Whenever I visit a new café, I always order the same thing: an espresso. Even if I would prefer a filter coffee or cappuccino, an espresso tells me a lot about that coffee shop. It’s a simple beverage, but notoriously hard to do well.
And more often than not, it tastes dirty.
I don’t mean ashy, sour, or astringent, though often it might be one of those things as well. There’s a very particular taste that I associate with an espresso machine that isn’t being properly cleaned throughout the shift, or even at the end of the day. It’s not a pleasant taste.
Whenever I’m consulting with a café, one of the first things I do is drop the dispersion screens on the espresso machine. Almost always, the inside is caked with coffee residue. Sometimes, I’m told by the baristas they didn’t know the dispersion screens came off.
The easiest, and cheapest way to improve your espresso across the board is to implement a regular cleaning protocol. This is above and beyond the non-negotiable habit of purging the group head between shots. Here, your greatest friends are a small spray bottle, a designated microfiber towel, espresso machine cleaner, and a brush. I recommend the following protocol.
- Frequently (every 20-30 shots) spray down the dispersion screens with the spray bottle, filled with clean water. Then wipe it down with a designated towel. This whole process can be done in about 15 seconds and should be done when ever there’s a break between orders. If your café is so busy you always have a queue of drinks, you might have to do this with drinks in the queue.
- Hourly, drop the dispersion screens (I recommend keeping them finger tight so you don’t always need a screwdriver) and wipe them down with the designated towel. This is a great opportunity to pop out the baskets and wipe out the inside of the portafilter.
- At shift change (or around mid day), drop screens and backflush each group with a sealed portafilter. Don’t use cleaner for this backflush.
- At close, put screens, baskets and portafilters in a hot water bath with generous amounts of espresso machine cleaner. Let soak for at least five minutes while you backflush each group with a small amount of espresso machine cleaner. Be sure to rinse thoroughly.
It might seem like overkill, but it’s a simple way to ensure you’re serving your customers the best product you can. Whether you prefer light, bright coffees or a classic Italian-style blend, every espresso tastes better on a properly maintained machine.