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How To Tamp Espresso: Essential Tips on Tamping Pressure

You’ve done everything right: bought a great machine, hunted down the perfect espresso bean, and used a burr grinder to grind it to a fine setting. Your fav serial crime podcast is on-deck. The house is quiet. Life is good. You’re ready for that rich, creamy shot. Then you take that first sip of rich, dark liquid…

WTF! it tastes sour/bitter....what happened?

You may need to learn how to tamp espresso; the art and science of properly pressing down the grounds so that the end result is an effective extraction. Its not as easy as it sounds, but here are a few tips that will get you tamping like a pro.

What Is Tamping? 

The purpose of tamping is to create a resistance using the compacted coffee and making the water work to push through it. This is how the flavor is extracted. Learning proper espresso tamping – how the ground coffee is packed into the portafilter (basket) – is key to getting this right (1).

Some quick tips:

The pressure of the water pulls oils from the grounds and creates the bold taste and rich texture you expect. Water, like most things in life (including us humans), will take the path of least resistance. If the coffee grounds are loose and uneven, the water will find the gaps and move through there, not pulling enough of the flavor from the grounds.

"... You must grind the coffee just fine enough, and tamp it down in the filter basket just firmly and uniformly enough, so that the barrier of ground coffee resists the pressure of the hot water sufficiently to produce a slow dribble of dark, rich liquid." - Kenneth Davids

To avoid this, you push down on the grounds in the portafilter resulting in a compressed puck. It resists the water, and that tension creates the taste and consistency of the shot (2). It can be a bit of trial and error to get this right, but it’s worth it.

If it seems complicated, don’t let it intimidate you. Soon, it will be second nature.

What You Need

To tamp your espresso properly you're going to need a few things:

  • A good espresso machine (start here)
  • Espresso beans
  • A grinder that can grind for espresso
  • A Scale - helps to maintain accuracy (important for great espresso). To make a single shot of espresso, you need about 7-9 grams for a single and 14-18 for a double.  
  • A Portafilter 
  • An espresso Tamper (Here's list of good tampers)

* A common question: How does the grind of the coffee affect extraction rate? This is where the term "dialling in the shot" comes into play (3). 

Grind size can be the difference between delicious and bitter. You have to tweak a few small factors to really nail a good shot of espresso.

Can you tamp without a tamper? Yes, but you'll get less than ideal espresso. You can use any item that fits your portafilter and can take some pressure. (e.g. spice or salt jar). This is just an 'emergency hack'... kind of like making an espresso without a machine. Sure, it will work, but it will be tough to get the perfect shot of espresso.

Step-by-Step: How To Tamp Espresso


Portafilter with coffee needs an espresso tamper

TAMP ME ASAP

Ok let’s get down to it. You’ve got your tamping items ready, it’s time to tamp, son!

1: Even Out Your Grounds

Put your measured coffee into the portafilter; then take your index finger and run it across the top of the portafilter, pushing off any extra grounds. It has to be even and level. Don’t put pressure on it until it is, or you will get an uneven extraction (4) – and that means a less than perfect taste.

2. Place Your Tamp on a Level Surface

checking puck in portafilter after tamping

If possible, place your portafilter on a flat surface so its level (some portafilters are level on a benchtop; others will require you to find an edge)

Keep your wrist straight and your elbow bent at about a 90-degree angle. This helps the power to come from your body rather than your wrists (it’s this technique that saves you from getting a tamping injury in your wrist and lets you control the pressure).

"You don’t want to enter on an angle and correct it later because you’ve already changed the distribution of the coffee by that point." - Mitchell Fink

3. Apply light pressure

Apply a light amount of pressure so that a puck shape forms with the ground coffee. The aim is to get a flat surface here. An uneven surfance will promote pooling and poorly extracted espresso.

Level = good

Not level = bad

We’re talking about 15 lbs or so to start. This is to get things going and to make sure it’s all working.

4. Apply More Pressure

Now that you have a level bed of coffee grounds, its time to use in a little elbow grease (press harder)

person tamping an Espresso shot

Once you have a puck formed, put more force into it and push down harder to get rid of any spaces between the grinds. You want to tamp down hard enough to make the coffee compact and sturdy (5). Use a downward twisting motion as you are coming up out of pushing down. This continues to compact the coffee, even as you lift the tamper off of the service.

Tamping espresso too hard or unevenly isn’t just bad for your wrist - it can also cause over-extraction.

You may be wondering… if your grinds get over-extracted, what does that mean?Packing down the coffee too much means that the water has a hard time flowing through and it pulls too much of the coffee with it when it does. This will make it bitter and harsh (6).

How much espresso tamping pressure?

There is some (okay, a lot of) discussion about how much pressure to use when tamping. I recently went out and asked six baristas in four coffee shops about this. They all had slight variations in what they do, but they all agreed that firm and consistent pressure is crucial.

