Coffee & Coffee Gear Misconceptions: 02 – Expensive Tamper = Better Extraction

One of the myths and misconceptions out there is that you need an expensive tamper to pull good espresso shots. This couldn’t be further from the truth. An espresso tamper serves one main purpose, which is tamping or compacting the coffee tightly together as to ensure proper and even flow of water throughout the puck. Now, the most important feature of a tamper to ensure a quality tamp, is the base size. Water is lazy and it will always take the path of least resistant. A smaller diameter tamper, will only tamp part of the coffee but not all of it. This will cause the coffee that was tamped to be overextracted while the ring of coffee that was not tamped (due to the smaller diameter tamper base) to be underextracted. The mix of underextraction and overextraction will cause the flavor to be off. For under $30 you can find a perfect size tamper, depending on the size of your basket, that will last you a lifetime and will do the job perfectly (assuming you have the proper tamping technique down).

Many people believe that tamper weight is very important and they seek heavier tampers made out of stainless, metal, etc. but I personally disagree with that. As explained earlier, the size of the tamper is the most important feature of a tamper, weight is merely a preference as some people prefer a certain heft in their hand while tamping. Having said that, there is a case to be made for lighter tampers but that’s a different conversation for another day.

Having said that, many people will spend $200 on tampers, which is perfectly fine, but keep in mind that many of those tampers serve and do the same job the $30 tamper does. The main difference is that the $200 tamper most likely has a handle made out of fancy wood or exquisite materials with unmistakable craftsmanship (and other cosmetic attributes) while the $30 tamper is made out of metal or other plain more modest materials. The $200 tamper is most likely beautiful to look at but that’s about it. There is one exception to this however, some tampers that do cost $150 or more actually do a lot more than simply ensure a full tamp of the coffee puck. Tampers such as The Force Tamper, Bravo Tamper, Espro Calibrated Tamper etc. also ensure a perfectly leveled tamp as they sit on top of the basket ensuring that when the tamper base comes in contact with the coffee, it is fully leveled, this ensures that the water is (by sliding to the lower side of the puck) not going to prefer one side over the other. A sloping, uneven tamp can be seen from a bottomless portafilter if the coffee stream/cone is off center and can also be seen if using a double spout portafilter and coffee is coming out of one side of the spout more than the other. The Force Tamper will even go a step further than most tampers by applying the same tamping force, regardless of dose. This convenient feature is nice to have if you change dosage or coffees as you won’t need to adjust the travel distance of the tamper to ensure proper pressure.

To summarize, an expensive tamper won’t do a better job than a cheaper one if both tampers are appropriately sized for the coffee basket. The only time a more expensive tamper will do a better job if it can ensure a leveled tamp (by sitting on top of the coffee basket) and/or if it can ensure a consistent tamping pressure/force, shot after shot.

The Effects of Different Tamper Bases on Extraction

For this week, I decided to take advantage of the fact that The Force Tamper, which I have reviewed and blogged about before, have been sent to me with multiple bases and make a video to compare the effects the shape of a tamper base plays in the extraction of an espresso shot. What I’m after is to find out if there is a basis to claims that some bases perform better than others taste and looks wise. I chose the following bases for the test as they are more commonly used/known:

  1. Curve
  2. C-Flat
  3. Ripple
  4. Flat

For this test, the following variables are constant:

  • Temperature is maintained at around 200F by doing a 5 to 6 seconds cooling flush
  • The basket is the same one used across all 4 shots, a VST 20g basket in a bottomless portafilter
  • The input is 17g of coffee and the output is around 32g to 34g of liquid.
  • Distribution evenness was maintained by using the WDT distribution technique (paper clip to distribute/agitate the coffee grounds in the basket) and a Chinese knockoff distribution tool similar to the OCD.

The following are pictures showing the shots 10 seconds from the moment the first drop of liquid appeared from the basket. This will give a basis for comparison that’s pretty consistent.

First shot is using the Curve base:
Curve Base - PictureSecond shot using the C-Flat base:C-Flat - PictureThird shouting the Ripple base:Ripple Base - Picture
Fourth shot using the Flat base:
Flat Base - Picture

Looking at the pictures, I seem to think that the Ripple and Flat bases have performed best. Taste wise, I haven’t noticed any major difference, except that the shot extracted using the Curve base tasted unbalanced and the shot extracted using the Flat base tasted the most balanced. Please note that these tasting notes are based on my palette, others may be able to detect much deeper differences and complicated notes that I may have not tasted. I personally use a flat base as I find it to be the easiest to work with and the most consistent but others have found other base shapes to be best for their coffees, use or machines. You can also watch the video below for the full extractions and feel free to leave me comments with any questions or suggestions you may have.

