Level Tamp

I have noticed an incoming link to the Onion-Bean this last week from a European coffee forum for home baristas (Blogger be damned for your inability to keep track of these things). The link directed unfortunate coffee drinkers to my Naked Vs Spout acidity blog entry. On that whole matter I will say that for whatever reason (I will not try to link it necessarily to the acidity issue for lack of accurate scientific data) spout shots I have taste tested adjacent to naked shots have been noticeably and repeatably mellower and less bright. Shots split into two different demitasses by a spout are yet slightly less tangy than shots split by the spout but dripped into the one demitasse. Crema from the naked PF is enormous in the first few seconds, but dissipates quickly as the bubbles congregate rapidly into larger bubbles that pop, and spouted shots have produced tighter crema with more stability. But all that nonsense put aside, that is not the topic of this entry.

The forum topic which liked to this blog was more or less dedicated to techniques for tamping level in cases where spouts were wobbly, or for whatever reason unstable (it’s always the pool que, never the pool shooter). They seem to think the idea is to keep all the equipment level with the sea. For crying out loud, trust your instincts and use the Force, Luke. To be more specific, use your damn senses. You have finger tips calibrated to an extremely high level of sensitivity. Have you ever seen a Barista in a cafe, or during a competition for that mater, whip out a carpenter’s level, place it across the top of the basket, and make the needed adjustments to the tamp? I thought this would be an opportune moment to illustrate the technique I use. The simplicity, ease of use, and instant feedback make it perfectly desirable for any environment, professional, home, or competition. Allow me to illustrate.

tampin level

There is no need for tools or devices. I receive instant feedback from my fingertips and that allows me to make the necessary adjustments to the levelness on the fly. To the casual observer it may not even look as though anything is happening other than compression. I am also detecting the amount of grounds in the basket. As I make drink after drink, I can keep the total amount of coffee brewed at a very constant quantity for each shot because I always know if there is a tiny bit too much or too little in the portafilter.

This picture was taken in my kitchen, not at the cafe, so the portafilter is not a commercial brand ($70 Hamilton Beach-“15 Bar Italian pump”, still havn’t gotten a great shot out of it). I am placing the bottom edge of the pf at the edge of the table so that the spouts are dangling over the side. This keeps them from picking up grounds, which are all over the place at the shop.

Everyone has their own thing that they do. I try to make every step in the preparation of the shot purposeful, every action producing a particularly desired result. Many Baristas have habits they repeat every time, but when questioned, they have no reason other than they like how it feels, or that is what someone showed them. But everything has to point in the direction of great espresso. Even when you understand all the variables that should be under control, it is still hard to get great shots one after another. If you are not paying attention to every little detail, you can kiss your flavor good bye. But most importantly on the subject of level tamping, you do not need a bunch of prosthetic devices to hold everything in place and aligned with the magnetic poles in order to get good results. Just “feel it” into place, and make it feel exactly the same every time.

  1. sorta side topic…
    I use a variation of that tamp style feeling the rim but…
    Question is do you feel uncomforatble with tampers that don’t taper like that one?
    The one in the photo looks like a reg or some variation but if the base did not have that slope, would you still ‘feel’ comfy?

  2. My tamp is a 1st-line knock off of the RB style. The piston is a 58 mm, and the dimension from the base to the slope edge is 27/64″. The biggest difference between mine and the RB is that my handle (The Rosewood “traditional” style} is about 1/4″ longer and the knob has a little less diameter. I don’t have a RB in front of me to measure at the moment. At the shop I use this one and a real RB 57 mm (only for the triple ridged basket). I have had the opportunity to use several tamp styles side by side at the Counter Culture training center, and none of the tamps had a significantly altered piston shape. They all had the slope edge at about the same place.

    I can only guess what it would feel like if the tamp had no slope ridge, or if it was higher up or something. I would have to say that I would need to radically alter my level technique, endure an awkward transition period, whine and complain about it to everyone within ear shot till they roll their eyes every time they see me prep another shot, and eventually settle into another satisfactory routine.

    So, to answer your question, yes, I would feel uncomfortable.

    • June
    • January 3rd, 2007

    This is off topic completely–just seeking out Phil and Karen via Google. Get in touch when you can. We’ve got years to cover!

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