How to Use a Tamper Like a Pro

In our September/October 2010 issue, we met up with coffee pro Tom Pikaart and tested six espresso tampers to see which one would pack the perfect puck. But aside from having the right tool, packing delicious espresso also requires certain techniques. 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 maintains a level coffee bed.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Not so hard. Extreme force isn’t required to pack your espresso, and repeatedly doing so may actually cause long-term, repetitive stress injury (RSI). Baristas were once trained to use 30-50 psi, but more and more baristas are finding that tamping pressure is over-rated. 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, 40 psi in tamping force is easily overwhelmed by the 130 psi from pressurized brewing water. 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.
  1. To polish or not. Sometimes you’ll see a barista “polishing” (twisting the tamper on top of the coffee), but doing so is really a simple matter of opinion. If you are the type to twist, just be sure to not twist the tamper while applying down force. Instead, separate the actions of tamping and polish. 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.
  1. Clean it up. Finally, use you 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 reduces espresso machine maintenance.
  1. Brew it up and enjoy!