Espresso Machine Maintenance: The Essentials
Espresso makers have somewhat complicated internal mechanics — and a reputation for being difficult to maintain. But don’t worry because home espresso machine maintenance is easy once you get the hang of it, and it’s inexpensive too.
This article is the third and final installment of our guide to espresso machines and covers the basics of maintenance. Here’s what you’ll learn:
Why Espresso Machine Maintenance Is Important
If you don’t service your car, a breakdown is inevitable. Espresso machine maintenance is much the same in principle. If you want the smoothest brewing experience possible, you’ll have to learn how to clean your coffee machine.
Health, hygiene, and presentation go without saying, but when it comes to espresso makers, there are three more reasons why you shouldn’t skip upkeep.
Brewing is Easier
Espresso makers use pressure, so precision is needed to pull top-notch shots. You won’t get the same results if your machine is clogged or running inefficiently. Maintaining your espresso machine guarantees accuracy; one of the most important elements in espresso making.
Your Coffee Will Taste Better
A build-up of old grounds in your machine contaminates subsequent brews. If you want your espresso to be fresh and clean-tasting every time, give your machine frequent TLC.
Your Machine Will Last Longer
Few things are as tragic as a broken coffee maker, but what really grinds my beans is brewers breaking due to neglect. The lifespan of a home espresso maker ranges from 5 to 15 years, depending on how well you care for it. Think of all the money you can save on repairs and replacements with frequent maintenance.
Espresso Machine Care: Good Practices
Before we get our hands dirty, there are a few steps you should take to minimize effort later.
Prime your machine – When you first use your machine (and every so often after that), make sure that there aren’t any pockets of air trapped in the pump. If there are, the machine can’t build enough pressure to brew properly.
Use purified water – Though it’s cheaper and readily available, tap water causes limescale that can damage your appliances — a problem that’s significantly reduced if you switch to filtered water. Purified water is the best way to ward off nasty build-up in your machine.
Keep your espresso machine clean – The last thing you want to do after making a fresh cup is chores, but keeping your machine spick and span goes a long way toward preventing damage and clogs.
Daily Espresso Machine Maintenance
The following steps take minimal effort and will keep your machine looking good and brewing well:
Discard your used coffee puck – Do this after every single shot you pull otherwise used grounds and extracted oils stick to the filter and grouphead and contaminate future shots. Empty and rinse your portafilter, then wipe it down to remove residue.
Remember your steam wand – Unless you enjoy the taste of old milk, you should clean your steam wand immediately after use. Milk dries faster than you think and will clog your frother if given the chance. Wipe your steam wand with a damp cloth, taking care to clean the rim.
Give your machine a wipe down – This isn’t as urgent as cleaning your portafilter and wand, but there’s no harm in running a cloth over your machine to keep it dust-free once a day. Wipe spills and stains up with a damp cloth.
How To Clean An Espresso Machine: Backflushing
Backflushing deep cleans the grouphead and its attached components. It’s the most effective way to keep unwanted flavors at bay as it cleans the areas most vulnerable to oil and residue build-up.
Important: You only have to backflush if your espresso machine uses a valve system. If you’re unsure check if your machine has a three-way solenoid, three-way valve, or brew pressure release (or variations of these terms). Many modern home espresso makers, with emphasis on Breville, De Longhi, and Gaggia, exclude this feature.
Commercial machines are backflushed daily, but a weekly treatment is sufficient for home espresso machines. Here’s how to backflush your espresso maker:
Step 1: Disconnect the portafilter’s basket and replace it with the blank screen (basket). In the center, you should see a slot for an espresso cleaner tablet. Place the cleaner inside.
Step 2: Place a mug, jug, or container by your machine’s spouts to catch the cleaning water.
Step 3: Reconnect your portafilter to the grouphead and lock it in place. Run water through it for 10 seconds.
Step 4: Stop the water for five seconds.
Step 5: Repeat the above steps three times.
Step 6: Turn the water on for a final rinse. While the water is running, give your portafilter a gentle shake while it’s still attached to the group head. This will displace leftover grounds and other sludge from the gasket. Rinse the portafilter and you’re done!