The Force Tamper – Review

While browsing coffee gear and coffee-related posts on Instagram, I stumbled upon a post by Socraticcoffee showing The Force Tamper and indicating that a review of this tamper is on its way. Looking at the tamper, I was intrigued. Every tamper out in the market that promises a leveled tamp has to be manually adjusted to accommodate different doses. What do I mean by that? Basically, self leveling tampers that promise a perfectly leveled tamp and a consistent pressure works by manually setting the travel distance of the tamper base to a set level and this level is controlled by your dose. In other words, if you dose 19gm in the basket and you adjust the travel distance of the tamper to tamp down at let’s say a 30 lb of pressure but then if you decide to dose 21gm or if you change coffees (and the new coffee has different density) or if you use different size baskets then you will have to adjust the travel distance of the tamper or you will be tamping too much (or too hard) before the leveling base reaches the basket for a leveled tamp. Once Socratic confirmed that this tamper provides a perfectly leveled tamp regardless of the dose, I was ecstatic and I reached out to the owner (Zubing Sun) on Instagram (@starmoonxp) and asked for more details.

After some back and forth, The Force Tamper complete with multiple bases and handles, was on its way from China to New Jersey and I couldn’t be more excited.

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The Force Tamper with all its glory
The Force Tamper comes with the following:

  1. One handle of your choice (see picture below)
  2. One base (see picture below for different choices)
  3. One small pouch/bag in case you would like to transport the tamper (see picture below)
  4. One rubber tamper base to sit your tamper on it (see picture below)
  5. A plastic clear box where everything fits

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3 different handle shapes, the Jelly (far left), the Mushroom (middle) and the ball (far right)
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The bases are (in order from top left then bottom left): Flat, Curve, Euro Curve, C-Flat, Ripple, Euro Ripple, US Ripple and C-Ripple
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The pouch, the box and the base on which the tamper sits
Once I unboxed my tamper, I wanted to see how the mechanism of this tamper works and to confirm my understanding of its uniqueness and so I disassembled most of the parts but before I show you the parts and components it is important to understand why this tamper is unique. In my mind, the perfect tamper is a tamper that tamps level while applying consistent amount of force or pressure. All tampers on the market that I’m aware of (before the release of The Force Tamper), promise either a leveled tamp (by having a base that sits on top of the tamper), or a consistent pressure, or both as long as your dose is consistent and your coffee is the same. Never existed a tamper that promises a leveled tamp, a consistent pressure regardless of coffee, basket size or dosage (more on that later) without any adjustments!

What makes this tamper unique and what ensures the consistent pressure is the method it employs to apply the force to the coffee. Most tampers on the market that regulate the pressure applied to the coffee in the basket, do so by using some sort of feedback function such as a click or a compression spring that’s designed to provide a preset level of pressure. The Force Tamper unique design is different. Pressing down on the handle of The Force Tamper compresses a spring, then at a point controlled by an internal mechanism, the spring is released pushing or punching a piston down onto the base and then the bases compresses the coffee. This genius of this mechanism is what eliminates the need to adjust the tamper travel distance, like with other tampers, every time you need to adjust your dosage or change coffees.

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Some of the many parts making up the genius design of The Force Tamper
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A picture of the leveling base (without the tamping base) that sits on top of the basket to ensure a leveled tamping
The pressure or amount of force applied can be adjusted. You can do so by unscrewing the handle from the tamper then you will find what looks like a washer (t’s not) with two dents or bumps (see picture below). Grab a coin, then insert it in the two holes and rotate clockwise or counterclockwise. Clockwise will increase the pressure (or punch) force applied to the coffee and counterclockwise will decrease he pressure (or punch) force applied to the coffee.

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I have embedded below a video I made showing how you can easily adjust the pressure.

From the day I saw Socratic’s post on Instagram, I knew that this tamper is a game changer and once I received it and started using it, I was sold. The Force Tamper with its perfect leveling and consistent pressure tamping, practically eliminates tamping as a cause of bad extractions. Also, for cafes with multiple baristas or multiple locations it helps uniformize tamping. Finally, for working baristas, The Force Tamper eliminates elbow and wrist injuries caused by hours of tamping as you only need to hold the portafilter and tamper still while pushing down on the handle.

I have made a video review of the tamper as well. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: I received the tamper in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.