March 11, 2008

Should I Tamp My Espresso?


A lot of people wonder if they should tamp their ground espresso in the portafilter before brewing. Sure the baristas at the coffee shops do it, so should you? The answer is yes, but for potentially a different reason. To start, you need to understand the difference between a professional portafilter and a consumer portafilter.

In a professional machine where the portafilter has only a screen on the bottom, and the pour spout. When the brewer starts pumping, it's the cake of espresso that needs to provide the resistance so that proper back pressure is developed and all of that coffee goodness is extracted from the grounds.

In a consumer machine, portafilters typically only have a very small pin hole in the bottom of the portafilter. They sometimes mask it by putting a waffle pattern on the bottom of the portafilter, but look closely, the outlet is only a pinhole. The back pressure if created by this pinhole, and the fact that the machine can pump more water than the pinhole can let out in the same amount of time - the result; pressure.

So if the back pressure is created by the pinhole in a consumer machine, why tamp? It's about channeling and weak brews. If you just drop coffee in without tamping, you'll still get some decent extraction, and decent crema, but when you tamp, the water will not cut channels through the coffee grounds as easily and it will be forced to go through the coffee instead of around it.

The other day I brewed up 10 shots of espresso just dropping a scoop of espresso into the portafilter of the Cuisinart EM-200 that I have on my counter top, a nice unit with a consumer portafilter design. Each one had a nice overall crema, but lacked a bit in flavor and intensity.

I also brewed up 10 shots of espresso and tamped them lightly with a simple tamp that came along with the EM-200, and brewed those; same amount of coffee, same coffee. I alternated to get pairs of shots to taste them essentially side by side. I did my best to get the shots as close as possible in brew time, and in amount of water. I brewed them into a pair of Bodum Pavina glasses - double walled glass to minimize heat loss.

The extraction was better overall with the tamped shots; fuller body, better flavor. You don't need a ton of force to tamp these, but give it a little tamp, seat the coffee and enjoy a better shot.

This Espresso Hand Tamp has a clear top to the handle and is 49mm is diameter, just a bit under 2 inches. Check your portafilter diameter to make sure this works. Otherwise there are other tamps available for different diameters.

Read More in: Espresso Basics | General News

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Posted by Scott Martin at March 11, 2008 1:24 PM
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