You know what they say about the forest and the trees. I’ve been reviewing espresso machines for years, and would always hold the espresso tamper up to the camera. I complain, I praise — but until now, I’ve never explained what the thing is good for in the first place.
Maybe it’s because tamping coffee grounds for espresso from a portafilter machine has become second nature to me. It could also be that, for a while, I mainly reviewed super-automatic coffee machines, for which you don’t need a coffee tamper.
However, with the portafilter’s rise in popularity — among manufacturers and consumers alike — I feel like it’s time to write the ultimate guide to tampers and tamping, especially since it’s such an inexpensive device. You can grab one on Amazon for $20. We’ll also address the question of whether the right tamper is really as important as baristas and bloggers always make it out to be.
What Is a Tamper?
First things first: let’s start by clarifying the terminology. A tamperis something that tamps. That fits because the tamper tamps down the coffee grounds in the portafilter — much like gravel compacted for road construction.
That said, there is some language confusion surrounding the definition of the activity that I also want to clarify. During tamping, something is tamped. Tampering, as it is also often called, involves manipulating or “tampering” with something — in the sense of “messing around.”
However, we don’t want to tamper. On the contrary, we want to prepare coffee for the perfect espresso. Nevertheless, tampering or tamping are both widely used and accepted accordingly. I refer to tamping when I want to feel really smart.
No matter what we call it, a (manual) espresso tamper usually has the following features:
- A round bearing surface that fits exactly to the respective diameter of the portafilter basket.
- A handle at right angles to the support surface, upon which you can apply pressure with your hand.
- A simultaneously handy, compact and heavydesign.
The last point causes the most problems and disqualifies the “barista set” often included with portafilter machines — but we’ll get to that later. Still, if the last point holds true, you practically always have a useful tool in your hand.
That’s why I find the romantic odes that some reviewers write about the espresso tamper to be a bit much. In my opinion, it is not the most important tool for espresso preparation. That honor goes to good coffee beans!
There is also no such thing as the ultimate tamper, which should be carried around and presented like a rare gemstone. Having worked with countless tampers, tamping stations and “pressure tools,” I can report that you can get used to anything. Well, except insufficient pressure, of course.
Why Do I Need to Tamp Espresso?
One of the secrets to good espresso and perfect extraction is pressure. Thus, you can only create espresso when the water shooting through a portafilter machine’s brew group is under the appropriate pressure.
Here’s the gist: the combination of “active pressure” and “resistance” is integral. The active pressure is built up by the machine itself, which gives momentum to the water via its pump(s). However, this momentum alone isn’t enough for espresso power.
To achieve this, we need enough resistance to slow down the water so that it shoots through the coffee grounds under controlled pressure and extracts the espresso at precisely 9 bar.
The ground coffee creates this resistance, but only if it has been compressed into a firm puck using a tamper. In this way, we create a barrier through which the water can pass — but only as we desire.
Again, for this to work properly, it’s not just the contact pressure that plays a role. With the grain size — that is, the grind — we determine how tightlyto compress the coffee grounds.
In addition, with the amount of coffee — that is, the dosage from the coffee grinder — we determine how large or deep our barrier becomes and, therefore, how much time it takes for the water to work its way through the resistance.
So, with the puck size, we’re not only creating part of the pressure but also controlling the cycle time and cycle speed.
Taking all of this into account, it’s pretty clear that tamping is one of the crucial steps in espresso preparation. Still, it’s no more or less important than setting your grinder or calibrating your machine.
If you overdo it with the tamping or have miscalculated in other areas, either nothing will happen in the machine (or in the cup), or the portafilter will blow up in your face. That’s when you know the resistance is too much.
What Are the Different Types of Tampers?
Tampers roughly fit into three categories:
- Manual tamper
- Dynamometric tamper (with pressure adjustment or pressure regulation)
- Automatic tamper
The first category is not only the most widespread but also the most popular — among machine suppliers, beginners and professionals. You’ll have to learn the correct technique but will end up having the most control over the result.
In addition, manual tampers are comparatively inexpensive. A perfect example is the Diguo Elegance Tamper, which costs less than $24 on Amazon. In rare cases, they are even included with portafilter machines, such as the Solis Barista Gran Gusto (currently unavailable in the United States).
Tampers from the second category are available as manual versions (such as the $40 LuxHause Calibrated Espresso Tamper) that are visually indistinguishable from traditional tampers and “tamping stations,” which often resemble a one-armed bandit.
Both examples work with springs and resistors that automatically ensure you generate the optimal pressure of 30 pounds when pressing down. We’ll see if that’s decisive later.
Hybrid models that combine super-automatic espresso machines and portafilters rely on this technology, in particular. You can see tampers with the pressure adjustment in action on the DeLonghi La Specialista. Some coffee grinders for professional use also rely on such tamping aids.
The third category comprises (roughly speaking) not only the automatic units in the brew groups of super-automatic espresso machines but also standalone devices that are quite expensive. Automatic tamping is a fine thing, but hardly anyone uses it. Why? Because it’s much cheaper and more efficient to tamp by hand!
