock baskets (the metal cup into which you put the ground coffee) are usually anything but.
With even the most evenly tamped coffee possible, water under pressure will always find the easiest way down. If the holes on the bottom of your basket are slightly different sizes, your water will gravitate towards the larger ones and cause an uneven extraction.
Precision basket makers such as VST were born out of this realisation, attempting to address this problem by matching variance to +/- 5% of total square area. In contrast, standard filters typically report variance of 50-200%!
It is also possible to purchase precision shower screens, which aim to address the same issues as heated water leaves the machine.
A controversial topic among espresso enthusiasts, puck screens are placed on top of the already-tamped coffee. In our opinion, they are a cheap and effective method of distributing water evenly across dry coffee grounds - reducing the chance of channelling.
A secondary benefit of puck screens is their ability to seemingly ‘deflect’ the initial rush of water from the boiler that often plagues cheaper espresso machines. This slowing of the extraction rate is a useful tool for those interested in experimenting with lighter roasts (such as our El Salvador El Cipres), which can require grind settings too fine for home models. The slower the water runs through the puck the longer extraction will take, meaning you can use a more coarse grind for the same coffee.
While unlikely to directly improve the flavour of your espresso, naked portafilters are a great way to diagnose extraction issues.
A good extraction should be completely even across the bottom of the basket (as in the picture). If it looks like one patch of the basket is not yielding any coffee (or coffee is flowing in two or more separate drips), this suggests there’s something wrong with the distribution of the coffee.
In the wine industry, the shape and size of your glass when tasting is considered of crucial importance. Coffee is fast catching up, with new companies such as Kruve designing specific glassware for both filter and espresso drinking.
Fancy Cups and Latte Art
OK, these last two suggestions are more for the feel-good factor than improving the taste of your coffee. But who doesn’t like having the kit to impress your mates or dinner party guests!
There once was a time (around 2012, to be precise) when the style of cups perched atop a cafe’s espresso machine told you everything you needed to know about the type of coffee you were going to get.
Colossal cappuccino cups and tall glasses with handles? Classic Italian dark roast. Just mugs? Probably instant coffee from a greasy spoon.
But those petite pastel-coloured cappuccino cups with matching saucers (and, admittedly, tattoos and/or a large beard on the barista)? That was a sure sign speciality grade coffee would be on the menu.
Of course, we’re purposefully stereotyping here. But thanks to the rise in popularity of high-end home espresso and ‘pro-sumer’ machines, iconic third wave tableware from brands such as ACME and Genware is now easy to find online in non-wholesale volumes.
Good latte art can be the icing on the cake - very satisfying when it goes right, and oh-so frustrating when it goes wrong! As with any fine motor skill, try not to run before you can walk and aim for consistency in milk frothing before you concentrate too much on your patterns. We love the book Coffee Art: Creative Coffee Designs for the Home Barista by five-time UK Latte Art Champion Dhan Tamang - he breaks the process down into easy to digest stages, and his passion is clear to see with the incredible designs he produces.
At Chimney Fire Coffee we are always happy to answer any questions you may have about home brewing, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us if you think we can help. We also love seeing our supporters’ set ups and home latte art efforts, so keep sending those pictures and videos to our social media!