The range: between 20 to 30 lbs of pressure. 

Even-handed pressure is as important as the strength of force. I find that 30 lbs of pressure works well. How much is 30 lbs of pressure? What does 30 lbs of pressure feel like? If you have a calibrated tamper, it will tell you. Otherwise get out your bathroom scale and push down on it until you hit the 30 lb mark and get a sense for the amount of pressure you need (7).

5. Check for a flat, level surface

Looking good

Double check your puck to make sure that there are no gaps or spaces. You want to make sure that there is a solid, compact puck of coffee and that there are no gaps or loose spots. This is an important step for me. I need visual confirmation that I have done it right.

6. Give it a twist

As you are applying the final pressure, you can rotate the tamper to leave a smooth finish to the compacted coffee puck. This is the polish (8). I call it my “tamp stamp”.

Coffee can be funny – in fact, when I was learning how to tamp and I messed up, I told people I was having a “tamper” tantrum. No one but me thought that was funny either. The polish isn’t necessary and it is a bit of a show-off move, but it can be worth it – especially if you have someone watching you make the shot.

8. Clean up loose coffee grounds

Before you finish up, take a cloth and wipe off any excess coffee grounds that spilled around the edges of the portafilter. You don’t want any rogue grounds running around where they aren’t supposed to be in your machine. The portafilter should go into the machine nice and clean.

And thats how you tamp - now the fun part: brewing the espresso!

tamper and coffee grinder

Final Thoughts and Tips

The art and science of tamping might seem complicated and overly technical at first, but once you get it – it will seem easy. Getting a great espresso at home is worth taking the time to learn how to make it properly.

FAQs

How long should an espresso shot take?

An espresso shot should take about 20 seconds to brew (9). If your espresso falls outside the 20 second mark, you need to look at your grind size, coffee weight used and, of course, your tamping technique. 

How much is a shot of espresso?

A (single) shot of espresso typically equals 1oz. A lot of machines, however, will use a larger basket and portafilter allowing you to pull two shots of espresso at once. For a double shot, use 18 - 21 grams of finely-ground espresso beans. The brew time for a double shot should not exceed 30 seconds (10).

Why is my espresso watery?

Your espresso is watery because your espresso grounds are too coarse. If the grind is not fine enough the water will rush through the portafilter without extracting much flavor from the espresso bean. This leads to a weak and watery tasting shot of espresso.

How do you pull a perfect espresso shot?

You pull a perfect espresso shot with the right equipment and technique. The perfect shot greatly depends on grind size (fine for espresso), coffee weight (approx. half an ounce), tamping skills and pour time. If you get all these variants right, you will pull the perfect espresso shot.

How do I stop channeling espresso?

You stop channeling espresso by applying the correct tamping technique and checking your equipment beforehand. Make sure your basket is dry, your grounds are evenly distributed before you tamp, and that you're using the right amount of pressure when tamping your grounds. This will avoid the water from channeling through the portafilter too fast.


References:

  1. Petrich, I. (2019, February 14). Weighing, Grinding, Tamping: How to Pull a Great Espresso Shot. Retrieved from https://www.perfectdailygrind.com/2017/12/weighing-grinding-tamping-pull-great-espresso-shot
  2. Holschuh, A. (2018, October 08). Pressure and Flow. Retrieved from https://dailycoffeenews.com/2018/10/05/pressure-and-flow/
  3. Mazzarello, B. (2018, May 08). Pro-Tips: How to Dial In the Grind. Retrieved from https://blog.bluebottlecoffee.com/posts/dialing-in-the-grind
  4. Davids, K. (2017, November 02). Brewing Espresso at Home by Kenneth Davids. Retrieved from https://www.coffeereview.com/brewing-espresso-at-home/
  5. Fink, M. (2017, February 14). Level Up – Even Espresso Distribution. Retrieved from https://www.fivesenses.com.au/blog/level-even-espresso-distribution/
  6. Coffee Extraction and How to Taste It. (2019, May 22). Retrieved from https://baristahustle.com/blog/coffee-extraction-and-how-to-taste-it/
  7. S. (2017, September 07). Ultimate Brew Guide For Espresso. Retrieved from https://driftaway.coffee/ultimate-brew-guide-for-espresso/
  8. Espresso Brewing: Perfecting the Crema. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.coffeereview.com/coffee-reference/espresso/espresso-brewing/perfecting-the-crema/
  9. ​The Barista Express™. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.brevilleusasupport.com/bes860xl/use/making-espresso/
  10. Espresso Brewing Guide - How to Make Espresso at Home. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://bluebottlecoffee.com/preparation-guides/espresso

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Alex
 

Alex is the Founder and Editor of Homegrounds.co. He is passionate about brewing amazing coffee at home, and teaching others to do the same.

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