How To Tamp Espresso [The LAST Tutorial You’ll Ever Need]
You’ve done everything right:
Bought a well-rated machine, hunted down the perfect bean, and ground it properly. 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’s weak! What happened?
You may need to learn how to tamp espresso properly.
What is tamping?
It is the art and science of properly pressing down the grounds so that the end result is an effective extraction – which means a good shot of espresso.
What Is Tamping?
The purpose of tamping is to create a resistance (using the compacted coffee), 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.
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.
To avoid this, you push down on the grounds in the portafilter to create a compressed puck.
It resists the water and that tension creates the taste and consistency of the shot.
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’ll Need
To make a good espresso you need the right tools and need to know how to use them. To tamp like a boss, you need:
WHAT YOU NEED
- Espresso Machine - I am assuming you have one of these. If you are in the market, we have a range of guides on espresso machines. I really like the Delognhi Magnifica One Touch for the ease and convenience.
- Good Coffee - We’ve got a great list of where to find a good bean. I am a big fan of the Vancouver, British Columbia-based 49th Parallel espresso line.
- Grinder - A good grinder is key – and we recommend a burr grinder over a blade. The Baratza Virtuoso is an excellent option. Here’s a little insider tip for you, however. If you already have a grinder, but its not top-of-the-line, this little secret gadget will help you achieve perfect grinds all day long. Shhh.
A common question is: How does the grind of the coffee affect extraction rate? Grind size can be the difference between delicious and bitter. We have a killer grind size chart that tells you everything you need to know.
- Scale - A scale helps to maintain accuracy – and that is 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.
- Portafilter - The basket that comes with your machine might be good – or upgrading is always an option. Foodal has a good piece about choosing the right portafilter for your espresso machine.
- Tamper - Tampers are made from steel, wood, plastic or rubber – or a combination of those. They are what you use to pound down the grounds so that the water consistently flows through the coffee, allowing for a smooth extraction.
There are many options for these including a clicker tamper, which tells you when you hit 30 lbs of pressure. I like the Espro Calibrated Flat Tamper VST – it’s on the high end, price-wise, but for my money, this is the best calibrated tamper.
No Tamper… No Worries?
The question of how to tamp espresso without a tamper sometimes comes up. Actually it comes up a lot.
While I don’t recommend it, in a pinch, you can use an item that fits your portafilter and can take some pressure.
I used a small spice jar as an espresso tamper substitute when I was at a vacation home and the tamper was nowhere to be found.
It wasn’t perfect, but it worked.
How To Tamp Espresso
Ok let’s get down to it. You’ve got your tamping items ready, it’s time to tamp, son!
Step 1: Even It Out
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 – and that means a less than perfect taste.
Step 2: Assume The Right Position
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).
Step 3: Apply Light Pressure
Apply a light amount of pressure so that a puck shape forms with the ground coffee. We’re talking about 15 lbs or so to start.
This is to get things going and to make sure it’s all working.
Step 4: Apply More Pressure
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.
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 good for your wrist or the coffee – it can 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.
Check out this great piece by Barista Hustle on what over- or under-extracted coffee tastes like.
As you become more proficient at making espresso, you will better understand the nuances and will be able to address any deficiencies in your process.
Step 5 – 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.
The range: between 20 to 30 lbs of pressure.
The pros confirmed that firm and consistent pressure is crucial. 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.
Step 6: Double Check The Puck
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.
Step 7 – Show Off A Bit
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.”
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.
Step 8: Wipe It Up
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.
Step 9: Make The Coffee
Follow the instructions on your espresso maker to make the shot.
Step 10: Sip To Your Heart’s Content
Sit back and enjoy a beautiful shot of happiness.
(You know I mean great espresso, right?)
You can even turn on that serial crime podcast now, if that’s your thing.
Step 11 – Tips
Tamping is an art that takes practice to perfect.
One little tip: pay attention to what the barista does when you go to your local coffee shop.
Ask them for tips. I find they are pretty good at sharing tamping espresso tips, if you ask.
Welcome To The Elite League Of Espresso Tampers
What did you think of this tutorial?
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.
I hope you will let me know what you think and how your espresso pull turns out. Please share with your friends and family. No one should suffer and drink a bad shot of espresso – and we can help!