Do you love a good espresso but find yourself frustrated with the quality of your coffee lately? Maybe your shots are coming out weaker, or your milk frother isn't working as well as it used to.
If so, it's time to clean and descale your espresso machine. Neglecting to do so can result in bad coffee or even machine failure.
But don't worry, in this article, we'll provide you with a step-by-step guide on how to clean and descale both portafilter and super-automatic espresso machines, including the milk system and their built-in grinders.
Plus, we'll cover different cleaning agents and provide tips on how to avoid issues like clogs caused by oily coffee beans.
Keep reading to learn how to keep your espresso machine running smoothly and enjoy delicious coffee every time.
Before getting into the specifics of how to clean your espresso machine, let’s first talk about what product you will use. To keep it simple, I cover the three most popular options in this post and why you may want to use each one:
Before you decide which one to use, make sure you check the owner’s manual for your machine to see if there are any restrictions.
Almost all cleaning agents used for cleaning espresso machines have an acid-base. It doesn’t matter if you are using liquid solutions, tablets, or powders.
Acids help break down calcium and fat residues, which the water then removes and rinses away. This is why it is so important to perform a few rinse cycles after cleaning before making an espresso.
You don’t want to be drinking any gross residue or cleaners with your coffee!
The first and easiest choice!
A commercial descaling solution is specifically designed for use with an espresso maker and is usually available in liquid or powder form. They are formulated to remove coffee oils and scale buildup from the internal components of the machine.
Manufacturers always recommend that you go with their commercial descaling product as it will be the best for your espresso machine.
I think this is more of a marketing ploy, but if you have a big budget, this is the safest, easiest route to go. Plus, some manufacturers require that you use their cleaning agent to maintain your warranty.
That being said, a cheaper and more natural approach like vinegar or citric acid makes more sense if you want to save some money.
If you want to try a more homemade approach, using a solution of water and vinegar might be for you. The acidity of the vinegar (acetic acid) helps to dissolve scale buildup and remove coffee oils.
White vinegar is pretty cheap, plus you will want to use a solution of 25:75 vinegar to water (or even 50:50) when descaling your espresso maker.
Another natural cleaning agent that is effective at removing scale buildup and oils from coffee is citric acid. Citric acid is naturally found in - you guessed it - citrus fruits. It’s also the main ingredient of many dedicated coffee machine cleaners such as Breville, De'Longhi, Nespresso, and Keurig.
Instead of squeezing a bunch of lemons or limes to make enough lemon juice to run through your espresso machine, grocery stores sell a dry powder form of this acid. It looks a lot like table salt, and is sometimes labeled as “sour salt”.
Usually, you will want to use a ratio of 1 quart of water to 2 tablespoons of citric acid (1).
Alright, now that you know your options for cleaning and descaling, let’s get into how to clean an espresso machine with a portafilter.
Cleaning and descaling an espresso machine can be intimidating at first, but it's essential to maintain the quality and longevity of your machine.
Depending on how often you use your machine, you should aim to do a deep clean at least once a week and descale it every two to three months.
Here are the steps to clean and descale your semi-automatic espresso machine with a portafilter or your heat exchange espresso machine. If you have an espresso machine with an internal brew group (e.g. a super automatic espresso machine), click here to scroll down a bit further.
Here are the steps to clean and descale semi-automatic espresso machines:
Turn off your machine and unplug it from the power source.
Remove the portafilter and any attachments, such as the tamper or basket, and soak them in a descaling solution.
You can use a dedicated espresso machine cleaner, white vinegar, or citric acid. If you're using a dedicated cleaning solution, make sure to follow the instructions on the packaging. Check our recommendation ratios above for vinegar and citric acid. Let the attachments soak for 15-20 minutes.
While the attachments are soaking, use a damp cloth to wipe down the exterior of the machine.
Make sure to clean any spills or stains, especially around the portafilter and steam wand. Now is your chance to do a deep cleaning… really use some muscle and get in there!
After the attachments have soaked, rinse them thoroughly with warm water and dry them with a clean cloth.
Make sure to remove any residual cleaning solution. Do not skip this step. If you’re unsure if all the solution has been rinsed out, give the parts a smell. If they smell like anything other than water, keep rinsing.
