Espresso Tamping Technique: Do It Like a Pro

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If you want to expertly extract espresso, you’ll need to pack the perfect puck.

A good espresso tamping technique creates resistance (with evenly compacted coffee) that makes the brewing water work hard to push through it and saturate all of the fine grounds, thus extracting all of that great coffee flavor. The water pressure pulls oils from the grounds and creates the bold taste and rich texture inherent to a good espresso.

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But water (like humans) tends to take the path of least resistance. If the coffee grounds are loose and uneven, water will find the gaps and move through them, instead of pulling flavor from the grounds.

To avoid this, follow these easy steps. Before you know it, you’ll be a pro:

1. Level the grounds
  • Put your measured coffee into the portafilter. Run your index finger across the top, pushing off any excess grounds.
  • Make sure it’s even and level before putting any pressure on the coffee, or you’ll get an uneven extraction—and less flavor.
2. Use proper form
  • Turn your tamping-side hip toward the counter.
  • Keep your wrist straight and your elbow bent at about a 90-degree angle to maximize tamping control. This also helps the power to come from your body rather than your wrist, to avoid repetitive stress injury.
  • Hold the tamper like you're grabbing a doorknob with your thumb and index finger touching the base. This provides two points of contact with the tamper base and helps maintain a level bed of coffee grounds.
3. Apply light pressure
  • Apply 15 pounds or so of pressure to form a puck shape with the ground coffee. You can learn to apply the right amount of pressure by standing on a bathroom scale while pressing down on the counter and watching your weight decrease. Or, if you have a calibrated tamper, it will tell you.
  • Even-handed pressure is as important as the strength of force.
4. Apply more pressure, and polish
  • Once the puck is formed, push down harder to get rid of the space between the grounds and form a compact and sturdy puck. Most baristas recommend 30 pounds of pressure, but some do as little as 20 pounds. More and more baristas are finding that tamping pressure is overrated—hard on the wrist and cause an over-extracted, bitter brew.
  • Use a twisting motion as you pull up to “polish” the puck. Just be sure not to twist as you push down, which will disturb the packed coffee.
5. Inspect the puck and clean the portafilter
  • Double check your puck to make sure that there are no gaps or loose spots in and around the coffee.
  • Wipe off any coffee grounds that spilled around the edges of the portafilter. You don’t want any grounds running around where they aren’t supposed to be in your machine. This step protects the portafilter gasket and reduces espresso machine maintenance.

Keep at it, and soon tamping espresso will be second nature!