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Have you ever wondered why you sometimes get a mediocre (or even flat-out disgusting) coffee? There are many possible reasons, such as temperature, quality of the milk, age of the coffee (the older the coffee, the more it tastes like cardboard), but one of the most important reasons why Espresso-style coffees are sometimes lack-luster in taste is because of poor tamping.

What is coffee tamping?

According to Serious Eats, tamping is very important to extract all the great flavours from your coffee roast. It is the compression of the coffee grinds into a tight cake so that you (or your coffee machine, at least) can press the water evenly and with the right amount of pressure, through the coffee grinds in order to pick up all the wonderful flavours coffee has to offer during the process of making the espresso. We can confirm that this is indeed true as we’ve tasted it all (and made it all) – bad coffee, mediocre coffee and extremely satisfying coffee, and one thing we have determined is that bad tamping has a huge impact on the quality of your espresso.

How do you do great coffee tamping?

To tamp coffee correctly for the best flavour you can possibly extract from the beans, your beans need to be tamped into a tight puck (think hockey…). After tamping, if you would carefully extract the tamped coffee onto the table, it would look exactly like a hockey puck. To tamp your coffee to perfection, you need to consider a few things:

  • Do it right – wrist straight and elbow at a 90 degree angle. Repetitive strain injuries can harm you over time.
  • Do not apply pressure on the tamp until the grinds are evenly distributed in the puck.
  • Use the right equipment. A proper tamp could cost you a few bucks, but without it, chances are that your coffee may be lack-luster.
  • Start with a medium amount of pressure for a few seconds, and then let the puck rest. Then apply a bit more pressure and tamp again. Make sure there are no loose spots in and around the coffee in the puck.
  • Pressure should be consistent (focus less on the amount of pressure you use). Aim to adjust your pressure so that your extraction takes around 20 seconds or slightly more to complete.
  • As an alternative to tight tamping, you could try nutation, but the different ways to tamp is a story for another day.
  • Your tamper should be the right size to fit your puck without sticking.
  • Rotate your tamper after applying pressure to smooth out the surface. Although not strictly necessary, it does contribute to the quality of your tamp.

Why is tamping so important?

Tamping is important to ensure that your espresso contains all the beautiful flavours your coffee grinds contain. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • There has to be a gap between the top of the coffee grind and the place in the machine where the water comes out of to ensure that there is enough space for water to gather and be pushed through.
  • Water will find the easiest way around. As Serious Eats would say, water is lazy. When you compress your grinds, water has no choice but to grow a pair and go through the grounds. Your coffee machine will take care of the pressure.

Conclusion

Making the perfect espresso looks simple. The guy takes some coffee grinds, stamps it into some funny little container and tightens it. Right? Wrong! The next time you taste a great espresso, ask your kind barista to show you in more detail how a perfect tamp is done. You will be amazed. Some baristas might even allow you to taste the difference between an espresso done with bad tamping vs. one that was done with great tamping.