July 16, 2007

Portafilter 101 – Professional vs. Consumer

Portafilters are the magical ingredient that makes the world go around for espresso lovers as it’s responsible for some great taste, body and that wonderful crema. Some folks might argue that it’s the pump, the coffee, the grind, the cup, and on and on. Yes, without the mixture of greatness in all of these the espresso tastes terrible. The portafilter and how you handle it is responsible for the back pressure that allows for a rich extraction of coffee solids from the ground coffee as well as the emulsification of oils that create a delicious crema on the top. The pump driven espresso machine is like a garden hose; there’s plenty of pressure in there, but until you put your thumb across the end of it, you don’t see that pressure in action. There are two ways to get there, and it’s important to understand the difference.

Professional Portafilter – The professional portafilter does not necessarily offer a lot of backpressure by itself. The bottom is a sieve, and allows the espresso to drip out on its own. So, it’s important to grind your coffee fine enough and then tamp it with the proper amount of force to form that puck in the portafilter. Too loose and the water flows around the coffee grounds and you get a weak cup with no high pressure extraction. To get this balance, it can take a while to master the proper touch in both the grind and the tamping. This is why makers like the Rancillo Silvia can make such excellent espresso, but can be frustrating for the average consumer who doesn’t have a great grinder or have the ability to tamp the coffee well. To the right is a professional style portafilter with the bottom cut away to show the mesh screen. Most of the time there are just two chutes on the bottom of this to bring the espresso easily to one or two shot glasses. For the average consumer, a pump driven model that has a “consumer portafilter” is a great choice.

Consumer Portafilter – The consumer portafilter does not have an open bottom, per se, it has a small hole or holes that because of their small size, creates the backpressure required to make a crema layer on top of your espresso. So, while a lot of consumer portafilters have what looks like a honeycomb of holes, look close and you’ll see that there is often just one hole or a few small ones. With all of the pumping and the small outlet, you get some vigorous mixing and emulsification going on. It’s still important to set the grounds in the portafilter through some tamping action but the design is much more forgiving for most consumers. To the right, a Delonghi portafilter shows the bottom of a filter basket with a plastic part that is set with a very small hole to create that backpressure. It’s just plain easier to get decent espresso from less expensive machines, like DeLonghi EC155 or the Krups XP4030, for most people, and for the most part, they cost a lot less too.

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Posted by Scott Martin at July 16, 2007 6:29 AM
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