How To Deep Clean Valveless Espresso Machines
If your espresso machine has no valve system, you can’t deep clean it the same way. But the good news is that it’s easy to maintain valveless machines too. All you have to do is:
Step 1: Remove your portafilter and disconnect the shower screen from the group head.
Step 2: Mix some water and espresso cleaner. Apply it to a damp cloth or sponge.
Step 3: Wipe or scrub in and around the grouphead.
Step 4: Use a generous amount of clean water to rinse it until clear.
How To Clean Espresso Machine Components
Regardless of whether your machine has a valve, you’ll want to deep clean its detachable components too. For this step, prepare a solution of water and espresso cleaner and leave each component (your portafilter, shower screen, and steam wand where possible) to soak in it for 10 to 15 minutes. Then rinse well with clean water, dry, and reattach the components to your machine.
Take care to wash your reservoir and spill tray frequently. You can go all out if you’d like, but dish soap and a good rinse are generally enough. Don’t forget about your filters and grinders!
Descaling an Espresso Machine
There’s a good chance you’ve heard that descaling a coffee machine is a big deal and something you should do frequently lest your machine packs it in forever. But, what exactly is descaling, and do espresso machines really need it?
What Is Descaling?
Here’s a bit of hydrology for you: water contains minerals. Two of these minerals, calcium and magnesium, are deposited throughout your home. In your pipes, appliances, shower, faucets, and sinks. Over time, the minerals solidify and settle as chalk or limescale. Descaling removes this build-up, which unblocks your pipes and protects your appliances from damage.
Why Descale Espresso Machines?
If your espresso machine develops limescale, which it very can, just like any other appliance that uses water, a few things can happen.
- Your machine will work harder – Limescale affects the boiler’s element, so the temperature is affected too. This extends your brew time and forces your machine into overdrive. It also wastes electricity.
- Extraction is compromised – Weakened plumbing and heating lead to inadequate brewing, so your coffee may be under-extracted.
- Your machine could break down – Clogs and overexertion could cause your machine to stop working entirely.
Descaling espresso machines is the only way to stop limescale from breaking your brewer. Fortunately, it’s not labor-intensive, Here’s how to descale your espresso maker:
Though it costs a bit more, branded descaler is the best and safest way to ensure your machine stays unaffected by limescale. Most manufacturers indicate a preferred descaler, and it’s a good idea to stick to their recommendations.
- Won’t damage your machine
- Leaves no residual odors or tastes
- Manufacturer approved for safety and efficiency
- Convenient, clear instructions
- Not as accessible
- Costs extra
How to Use Descaling Solution
Some home espresso machines have a built-in descale function that does all the work for you. This is a matter of your specific model’s mechanics, but if you’d like an example, check out our piece on the Breville Barista.
Generally speaking, automatic descaling only requires you to add a descaling solution to your machine and hit a few buttons to turn on your machine’s cleaning cycle. Check your user manual to find out how to do this.
If it’s not automatic, follow the instructions provided with the chemical descaler. Typically, you have to add the descaler (to your portafilter if it’s a tablet, or to your reservoir if it’s liquid), and then run a brew cycle — minus the coffee of course!
Make sure you run a rinse cycle when you’re done. There’s no trick to it. Simply “brew” clean water. You can do this a couple of times for reassurance.
Important: As with backflushing, have a mug or container in place to catch what’s flushed out of your machine.
Acidic substances cut through and dissolve limescale. If you don’t have a commercial descaler at home, you can take the DIY road with household products. Vinegar, lemon juice, and citric acid are the descaling weapons of choice, but there are some considerations:
- Easy to get your hands on
- Affordable; perfect for those on a budget
- Non-toxic and safer to use than chemical descalers
- Known to leave unpleasant odors and tastes
- Not recommended by manufacturers
- Won’t descale as effectively as commercial products
How To Use Homemade Descaler
Homemade descalers are often pushed as a money-saving solution (get it?) to your maintenance problems. However, it’s not as straightforward as it’s made out to be.
While they do work, they don’t work as well as specialized products and, more importantly, they will taint your coffee with undesirable flavor profiles. It’s rare, but you also run the risk of damaging or blocking your machine, especially if you’re using citric acid.
