How to Pull Espresso Shots

Grind beans and pull shots like a pro at home

Espresso shot pouring out.
Guido Mieth / Getty Images

Every espresso machine is different and there's quite a bit of controversy over the "best" way to pull a shot. However, there are some basics that can help you sharpen your espresso-pulling skills and pull great shots. From why fresh-ground beans are a must to what "mouse tails" are and why you should watch them, these step-by-step instructions cover all the basics of pulling espresso.

  • 01 of 09

    How to Pull Espresso Shots

    An image of espresso beans being ground in a coffee grinder.
    The Spruce / Lindsey Goodwin

    Shots begin with whole beans. It is imperative that you begin with whole beans because the volatile oils (which give coffee its incredible range and depth of flavor) begin to dissipate off of the coffee as soon as it is ground. In fact, the effect of lost oils is so pronounced on espresso's flavor that it's important to pull as shot as soon as possible after you have ground the beans and it is almost always recommended that you grind for each and every individual shot you pull.
    Conical burr grinders are the best way to grind espresso because they produce the fullest flavor. (Here's more information on blade grinder vs. burr grinders.) Grinders generally come with recommended grind settings (for coarser or finer grounds), but these must be changed throughout the day to account for a multitude of ever-changing factors, such as bean variations, temperature, and humidity. Also, generally speaking, grinds should be slightly finer for manual or automatic espresso makers than they should be for stovetop espresso makers/moka pots or pumpless electric espresso makers. Ultimately, most baristas agree that the best grind size is the one that results in a shot that pulls in 23 to 29 seconds and tastes great.
    To grind coffee beans for espresso, fill the hopper and activate the grinder for about 15 to 20 seconds. Many grinders require that a lever ("doser") be pulled forward repeatedly as the coffee is ground. This action dispenses the ground coffee into the portafilter.
    If later, you find your shots are extracting too quickly, the first thing to try to adjust is the grind size. Make it smaller. Similarly, if a shot is taking too long to extract, try making the grind size slightly larger.

    Continue to 2 of 9 below.
  • 02 of 09

    Dose the Coffee

    An American/Australia-style updose for a double ristretto shot.
    The Spruce / Lindsey Goodwin

    Dosing the coffee is simply transferring the coffee from the grinder to the appropriate size basket for the type of shot you're pulling (ristretto, lungo, doppio, etc.). However, it is a controversial topic.
    Traditional Italian methods dictate that a basket should be filled, but not overflowing. So-called "Third Wave" American and Australian techniques include something called "updosing," which basically means slightly mounding the coffee over the top of the basket as you dose it. Whereas a 14-gram basket would hold approximately 14 grams of grounds with the Italian method, it would hold around 18 to 20 grams with the newer American/Australian method (though the specifics are also controversial, and some use more or less than that).
    For the purposes of learning to pull a good shot in the U.S., simply dose the coffee into the portafilter basket until it is slightly mounded, as pictured. Then, proceed to the following steps.
    Once you have dosed the shot, it's important to try to make the shot as quickly as possible. For espresso, lost time is lost flavor.

    Continue to 3 of 9 below.
  • 03 of 09

    Settle the Grounds

    An image of a barista setting espresso grounds in a portafilter brewing basket.
    The Spruce / Lindsey Goodwin

    After you have dosed your coffee, you're ready to settle the grounds. Each person does this a little differently (and that's part of the fun!), but it's important that you keep your method of settling the grounds consistent for optimal quality and fewer wasted shots.​ Generally, people will firmly tap the portafilter against a hard surface about two times. Don't try to chip any countertops, but remember that the goal is to settle the grounds into the basket. It should be a firm tap!

    Continue to 4 of 9 below.
  • 04 of 09

    Clear the Espresso Grounds

    An image of a barista clearing updosed espresso grounds before tamping.
    The Spruce / Lindsey Goodwin

    Clearing excess grounds is essential for "updosed" shots. To clear the grounds, just level them off with your finger. (Some say you should use your pinkie finger.) Don't use any downward pressure. Simply run your finger over the top of the basket and use your fingertip to wipe away any remaining grounds on the rim of the portafilter.

    Continue to 5 of 9 below.
  • 05 of 09

    Tamp the Grounds

    An image of a barista clearing updosed espresso grounds before tamping.
    The Spruce / Lindsey Goodwin

    Tamping is an art form for many baristas, but it if often undervalued by novices. Tamping compresses the grounds to encourage the pressurized water to flow through the espresso properly when the shot is pulled. Good tamping is imperative for full flavor and proper brew time.

