Basics: Part 1 – Tamp

Author: Spencer Posted: September 5, 2009

While I love learning about the minutia of all that is coffee (different steeping methods, pre-infusion, pressure profiling, ideal roast dates, roast curves, etc…) I have found it refreshing to ponder the baby steps that every barista takes when they first enter the coffee world.

Please do not consider this post to be by any means authoritative, simply a re-statement of the building blocks upon which the finer points are built. It is intended primarily for the new wave of up-and-coming coffee professionals and enthusiasts, but may spur the more experienced to do a bit of experimenting as well.

I think a lot of baristas over-evaluate the influence of the tamp. I’ve often heard remarks like “that shot is dripping, I guess I tamped to hard”, or conversely “maybe I didn’t tamp hard enough that time”. Please throw this seemingly logical convention out the door. Extraction rate is determined by dose and grind primarily, the tamp has little to do with the actual extraction speed; it is primarily an influencer of how even an extraction is. Think about it. The coarseness of espresso grinds limits the coffee’s ability to be packed. In other words, there is a natural threshold at which the espresso can be packed no more. In order to actually tamp it further, one would have to literally be grinding the coffee finer with the tamper. The espresso that you’re using has already been ground extremely fine, under intense pressure from heavy duty burrs that could take your pinky finger off. Do you really think that your smooth, flat, Reg Barber is going to do much damage? Didn’t think so.

Conclusion: Stop killing yourself with your tamp! A couple of years ago I developed an intense knot between my shoulders. Sound familiar to anyone? It was from repeated strain on my muscles cause by overexertion. I was tamping far too hard. At least 60 pounds, I imagine. Perhaps more. I always “knew” I only needed 30 pounds. That’s what I was taught. That’s what I’m sure most baristas have heard. But I think that many don’t realize how light that actually is.

On that note, how light is too light? I am reminded of an infamous experiment that many like to forget about. Dose a shot and pull it. No tamp. Loose coffee, straight into the group. It should gush out, right? Wrong. If the grind and dose have been set correctly, the shot looks remarkably decent…*tear. All this hard work and labour for nothing. Why tamp at all, then? First off, putting loose coffee into a group head will make one hell of a mess really fast. Secondly, there is very little control over how even the extraction is. Something is coming to mind….oh ya, “Extraction rate is determined by dose and grind primarily, the tamp has little to do with the actual extraction speed; it is primarily an influencer of how even an extraction is.” I knew I said that already.

Look at the videos from the WBC of the last two years. Watch how light they tamp. Finger strength. Beautiful. This brings me to my final point. There is far less control over how even the tamp is when you’re trying to pound the portafilter into the counter. Ease up, and may I suggest using your fingers to feel how even your tamp is? Every time! Too many baristas learn the basics, learn how to steam rich creamy microfoam and pour 8 leaf tulips, and then they begin to ignore these “minor” points. I’ve seen veterans, whom I respect a great deal, tamp very unevenly. Don’t get sloppy. Check every time. Try seeing how light you can tamp while still obtaining a good extraction. I’m curious to hear about what you find.

13 Responses to “Basics: Part 1 – Tamp

  1. Anthony says:

    Nicey work Spence.

  2. george says:

    Agreed. Keep it level, keep it light.

  3. Katie O'Shea says:

    I’ve been told by one of our coffee educators that I have a cute tamp. Out of curiosity, I’ve since experimented with a harder tamp, comparing it to my usual (cute) tamp. My shots are equally even & straight, whether I use the cute tamp or the bull-in-a-china-shop tamp, with no difference in viscosity or thickness of extraction. Cool.

    Something else that’s recently been brought to my attention is the purpose of polishing the puck. If you’re tamping evenly, there should be no need to polish, as polishing basically takes your tamp & makes sure it’s evenly distributed across the puck surface. I’m paying super-extra attention to the evenness of my tamp before I totally forgo the polish … but I may forgo the polish.

  4. george says:

    @Katie O’Shea
    I stopped polishing earlier this year. I haven’t noticed any difference, other than it takes me half the time to tamp as it does anyone else.

  5. ya.wei says:

    i had the barista shoulder earlier this year but i wasn’t even tamping that hard. my problem was i was tamping with my arm only. then i started adjusting my tamping posture and shifting my body weight while tamping. now i don’t even feel anything after working long hours on bar. it reminds me of what my high school basketball coach told me: “shoot from your knees, not from your shoulders”. Using fingers to feel the evenness is very important. that also speaks of how baristas should hold their tampers. don’t hold it like driving a stick shift – that’s just asking for unwanted wrist problem.

  6. Tyler says:

    Another note – Who can tamp harder than 9 bars?

    Kick ass pic btw.

  7. Julian says:

    THE SHOULDER KNOT! I definitely had it starting out… it still bugs me from time to time! I kind of fixed it by doing what ya.wei did by correcting my posture. I would like to think I don’t tamp quite as hard as some of my fellow co-workers (I’ve seen the countertop shake from the force they put into their tamps), but I’ll keep in mind your advice on lightening the load!

    And yes, pics are seriously badass!

  8. Michael Tam says:

    Great pic and very very good post. I find its useful to touch up on basics as a beginner or a seasoned barista.

  9. Grady says:

    I like to stand on a stool to achieve approx. 140 lbs of pressure, then give the sides of the portafilter 3 or 4 taps with the tamper. But seriously… great article Spence.

  10. Tim Logan says:

    thank you! I’m glad people are finally recognizing this. Great post as always.

  11. Maximos says:

    Grady, you only weigh 140 lbs? As IF!!!

  12. Ben E. says:

    The most important thing my tamps do is give me some tactile feedback on my grind and distribution. Not quite sure what it is but when I’m dialing equipment in I can TELL by the way the tamp felt that this shot just isn’t going to work.

    Nice article though. I totally agree.

  13. Jeszcze o tampowaniu/tampingu… « Filtry Espresso Lab says:

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