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Under Pressure

How to Tamp Like a Pro

 

In our September/October 2010 issue, we met up with Water Ave. Coffee’s Tom Pikaart and tested six espresso tampers to see which one would pack the perfect puck. But once you have the right tool, you need to know how to use it. Here, Pikaart offers a few key pointers to guide you to an expert extraction.

 

1. Keep a straight wrist. A straight wrist promotes maximum tamping control. Turn your tamping-side hip toward the counter and point your elbow up in the air to form a right angle between your bicep and forearm. Then, hold your tamper like you're grasping a doorknob with your thumb and index finger touching the base. This grip gives two clear points of contact with the tamper base and helps maintain a level bed of coffee grounds.

2. Let your fingers do the walking. Still holding the tamper handle like a doorknob, feel the height difference between the top edge of the tamper base and the portafilter basket with your fingertips. Feel all the way around to check that the height is even on all sides.



 

3. Take a closer look. Still holding the portafilter, bend down and make sure the tamper is resting evenly on the grounds. If the grounds are uneven, then they are more densely packed in one area than another, which will result in an uneven and inconsistent extraction.

 

4. Not so hard. Extreme force isn't required to pack your espresso, and repeatedly doing so may even cause long-term stress injury to your wrist, elbow and/or shoulder. Variables such as grind and dose play a more significant roll in espresso extraction, and evenness and consistency are what really matter when it comes to tamping. Plus, extreme tamping force is easily overwhelmed by the pressurized brewing water from the espresso machine. Instead, tamp lightly to be sure the coffee grounds are level in the portafilter. Then lift the tamper and go back in for an even, firm tamp.

5. To polish or not. Sometimes you’ll see a barista “polishing,” or twisting the tamper on top of the coffee after you’ve applied downward force. It’s not a necessary step, but if you like to polish, just be sure not to twist the tamper while applying downward force. Instead, separate the actions of tamping and twisting, always tamping first. The goal isn't to twist the coffee, but to normalize a thin layer on the surface. Twisting under pressure disturbs the carefully arranged coffee you just packed in.

6. Clean it up. Finally, use your thumb, index finger or palm to brush away any remaining grounds around the top of the portafilter and basket. This step protects the portafilter gasket and helps keep your espresso machine clean.



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Check out our picks for the best tampers in the September/October 2010 issue.