Fill the water tank with a descaling solution, or a mixture of water and vinegar or citric acid.
Follow the instructions on the packaging for the amount of solution to use. If your machine has a built-in water filter, remove it before adding the solution.
Run the machine through a descaling cycle.
Place the portafilter in the group head and turn on the machine. Let the descaling solution run through the machine until the tank is empty. Don’t forget to purge the steam wand and wipe with a damp cloth. Some espresso machines have dedicated descaling cycles. If so, follow the instructions.
Once the descaling cycle is complete, empty the water tank and rinse it thoroughly with clean water.
Fill the tank with fresh water, plug in the machine, and run it through at least one cycle to flush out any remaining descaling solution. Keep rinsing as needed. Better safe than sorry here!
If there is any smell lingering or the water is even the slightest bit cloudy, do another rinse.
Wipe down the exterior of the machine with a clean, damp cloth, and dry it with a clean towel.
Make some espresso!
Hopefully, you made it through this 20 to 30-minute process fully caffeinated and ready. If not, now’s your time to satisfy your coffee craving once again with a delicious shot of espresso.
If you prefer to automate your entire espresso experience, you probably have a super automatic espresso machine in your house. While some units have self-cleaning functions, you still have to give these machines a deep cleaning every now and then.
The automatic descaling cycle differs a bit from a semi-automatic espresso machine with a portafilter.
Usually, these machines will come with supplied cleaning tablets or descaling powder. Mix these with water, as per the instructions, and run it through your coffee machine or activate your machine’s descaling cycle.
If you run out of tablets and don’t want to buy the overpriced manufacturer-labeled ones again, take a look at what ingredients are in the original cleaning tablets.
Try your best to find cheaper alternatives with the same base ingredients. That way, you are cleaning your machine as it was intended to be cleaned. Whatever you do, don’t overpay for simple cleaning supplies!
Your espresso maker is complex, but the cleaning agents are not!
Rinse, rinse, and rinse again to make sure all the residue, loose coffee grounds, and cleaning solution get completely flushed out of the machine.
You should remove all parts that can be disconnected, like the drip tray and the machine's water tank. Give those a rinse and soak them in a descaling solution if really dirty and stained. Some models even allow you to remove the internal brew unit. If you can, remove it and give it a good rinsing.
When cleaning your espresso machine, make sure to focus extra attention on any parts that come into contact with milk. Have you smelled or tasted spoiled milk before? It’s not pleasant.
Whether your machine comes equipped with a steam wand or a built-in frother, here’s how you get all those parts crystal clean:
Before cleaning the steam wand, it's important to purge it to remove any milk residue that may be inside. Turn on the machine, purge the wand, and let any remaining milk or steam escape into a drip tray or a pitcher.
Using a damp cloth or sponge, wipe down the steam wand to remove any milk residue or buildup.
You should also use one of the three cleaning/descaling solutions listed in this article to remove stubborn milk deposits. Simply add one of the listed descaling solutions in a pitcher or mug and let the steam wand soak overnight.
Be sure to wipe down the wand with a clean, damp cloth afterward to remove any solution residue. Finally, purge it one last time to remove any remaining descaling solution.
Some super-automatics don’t use steam wands and instead have built-in frothers. Cleaning these takes more time than steam wands, but you should never ignore cleaning your machine’s milk frother unless you want to see stale chunks of milk in your drink. Ewww...
The only exception is if your mother-in-law is visiting and asks for a coffee, haha!
Higher-end machines from Miele or JURA do have dedicated milk-cleaning cycles. However, you will eventually need to do a deep cleaning.
To do so, remove and disassemble the milk frother and soak the components in warm or hot water, or a milk system cleaning solution like Urnex Rinza (see link below). Mix 30 mL of Rinza per 500 mL of water (2) and soak for at least 20 to 30 minutes, then rinse with clean water to remove any solution residue.
If your coffee maker has a milk container or carafe, it's important to clean it every day to prevent the growth of bacteria. Refer to the manufacturer's instructions for specific cleaning guidelines, as some containers may be dishwasher safe while others may require hand washing.
After cleaning, test the milk system by frothing milk to make sure that the frother is functioning properly.
One of the most important tools for brewing quality coffee is a good burr grinder. Don’t cheap out on a blade grinder, as the particle sizes of your grinds will be all over the place, affecting the taste of your espresso!
