The Tamping Debate

Barista

PortafilterWtamp_ScottSchillerHorizontal

For most baristas, tamping is as essential to espresso making as dialing in and grinding the beans. What would happen, then, if the baristas of the world suddenly didn’t have to tamp? That’s the question some coffee professionals are asking themselves, as machine innovations, brewing technology, and even just basic extraction theory grows, develops, and spreads across the industry.

Andrew Tucker-MacLeod, a West Coast trainer and educator for Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters, is one barista who’s open to challenging the way we think about tamping—or the way we think about not tamping. In a recent phone interview, Andrew described how he first started to reconsider the tamp: “I was trying to find a setting on my [Nuova Simonelli] Aurelia T-3, trying to see what I can do and what I can’t do, reading the manual on it, and it said that the way the soft-infusion is set up on their groups, tamping is less of a factor—so that if you end up tamping incorrectly, the pre-infusion sort of works it out.”

(Photo illustration: Scott Schiller and Cynthia Meadors.)
(Photo illustration: Scott Schiller and Cynthia Meadors.)

While dosing and distributing are increasingly controlled by advanced grinder technology and the use of scales and leveling tools, tamping remains one of the personal and physical connections a coffee maker has to coffee. Aside from that, of course, it’s long been considered functional as part of a barista’s technique. Tamping compresses the cake of ground coffee to offer resistance to the highly pressurized water from the group head, and it also creates a bit of space for the coffee grounds to swell, as they inevitably will when they start absorbing the brew water.

Is it truly necessary, though?

Tucker-MacLeod didn’t necessarily believe what he read at first, so he did a few tests—and was surprised at what he found. “It’s odd,” he says. “What you’d expect to see is turning on the shot and having water just gush through the shot. What happens, basically, is you get twenty-five to twenty-eight seconds of espresso without any of the pits or blast-throughs that you’d expect.”

“The dose size has to be right around the nineteen-gram or twenty-gram dose, though—you can’t overfill the basket. That’s the key.”
According to Nuova Simonelli, specifically regarding it’s T-3 espresso machines, “tamping pressure is less relevant to a consistent espresso extraction than previously thought,” thanks to an innovative soft pre-infusion feature, which allows the swelling of the coffee bed itself to create an even cake of grounds and prevent channeling. While many espresso machines do feature pre-infusion when the groups are first activated, some have higher pre-wet doses, or pressures. As with anything, comparative results are necessary.

Not everyone agrees with the suggestion to throw the tampers out with the spent puck—just ask a tamper manufacturer! Reg Barber, arguably the man who created the market for handcrafted espresso tampers, insists tamping will remain alive and well. “Baristas’ style and force have a tremendous impact on espresso extraction,” he says via e-mail. “If a barista is pressing with a great deal of force or has a specific ‘style,’ this will have as much of an impact on the extraction as the coffee they’re using.

Intrigued, I decided to do some side-by-side tests, using standard espresso-machine technology (OK, a La Marzocco Linea PB) and preparation technique. After dialing in a coffee (twenty grams of dry grounds and a finished shot weight of about thirty-seven grams, with a roughly twenty-five second brew time) and making several pleasant shots of espresso using standard tamping pressure, I prepared several shots following all the same parameters, minus the tamp. While the extraction time was within a practically identical range, the shots were noticeably inferior in both taste and mouthfeel. While the tamped espresso was sweet with a punchy acidity and a persistent crema, the non-tamped espresso was woody, with a bitter finish and crema that dissipated almost instantly. Inspecting the spent puck after extraction showed far more instances of channeling in the untamped coffee, with clear cracks between the grounds’ cake and the portafilter walls.

Unscientific as it is, running a test with your own machine is probably the most accessible way for the average barista to make an informed decision about tamping, pro or con. Will the results rewrite the way we make espresso? Probably not. There is a strong physical and emotional appeal in the action and development of a unique tamping “style”—and espresso without style is, well, just a boring old cup of coffee.

Erin Meister, better known as just Meister, is a writer and part of Counter Culture’s educational department in New York City.