A quick guide to tamping coffee
Tamping coffee is one of the first skills that baristas learn when first behind the machine. Nearly everyone that has worked in coffee has had that scary experience of a Head Barista or trainer looking over their shoulder as they try to tamp a coffee perfectly!
These days, automated tamping machines are growing in popularity in coffee businesses, as well as on competition stages. However, by and large the majority of baristas around the world are still using manual tamping as part of preparing espresso.
Using the right tamper for the portafilter basket you’re using is, in my opinion, just as important as using a good grinder. There are so many different tampers on the market that sometimes, it is hard to know which one to use, and why.
To help you navigate which tamper to use and why, I have answered some of the most common questions I get asked.
What material should my Tamper be made of?
I want to address this question because you need to ensure that the materials you’re using in the preparation of coffee are food safe. There are still aluminium Tampers being sold on the market and even though they’re usually pretty cheap, I advise you to spend a little bit more because aluminium just isn’t a food safe material.
If you want to buy a tamper, please look for a stainless steel base that is manufactured evenly and smooth. A good indicator is the weight of a tamper, it should be heavy on the hand.
Should I buy a long or short handle?
The length or size of the handle for your tamper really depends clearly on the size of your hands. Some people have really large hands and find it easier to use longer handles than people with smaller hands. Here it is important to hold the tamper in your own hand before you decide if you feel comfortable with it.
The key thing to look for is comfort – if you’re making a lot of coffee at home or at work behind the bar, you want to ensure that the tamper you’re using won’t cause any damage to your hand or wrist. Trust me, you don’t want RSI (Repetitive Stress Injury)!
Should I buy any additional tamping tools?
There are a couple of additional tools that will help you to make your tamping more effective, and ensure that you aren’t damaging your workspace.
Tamping mats help you to protect your workbench and the spouts on your portafilter from being damaged. Typically they are made of rubber or soft plastic, and are easy to clean and store away when not in use. If you're not interested in investing in a tamping mat, you can always place a (clean) microfibre cloth or tea towel beneath the spouts of the portafilter, like I have in the the image below. Just make sure there's no coffee on it already, otherwise you'll end up with dirty spouts and ground coffee in your drink.
When tamping, make sure to tamp on a flat surface – do not tamp in the air as it is very hard to keep a straight tamping level and try to tamp with a force between 10 and 20 kg. If you want to test to see how hard you’re tamping, try placing a tamping mat on a body weight scale (or any scale that can take 20+ kg), and measuring your tamping force on there.
Distribution tools are a tampers best friend and there are many companies producing various versions. The first commercially available distribution tool (and my personal favourite) is the NCD, formerly known as the OCD, from Nucleus Coffee Tools. There are a number of tools with different shapes, methods of use and materials – I won’t go into the differences now, but most of them work pretty well.
These tools help your tamping and overall extraction by distributing the ground coffee evenly and level in the basket. This helps to minimize the risk of channeling during the extraction, and will provide you with a way to consistently tamp flat/level.
Even though it may look like you’re tamping super flat and the coffee is evenly distributed, ground coffee that isn’t distributed can sometimes be more dense in one part of the basket. This means that when you tamp, one part of the coffee is more dense; therefore the less dense part will allow water to pass through quicker, causing channeling.
What size tamper do I need?
There are some standard sizes that several coffee machine producers use for portafilter baskets. However, sizes do vary and for domestic machines, the size varies with nearly every model and company.
It’s important that you use a tamper that is the correct size for the basket(s) you’re using. If it’s too big, it won’t fit in the basket or will get stuck. If it’s too small, you won’t be able to properly tamp all the coffee in the basket. To help you find the right size, here is a list that you can use to find your tamper size. Note that I wasn’t able to include ALL companies and machines, but it’s a start! If in doubt, contact the machine or portafilter supplier.
ESPRESSO TAMPER SIZE GUIDE:
Astoria 58mm Ascaso 57mm
Astra 56mm Aurora 56mm
Bodum Granos 51mm
Delonghi BAR32, BAR42, BCO264b 51mm
Delonghi (old) 49mm
ECM 58mm, ECM Giotto/Cellini 58mm, ECM Botticelli 58mm
Faema Family 53mm
Francis! Francis! x1 (old) 52mm or 53mm, Francis! Franis! x1 (new) 56mm
La Marzocco 58mm
La Pavoni (standard) 56mm La Pavoni Lever (older Pre 2000) 49mm
La Pavoni Lusso, Pisa, Si 53mm
La Pavoni Lever (Millenium New Lever) 51mm
La Pavoni Duet, Club, Napolitana 57mm
La Pavoni Europiccola 49mm
La Scala 58mm
Nuova Simonelli 58mm
Olympia Express 49mm
Pasquini 58mm, Pasquini Livia 58mm
San Marco 53mm or 54mm
Solis 53mm or 52mm
Starbuck's (Barista) 53mm or 52mm
Sunbeam - (standard cafe series is 58mm) 51mm
I hope that the above helps you to find the perfect tamper for preparing yourself great coffee!
If you have any further questions, please feel free to reach out on my contact page, or drop me a message on my Instagram.
Happy brewing (and tamping)! Nicole