What Makes a Good Tamper?
Regarding the question of why we tamp, the answer basically comes down to what makes a good espresso tamper.
Even if you have no idea what 30 pounds of contact pressure feels like, it’s obvious that the best espresso tamper should be heavy. That way, you don’t have to strain yourself unnecessarily.
That said, stainless steel is, therefore, the best material for an espresso tamper. The circular contact surface, in particular, should consist of a heavy piece of stainless steel. This also creates a nice, smooth surface for tamping.
The handles of successful entry-level models are usually also made of stainless steel. Many folks prefer a fine wooden handle, which makes it easier to fulfill the second basic condition: the handle should also be smooth and comfortable in your hand and not leave pressure marks after each tamp.
In addition, the correct handle ensures safety during tamping and helps you to build up sufficient pressure. I prefer smooth polished wood but have nothing against any stainless steel version.
Third, you need to look carefully before buying. The diameter of the tamper must match the diameter of the portafilter basket you’ll use with it.
The standard basket size is 58 millimeters. However, entry-level machines like the DeLonghi Dedica EC685 espresso machine come with portafilter baskets that are only 51 millimeters in diameter. With the Sage The Bambino Plus, you’re dealing with a 54 millimeter basket.
While the tamper included with the Sage is halfway usable, you can completely forget about the plastic thing that comes with the DeLonghi. That said, if you want to get a replacement, you have to pay attention to the portafilter basket specifications.
How Do I Tamp Correctly?
As with many areas of the coffee world, there are several schools of thought when it comes to tamping. Some make the biggest fuss about the tamping itself. Others claim that prior levelingis even more important.
I’m in the third category: you don’t have to be overly precise, but you should learn each step and execute it as cleanly as possible. Two things are important to me:
- Double tamping is not better tamping.
- Only begin tamping after you’ve correctly positioned the ground coffee in the portafilter.
Tamping is a one-time deal. If you find that the puck isn’t compacted correctly or seems crooked, you should tap out the coffee grounds and start over. Seriously.
However, before you even think about tamping, you need to prepare the coffee grounds. This is called leveling — a word you’re likely hearing everywhere right now. I assume this is to sell more stuff because there is an increasing number of leveling tools out there — often costing a lot more than the tamper itself.
Of course, that’s not to say smart leveling doesn’t make sense. For an excellent espresso, every granule in the coffee puck needs to come into equal contact with the water. Otherwise, we could save on dosing and adjusting the grind.
If the freshly ground coffee beans tumble out of the grinder into the portafilter, a mound will form in the center of the basket. Should we tamp it down as is, there would be a higher proportion of coffee in the center of the basket than at the rim.
This creates gaps in the barrier through which the water flows more easily — because water always finds the path of least resistance. Channeling is what we call this phenomenon — and it always ensures incorrect extraction.
By leveling, we break down the cone and distribute the coffee grounds evenly in the portafilter basket. You can do this in several ways:
- Gently tap the portafilter straight down on a tamping mat
- Gently tap the side of the portafilter
- Gently run your finger over the coffee mound
Or use a leveler for all I care.
Even though professionals will probably keel over: decide on one method, two or all three — I’m not that strict about it.
I’m going for the double-tap/finger-swipe combo. When you feel the coffee mound has evenly distributed and the coffee grounds are leveleverywhere in the portafilter basket, you can start tamping.
The Pressure Guide: How Firmly Should I Tamp Down?
You have to assume that you won’t get the following steps perfect right away. As I said before, if you make a mistake, you should start over. Once you’ve got the hang of it, though, tamping usually takes no more than a few seconds.
- Place the portafilter with the leveled coffee grounds horizontally on a tamping mat or similar surface. The best position is when your portafilter arm’s elbow is at about a 90-degree angle. (Note: the mat prevents damage to the work surface and prevents the portafilter from slipping.)
- Place the espresso tampervertically on the portafilter from above. You must be particularly precise here. This is because the tamping process depends on the correct angle. (Keyword: channeling!)
- Grip the tamper’s handle vertically from above. The upper end of the handle presses into the palm of your hand, and your fingers enclose the handle so that you have a good grip. Again, your wrist should be straight and your elbow should form a 90-degree angle.
- Press the coffee tamper vertically from above with force onto the portafilter. Use your upper body to do this. Keep in mind that 30 pounds of contact pressure is quite a lot, so don’t be too timid. The movement should be determined and fluid.
- Take some pressure out of your hand and turn the tamper in the portafilter slightly around its own vertical axis. This is a second leveling, so to speak, which helps remove any residual unevenness.
- Remove the tamper and brush off any remaining coffee.
Although it sounds incredibly complicated here, in the end, it just boils down to always paying attention to right angles and tamping like you mean it. That’s all it really is.
Which Espresso Machine Has the Best Tamper?
Even though I like to use my favorite coffee tamper for any espresso machine review — I’ve gotten used to its shape and can master the process in my sleep — I always take a close look at any accessories that come with it.
