Most coffee drinkers rely on a simple home drip coffee machine, simply adding in the beans and pressing a button. We save the complex brew methods like pour over and espresso for the professionals. But maybe you want to up your coffee game, and you decide you want to buy an espresso machine.
If this is your first espresso maker, you may not know what a coffee tamper is, or that it’s a vital part of making espresso. If you’re researching your first espresso machine purchase, or if you’ve bought one without realizing you need a coffee tamper, you’ll want to understand what a coffee tamper does, how to use one, and what to look for when buying one.
When you or your barista pulls an espresso shot, you’re pushing hot water through a dense puck of finely ground coffee beans. This pressurization is how you can get such a full, flavorful burst of coffee each espresso shot, and requires you to compress the coffee beans. Coffee tampers are the tool used to press the coffee down.
While there are a few types of coffee tampers, the most common ones are flat metal disks with a handle. The coffee needs an even press, so you can’t rely on standard kitchenware like a spoon. You also have to fit the tamper inside of your portafilter, so the tamper has to be the right size. Most tampers are made of metal, though they can be made of other materials.
Coffee tampers were required for any espresso machine prior to the advent of tamping coffee grinders. If you don’t tamp your coffee beans, you’ll actually ruin the shots, since you’ll just fill your portafilter with water rather than press it through the coffee. So if you have a home espresso machine, make sure you understand how and why you should use a coffee tamper.
How To Use a Coffee Tamper
Tamping your coffee seems easy, but can actually take some practice. The process itself is simple, but there’s plenty of finesse involved in getting an even, compact tamp. Fortunately you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice, since you’ll have to tamp each espresso shot before you pull. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and pay attention to how the final shot tastes. That way, you can change your process to get the best cup of espresso.
Load your portafilter
You have your espresso beans and your espresso machine. You’ll want to put your portafilter on your espresso maker and run some hot water through it to make sure it’s clean. After that, use a spoon or a dosing coffee grinder to get the ideal amount of espresso. Typically, two shots of espresso will take about .05 pounds of coffee grinds. This depends on the size of the basket in your portafilter, but you want to make sure not to overfill or underfill the basket in order to get the right pull.
Get an even tamp
If you hold your coffee tamp at an angle, you’ll actually have an uneven coffee puck. One side will be thinner than the other, which means it won’t pull evenly. Portafilters typically have two spouts, and if you notice that one is pouring more than the other, you probably have an uneven tamp. The result is that some of your grinds will be over-extracted, while others will be under-extracted. This will make your shots sour and bitter, so it’s important to take your time and evenly compress your grinds.
Don’t use too much force
The ideal tamp will use between 40 and 50 pounds of force. Don’t be afraid to test your push on a scale to see what that weight feels like. But if you just push as hard as you can, you’ll make your espresso beans too tight. This causes your espresso shots to pull slowly, making them taste bitter. It can even be bad for your machine if it can’t generate the necessary pressure to break through the beans, causing water to back up. Similarly, you don’t want to use too little force, since you’ll just get a watery espresso shot.
Pull your shot
It’s not a part of the tamping process, but you’ll want to pay attention to how your espresso shots pull. When you’re learning how to tamp, you’ll want to understand how your process affects the extraction. You should get an ounce per shot of espresso in no less than 20 seconds and no longer than 30 seconds. If it takes too much or too little time, you may have tamped your espresso wrong. And, of course, take note of the flavor. The ideal shot won’t be too bitter or too acidic, when tamped properly.
Clean your tamper
It’s important to properly maintain your coffee tamper. It has to be smooth and clean, so don’t just tap it on the counter it to get the grinds off. You don’t want to risk denting your tamper, and you want to make sure no grinds get caked on. Either of these will make it impossible to get that even tamp the next time you make espresso. Make sure to run your tamper under running water, using your fingers to remove the excess grinds, and then wipe it clean with a rag or paper towel.
How to Pick a Coffee Tamper
Now that you know how to use a tamper, you’ll need to make sure to get the right one. The material, shape, and weight of a coffee tamper will impact the final result, so make sure to pick one that you’re comfortable with.
Plastic, wood, or metal
Tampers can come in plastic, wood, or metal. Plastic is the cheapest material to use, and often has an uneven surface to press with. Wood and metal are the way to go, though metal is more durable and can be washed without having to worry about warping. Tampers are pretty cheap as it is, so getting one made of plastic won’t save you much money compared to getting a wooden or metal one.
Size and weight
You’ll need to pay attention to the size of your portafilter to get a coffee tamper that’s just slightly smaller. Portafilters are pretty standardized, but double check just to be sure, especially if you have an older machine.
Depending on the material, the tamper may weigh more or less. A heavier tamper will let you get a more even tamp, since it’ll be easier to center. If you’re buying online, pay attention to the weight specifications, since you won’t be able to hold it before making your purchase.
You may notice that many coffee tampers are two sided to work with more portafilters. However, this can be uncomfortable to hold. If you’re prone to sore wrists, or just want something more comfortable on your hand, pay attention to the handle for your coffee tamper. Since you’ll be pushing down with up to 50 pound of force, having a comfortable handle can be important to preventing a sore palm.
Coffee Tamper Alternatives
If you’re looking to buy some coffee equipment but don’t want to have a spare accessory rolling around your countertops, there are a couple of alternatives to buying a detached coffee tamper. If you don’t already have these pieces of equipment, consider checking if they can work as a coffee tamper as well. It might be the one thing that this device has over the competition.
While your average coffee grinder only grinds the coffee, leaving you to add them to your portafilter, some of them dose your coffee for you. If you’re looking into an auto-dosing grinder, try to find one that will also tamp your beans. Not only will you have the perfect amount of beans every time, but they’ll be perfectly compressed every time, without you having to do anything.
Some espresso machines come with a coffee tamper attached. It’ll usually look like a little disk suspended near the grouphead at a slight angle. This isn’t the best way to tamp your coffee, since it’ll be at a weird angle, and you’ll have to hold your machine in place as you push into it. But if you’re still waiting for your coffee tamper to arrive in the mail, or you really don’t want the extra part rolling around, this is a good way to conveniently tamp your espresso.
Getting The Perfect Tamp
Making the perfect cup of joe is a craft. Baristas spend hours a day making drinks, letting them hone their skills, but you may want to have the same coffee insight as the pros. You may roast your own beans, have the perfect grinder, and even a high end coffee machine. But even the smallest details like the pressure you apply when tamping your coffee will have a huge impact on the final product. By getting the right tamper and practicing your tamp skills, you can add that much more to your morning brew.