    Here's how to tamp the grounds:

    1. First, place the portafilter so its base is on a flat, stable surface.
    2. Hold the tamper firmly in one hand and the portafilter's handle firmly in the other.
    3. Place the tamper on top of the grounds so it's parallel to their surface (not angled).
    4. Now, you're ready to tamp. Press downward with 30 to 40 pounds of pressure. You can use a scale to get an idea of how much pressure this is. Some advocate tamping harder for stovetop espresso makers and pumpless automatic espresso makers.
    5. Release the pressure, and then tamp again.

    At this point, some people finish tamping with a twist (before fully releasing the pressure a second time) or a tap to the side of the portafilter (after releasing the pressure). As much as these techniques add flair to the ritual of pulling shots, most experts do not recommend them as they hold more potential for harm (unsettling the grounds) than good (looking cool). Ideally, settling the grounds, clearing the grounds and tamping the grounds should take under 30 seconds. It will take some practice for you to be able to do this quickly, but the payoff is fantastic full-flavored espresso.

    Continue to 6 of 9 below.
  • 06 of 09

    Lock the Portafilter Into the Group Head

    A barista firmly locking the portafilter into the group head.
    The Spruce / Lindsey Goodwin

    Once you're shot is tamped, you're ready to connect the portafilter to the group head. The portafilter has two flanges that slip upward into the group head and then lock it in place when the portafilter is rotated. Some group heads begin the locking process with the portafilter to the left, but most begin with it to the right. Either way, insert the flanges and rotate the portafilter firmly (without slamming it) into the locked position.
    A note on preparing espresso machines for shots: Most espresso machines require that a few practice shots be pulled to warm up the machinery or for hot water to be run through the group head to stabilize its temperature. This can be a good opportunity to practice your pulling, adjust your grind size and get yourself "warmed up," too. However, if you opt to use hot water to stabilize the temperature of the group head, do so before you lock the portafilter into position.

    Continue to 7 of 9 below.
  • 07 of 09

    Pull the Shot

    An image of a barista timing an espresso shot with a digital stopwatch.
    The Spruce / Lindsey Goodwin

    Place a demitasse cup under the group head and you're ready to pull your shot! Engage the water pressure (most machines have a lever, switch or button that does this) and the espresso machine will send pressurized water into the grounds. When you engage the pressure, start a timer or stopwatch. This will help you with the next step: observing the extraction.

    Continue to 8 of 9 below.
  • 08 of 09

    Observe the Extraction

    An image of a slightly blonde mouse tails.
    The Spruce / Lindsey Goodwin

    Simply pulling the shot is, quite frankly, not good enough. Observing the shot will tell you what you can do better next time and give you a hint as to whether or not the shot is even drinkable. Here's what to watch for:

    • Mouse tails–Also known as "tails," mouse tails are the two streams of espresso that pour from the portafilter as the shot is extracted. Although they may start of drippy, they should even out into a smooth stream a few seconds after extraction begins.
    • Color–The ideal shot is deep brown, not black or "blonde" (tan or somewhat clear). Very generally speaking, a black shot is pulling too slow and may taste herbal or similar to cocktail bitters. Likewise, a blonde shot may indicative of a shot that's extracted too quickly and may taste sharp.
      Many shots look more slightly blonde toward the end of extraction. While this is not necessarily a cause for concern, some baristas choose to manually stop the extraction when a shot's color lightens.
    • Time–Extraction should take around 23 to 29 seconds. However, the ideal extraction time is controversial. Many baristas argue that 29 seconds is good, and some have even wider tolerances their time ranges. Using a timer or stopwatch will help ensure that your shots are pulled within your range of acceptable extraction times and will help standardize your shot-pulling procedure.

    Observing the extraction can tell you a lot about the shot. If it's too dark or slow, the first thing to adjust is your grind size. Make it larger. If it's too blonde or fast, make the grind finer. While grind size is the most common variable used to correct these issues, other potential issues include water temperature fluctuation and incorrect tamping. Standardizing your tamping and water temperature will help you consistently pull great shots.

    Continue to 9 of 9 below.
  • 09 of 09

    Prepare for the Next Shot

    An image of a barista knocking the puck from the portafilter into the knock box.
    The Spruce / Lindsey Goodwin

    Congrats! You've pulled a shot. Although your shot is done, there are a few steps to take before you're ready to pull a new one:

    1. Remove the portafilter by unlocking it.
    2. Flip the portafilter so the basket is facing down over the basket is facing downward over the knock box.
    3. Knock the portafilter against the padded bar that runs through the center of the knock box. The puck should come out. If not, knock it again.
    4. Wipe the portafilter and basket clean with a clean cloth and return it to the group head. This pre-warms it for the next shot.

    Now you're ready to adjust your grind size or tamping style (if necessary) and try your hand at another shot! You can also add milk to make espresso drinks like Caffe Lattes, Cappuccinos, Flat Whites and Espresso Macchiatos.