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Why do espresso grains have to be finely ground?
(I've seen some moka pot instructions say medium is good, too.)

I thought espresso machines extracted the most out of the grains, so it would seem they wouldn't need to be finely ground—that fine-ground would be suited for French press (lower temps & pressure, no?) and course ground for espresso (the exact opposite of what's recommended!).

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Coffee brewing is simple physics and chemistry. In short, soluble compounds and oils migrate from the beans to the water. The extraction will depend on temperature, pressure and contact area between beans and water. There’s also a balance between desired and less desired flavor compounds (e.g. acidic and bitter) that a specific brewing method needs to manage, so you tweak the given parameters.

If you have a coarse grind, the total surface area is smaller, so to get a comparable extraction you need more time (minutes for hot water as in French press, hours for cold water as in cold brew). For finer and fine grinds, you brew shorter (pour over) and probably increase the pressure (espresso).

Of course you can also look at the problem in reverse, like in the question (“how much can method X extract”), and match the grind size to hit the optimum. However, there your assumption that e.g. an espresso machine can extract more is incorrect. The very short time plus the compact grounds means that comparatively little coffee flavor is extracted - but some would say that it’s the best parts ;-)

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  • Surface area wouldn't seem to matter as much as the amount of of time the hot water is in contact with the grains.
    – Geremia
    Apr 11 at 22:08
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Key to understanding this is the flow rate of the hot water: Fine grains = slow flow rate; coarse grains = fast flow rate.

Grain size determines how quickly the hot water flows, and thus how much time it is contact with the grains. Faster flow means the water has less time to be in contact with the grains and thus less time the water can extract the oils and other nutrients. (Certainly, surface area factors in, too; cf. Stephie's answer.)

Methods where the grains are soaked (cold-brew, French press, pour-over) don't require fine grains. One could use fine grains in such methods (as in the Turkish method), but it's not necessary, and they would be harder to filter out.

Methods where water quickly flows by the grains also extract more quickly, because of higher temperature and pressure.

Grain Size     Flow Rate     Extraction Time     Methods
⬤             •             ⬤                  Cold brew, French press, etc.
•              ⬤            •                   Espresso, moka, etc.

Kingston's How to Make Coffee: The Science Behind the Bean:

When grinding for espresso at home, as a rule of thumb if the coffee is coming out too fast, use a finer grind to slow down the extraction; or, if the coffee is coming out too slowly, make the grind coarser.

If your coffee tastes a little sour, this is often due to underextraction. With methods of brewing other than espresso, using a finer grind will allow more coffee to be extracted during the brewing time. The same is true of bitter coffee—this could be due to your beans, equipment, or brewing method, but it may also be caused by overextraction. Make the grounds a little coarser and to slow down the extraction rate.

Seven Primary Levels of Grind

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  • Please try to address the question more specifically. While grind size is certainly related to extraction, I think someone who comes across the question would prefer a more direct answer. Please edit it to make the answer more explicit.
    – JJJ
    Apr 10 at 6:24
  • @JJJ Please see my edits.
    – Geremia
    Apr 12 at 1:38
  • I think flow rate is a confusing substitute for extraction time. Some other methods may go finer than normally recommended, but that changes the extraction time too. So it's not just that finer grains may cause clogging in some brewing methods, they can also make the extraction time unworkable. I think that applies for most brewing methods when using a Turkish coffee grind size.
    – JJJ
    Apr 12 at 2:55
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    @JJJ Extraction time is another way of looking at it. Ceteris paribus, flow rate and extraction time are inversely proportional: (flow rate) ∝ 1/(extraction time).
    – Geremia
    Apr 12 at 16:58

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