Making espresso is difficult, and even the smallest details can have a large impact on the result. The quintessential example of this is tamping. It sounds simple. Just squash the coffee down and pop it in the machine, right? Well, sort of. That is what tamping is about at its core, but there are some details you need to know if you want to get the most out of your espresso.
Tamping is one of the easiest things to do properly, but many people don’t realize that they’re not doing it optimally. Some small changes to your technique can go a long way to improving your espresso game. In this article, we’ll teach you some expert tips to tamp like the pros. Are you ready? Let’s go!
1. Start with a level bed
A good tamp starts with an even bed of coffee. The easiest way to level the grounds is to slide your finger across the top of the portafilter. Don’t use a knife or other hard utensil since that could damage the portafilter. Make sure there are no gaps in the bed after you level it. Sometimes this method can leave spaces in the puck, which can cause an uneven extraction. To combat this, make sure there is more than enough coffee in the portafilter so that you’re left with a smooth surface.
2. Practice your technique
Tamping can be harmful to your joints over time if you don’t use a sound technique. It takes a lot of force to pack espresso properly, and after a while, tamping can damage your joints, especially your wrist. This is primarily a concern for professional baristas who pack dozens if not hundreds of pucks a day, but if you learn the proper technique from the start, you never have to worry about it.
Let’s start with the grip. You want to hold the tamper with your thumb and index finger. Using multiple fingers makes it easier to apply even pressure, which is essential for getting an evenly packed puck and, subsequently, an evenly extracted shot.
Many people make the mistake of applying pressure to the coffee grounds with their arms instead of using their body weight to produce the force. Think about leaning your body weight into the puck rather than pushing with your hand.
3. The first tamp
Now you’re ready to start compressing the coffee. We’re going to tamp in two stages. The first tamp is designed to make sure all the grounds are level in the portafilter before you tamp using the full force required.
Using your body weight as described in step two, apply about 15 pounds of force to the puck. Most people don’t know what 15 pounds of force feels like, but there is an easy way to get a feel for it using your bathroom scale.
Put your bathroom scale on the floor by your kitchen counter and stand on it. After the weight settles, lean on your tamper while it’s resting on the counter and watch how the weight decreases. As you lean more of your weight on the tamper, the reading on the scale will decrease. Practice a few times until you can consistently get the reading to drop by about 15 pounds. Don’t stress a few pounds here or there. Anywhere from 13-17 pounds of force is good.
4. The second tamp
Once you have the puck compressed slightly from the first time, it’s time for the second tamp. This is where the force ramps up, and you push harder. For this step, you want to use about 25 pounds of force. You can use the scale trick again to train your muscle memory.
During the second tamp, you want to slightly twist the tamper as you remove it from the portafilter to knock any grounds off the sides. Don’t perform the twisting motion while you’re applying force to the puck; otherwise, you’ll create an uneven bed and disturb the tightly-packed grounds.
How much force you should use while tamping is a matter of debate among baristas. Some people prefer to use 20 pounds, while others advocate for using as much as 30 pounds of force. Our recommendation is to let taste be your guide. Start with 25 pounds and adjust if your coffee doesn’t taste right.
You can tell you’re using too much force if your coffee comes out bitter. More force leads to a more tightly packed puck, which causes the water to stay in contact with the coffee for longer. When the water takes too long to make its way through the grounds, you wind up with a nasty, astringent shot. Conversely, if your shots are weak or thin tasting, consider upping the amount of force you use.
If you’re concerned about applying the correct amount of force or if you want to test different forces in a systematic way, you can buy a calibrated tamper that clicks when you reach the desired force. We don’t think this is necessary, but it is an option if you’re interested.
Tamping is an important part of making excellent espresso that seems like a side note to the uninitiated. Overlooking the importance of proper tamping is one of the most common ways people sabotage their effort to pull great shots. If you perfect your technique, you’ll notice an improvement in quality immediately and set yourself up for a lifetime of injury-free tamping. Over time it will become second nature, and you won’t have to think about it at all.
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