Apart from the fact that plastic is far too light, this tool doesn’t allow for a sufficient grip. The aforementioned Dedica from DeLonghi has the plastic thing on board, as does the similarly priced Gastroback Design Espresso Piccolo (currently unavailable in the United States).
You’ll find the middle ground in terms of quality with the Sage The Bambino Plus. The included tamper’s contact surface consists of stainless steel, but the handle is too short, too thin and too straight — and thus, not ideal. In this case, I’d still think twice before buying a different tamper. As I said before, you really can get used to almost anything.
Solis can pin a little medal on itself for the espresso tamper that comes with the previously mentioned Barista Gran Gusto. It not only has the right diameter but also the right quality and shape.
The Solis Barista Perfetta Plus also has a convincingly high-quality tamper.
In contrast, it’s downright shocking that the Rancilio Silvia, which I’ve recommended for years as a serious entry-level espresso machine, only comes with a plastic tamper. You can throw that thing right in the trash or use it as a pizza box spacer. It’s no good for tamping.
Now, a quick word about hybrid machine tamping stations. In the case of the Gastroback Design Espresso Advanced (currently unavailable in the United States), the manufacturer came up with a clever interim solution and integrated a removable tamper into the machine. It’s not perfect, but it’s usable.
However, with the Sage Oracle Touch, the machine is clearly in charge and does the tamping automatically — and more than neatly might I add.
Flat or Convex: What Are Convex Base Tampers?
I included this espresso tamper shape section for the sake of completeness, but I see no reason to hype it. These tampers have a slightly outwardly curved, lenticular contact surface — hence, the wording “convex.”
With this kind of tamper, you create a small depression in the coffee grounds, or the contact pressure is directed more outward during tamping. This makes the grounds more stable at the edge of the portafilter basket and should prevent the puck from loosening, especially if you bump against something when inserting the portafilter into the machine.
Do I Need an Oversized Tamper?
When I talk about 58-millimeter tampers for 58-millimeter baskets, that’s just a semi-normalized approximation, which, in turn, makes for an uncompacted ring of loose coffee grounds at the edge of the portafilter basket.
The solution is an oversized tamper, competition tamper or according to the premium Pullman brand, a BigStep tamper.
These special tools from brands such as Motta have a diameter of 58.4 millimeters or 58.55 millimeters and fit a lot more snugly in the portafilter basket.
This is a perfectly reasonable idea. It’s just that Pullman charges a yawn-inducing $130 and up for its competition models. Do I have to keep talking, or can we just turn a blind eye to a few loose coffee grounds around the edge? I think we can!
The 30-Pound Rule: How Accurate Do I Have to Be?
Using 30 pounds of contact pressure when tamping seems to be equally as sacred as having the requisite 9 bar of pressure for espresso extraction.
I subscribe to the notion that you should at least have some idea of how 30 pounds feels. A scale will help you with that. Still, I see no reason to rely on calibrated tampers with torque.
While contact pressure is important, a few more grams here or a couple of fewer pounds there won’t make your espresso so bad that you can’t drink it.
In fact, I would argue that most of us don’t even notice the difference between a “25-pound espresso” and a “30-pound espresso.”
Only when applying less than 20 pounds of pressure does the situation become critical. You’ll seethat right away, though — with a loose coffee puck, watery espresso or a flow rate that’s too fast.
What About Handleless Tampers?
Tampers without handles have become quite ubiquitous these days. They look like a buzzer button on a game show, which is probably why the Mahlgut company named its handleless model the “Tamper Buzzer.” Again, there’s a lot of trending here for a tool that costs around $150.
The handleless design is supposed to feel better in the hand while helping to prevent common “tamping injuries.” Well, OK. Maybe.
However, if your tamping frequency causes calluses on your hand, you’re either a barista in training mode or should rethink your coffee consumption. I have nothing against these models, but I’m not going to sing their praises, either.
The Best Tamper for Espresso: Don’t Put So Much Pressure on Yourself!
I’m almost certain that the only reason I’ve never covered the topic of tampers in detail before is that I don’t feel like discussing a subject that isn’t really exciting in and of itself. However, if there’s one thing the community can do is discuss trivial matters with quasi-religious fervor.
That’s why I’m sure to get into trouble if I say that you can achieve equally good results with a $20 Omgogo tamper as with a $200 tamper. While you’re at it, if you have a suitable glass in the house, you could even use that as a tamper tool!
The main thing is that you understand why we tamp and what it means for your espresso.
It’s also important that with any espresso machine — regardless of its price point — you factor in the cost of a decent coffee grinder, use the appropriate coffee beans and establish a careful preparation regimen that will end up producing excellent espresso.
Aside from that, it almost doesn’t matter which espresso tamper you use to achieve your goal. If you manage to do it with a plastic thing, I’ll be surprised, but I won’t hold it against you. Why should I? The coffee tamper is a means to an end — not a reason to write love poetry or start online wars.
Do you see it differently? Then leave me a comment!