That said, there are a ton of DIY success stories out there, so it can be done. If you insist (proceed with caution), here’s how to clean espresso machines with vinegar, or other household products:
For vinegar: Use distilled, plain white vinegar. Many DIYers claim that a 3:1 vinegar-water ratio does the trick. However, descaling espresso machines with vinegar may be harsh on your machine, so you can stick to a 1:1 ratio if you’d rather be safe than sorry.
For citric acid: You’ll have to heavily dilute your citric acid. Most brewers recommend adding one tablespoon of citric acid per gallon of warm water. Mix your citric acid until it dissolves.
For lemon juice: A good starting point is mixing a solution that’s one-third lemon juice and two-thirds water. You can also try mixing equal parts. Use pure, unsweetened lemon juice.
How To Descale With a DIY Solution
Step 1: Fill your reservoir with the homemade solution.
Step 2: Run a brew cycle. Your solution will pull through your espresso machine, descaling it as it goes.
Step 3: Don’t forget to engage and descale your steam wand, if you have one.
Step 4: Once your descaling cycle has run dry, rinse your reservoir well. Fill it with plain, clean water this time and run another brew cycle to rinse out your machine. You may want to repeat this step a couple of times for good measure.
Step 5: If you notice that the water you used to rinse your machine is flushing out with an odor, color, or otherwise cloudy or foamy texture, repeat the entire descaling process from scratch.
Tip: You can use baking soda to remove the odors acidic descalers leave behind. Here’s how to clean espresso machines with baking soda: Add a quarter cup of baking soda to a cup of warm water, mix until the baking soda dissolves, add it to your reservoir, and run a brew cycle. Repeat step four above until your water runs clear.
Espresso Machine Troubleshooting
Your final lesson is that sometimes, no matter how much TLC you give your machine, you may still run into issues. Serious problems like excessive leaking or a complete breakdown mean your machine needs professional repairs or replacement.
However, if you feel that your machine simply isn’t working properly, there could be a simple fix. Here are some common issues:
Espresso Isn’t Flowing Properly
Your machine could be clogged. Descaling as per the instructions above will solve the problem. If you’re certain that build-up isn’t the issue, try adjusting how you pack your grounds. If they’re too tight, water can’t flow through them, too loose and water flows too quickly.
If neither descaling nor adjusting your packing method helps, your pump may need attention. Try priming the machine to reset the pump. If the problem persists, you may have to replace this component.
Grounds Are Getting in Your Coffee
Your filter baskets are likely the problem. Check for any holes, dents, or deformities. If you come across signs of damage, you’ll have to get new ones. If your filters are fine, your group seals could be worn and need to be replaced.
Your Machine Makes Abnormal Sounds
Chances are that your machine is running dry. Make sure your water tank is full and that its connection to your pump isn’t loose or blocked. Priming your pump could help here as well.
Your Machine Isn’t Brewing At All
It may not be set it up properly. Double-check that your tank has enough water, your grounds are packed correctly, your grouphead is set, all connections are in place, and that there aren’t any clogs in your pump. Once again, priming may help.
If everything seems fine, try descaling your machine. If this still doesn’t fix the issue, your machine may have to be replaced.
Espresso machine maintenance isn’t as daunting as it’s made out to be, though it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Improper care may result in damaged or broken machines, or even worse, bad coffee — and no one wants that.
You don’t have to be a barista to keep your espresso machine in working order, but do take care to do things properly. A clean espresso machine makes better coffee, and, with regular upkeep, will do so for years to come.
Espresso Machine Maintenance FAQs
How Often Should an Espresso Machine Be Serviced?
If by serviced you mean maintained, then it depends on the amount of work its doing. Daily upkeep is always a good idea, backflushing is necessary once a week if your machine has a valve system, and descaling should happen every 200 to 300 cycles or two to three months, whichever comes first.
If you mean professionally serviced, this isn’t necessary unless your machine is breaking down beyond what standard home maintenance can fix.
What Happens If You Don’t Descale Espresso Makers?
Limescale clogs your pump so water won’t be able to flow properly and the machine’s pressure will become unstable. It can also spread to your boiler or element, so your coffee will become colder over time. Your machine will slowly deteriorate and then stop working altogether.
Is Espresso Machine Maintenance Necessary?
Absolutely. Maintenance maintains accuracy, so your machine will brew better coffee. It will also be easier to use, last longer, and save you a ton of money in repairs or replacements.