Whether your espresso machine has a built-in grinder or you use a standalone grinder, it's essential to clean it regularly to prevent the buildup of coffee oils and grinds that can affect the quality of the coffee. Here's how to clean your grinder:
There you have it, easy peasy and oh-so-satisfying!
Your espresso machine is the perfect hot and moist environment for breeding loads of bacteria, mold, and other nasty stuff. Taking the time to deep clean and descale every now and then is essential.
That being said, here are some other tips for between deep cleans to keep you enjoying espresso for many years to come:
There are also some additional cleaning steps that I highly recommend.
Another suggestion I strongly recommend is that at least once per week, you backflush your espresso machine. We did this at the end of each day at the coffee shop and roastery I worked at in Brazil.
To do this, you need what’s called a blind basket. A blind basket, or blind filter, is a filter with no holes in it that you place in the portafilter. Water can’t escape and is forced to circulate through the entire group head (3).
If you add a bit of espresso machine cleaner to the blind basket, like Urnex Cafiza or Puro Caff, your backflush will be super effective. Lock the portafilter in place and rinse for 10-15 seconds.
Empty the basket and keep rinsing until the water is no longer cloudy and doesn’t smell like anything.
If you fail to properly maintain your espresso machine, you will damage its parts and negatively affect the taste of the coffee.
Let’s talk about damaging your unit…
Mineral scale buildup can clog water flow and eventually cause a machine to stop working. Slowly, the heating elements start to get affected by these excess minerals. The boiler may stop heating the water up to the optimal brewing temperature.
If the flow of water becomes too clogged, it may stop completely and cause machine failure.
Other than catastrophic espresso machine failure, you might also notice your coffee tasting worse once buildup starts.
Because the water may not reach optimal brewing temperature, your espresso may be under-extracted and sour or bitter. The machine and your coffee might also smell pretty pungent like something is fermenting…
The bottom line is you don’t want any of this to happen to your beloved coffee maker or morning cup of espresso. Take care of your machine with proper and regular cleaning!
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There are three main cleaning agents that the majority of people use to clean their machines: dedicated espresso machine cleaners, white vinegar, and citric acid. Regardless of what you use, each agent employs an acid base to break down calcium and fat residues. You can use a white vinegar or citric acid solution to cycle through your machine for a more natural cleaning and descaling process.
Using vinegar is one of the three ways we recommend to clean and descale your espresso machine. The ideal ratio of vinegar to water might be 25:75 or 50:50, depending on the model of your machine. If you use vinegar to clean your machine, be cautious of the strong smell. You might need to go through several rinse cycles before the descaling solution is completely out of all the nooks and crannies of your espresso machine.
You should clean your espresso machine regularly. How often you should clean your espresso machine depends on your manufacturer’s recommendations and how often you are pulling shots. At a minimum, you must clean several of the parts every week (like your drip tray), while a complete descaling cycle might only be required once every 2-3 months. In terms of daily chores, make sure you are following the proper sanitary protocols in between shots, like rinsing the group head and purging/wiping the steam wand before and after use.
If you don’t descale your espresso machine, calcium and other minerals from hard water deposits will get stuck and start to clog various parts. The heating elements and water passages will be affected, reducing water flow and temperature. A worst-case scenario would be the total malfunction of the machine, but it’s more likely that your coffee will start to taste sour or bitter first.
Cleaning and descaling your espresso machine (and really any coffee maker) is an important part of maintaining its performance and extending its lifespan. Both residential and commercial machines require some human input from time to time.
Regular cleaning of the portafilter, milk system, and built-in grinder will help prevent the buildup of coffee oils and scale, which can affect the quality of your coffee and cause coffee machines to malfunction.
By following the steps outlined in this article and using the right cleaning agent, you can keep your coffee maker in top condition and enjoy high-quality coffee for years to come.
Always check your manufacturer’s instructions if you ever have any doubts.
Now go clean your 'effing espresso machine!
This article is intended for informational purposes only. It is not meant to replace professional medical advice, treatment or diagnosis. Do not consume any type of coffee, tea or herbal infusion if you are allergic to it. The information in this article is not intended to treat serious medical conditions. Please seek professional medical advice before using home remedies.