The Tamper King – Reg Barber
The man behind the tampers favoured by world champions, Reg Barber, shares his story of how a lack of available tampers led him to create his own.
Acertain buzz fell over this year’s AASCA National Specialty Coffee Championships as word got around that Reg Barber, the man whose name is synonymous with superior coffee tampers, had arrived.
As this was his first time in Australia, few had met the man behind the name associated with the elite range of specialty tampers. A favourite tool among the most serious baristas, most champions use Reg Barber tampers in their winning performances. Reg Barber tampers were among the first customised models made available and are currently sold to enthusiasts around the world.
So, who is the man behind the name? As BeanScene sat down with Reg, I was quick to realise that he’s far more accessible than his prestigious name may let on. In fact, accessible is an understatement. With the kind of slow Canadian drawl you can’t mistake for anything else, dressed casually in cargo shorts and with a camera permanently strapped around his neck, Reg simply exudes warmth and friendliness.
Having grown up in a small town in the interior of British Columbia, Reg explains how his foray into the tamper making business 16 years ago was entirely incidental. Reg had moved to the larger city of Victoria, British Columbia, which had a small but growing specialty coffee culture. He searched for coffee tampers, couldn’t find any and started making them for himself. A specialty coffee supply store in Seattle caught wind of what he was doing and Reg was soon regularly filling orders.
“This store just discovered what I was making, and asked me to make some more,” Reg recalls. “Two became three, three became six, six became 15 and it just got bigger and bigger.”
Up until around nine years ago, Reg made the tampers in his spare time while keeping various day jobs. These included roles wiring boards, delivering pharmaceuticals and then for a decade he worked as a driver for the Department of National Defence.
As the orders continued to come in for his tampers, a puzzled Reg had a look around and realised there weren’t many other suppliers out there.
“You couldn’t really go out and buy any tampers. Some [espresso] machine companies had some, but otherwise it was pretty limited. I said, ‘Hey there’s a market out there.’”
Coincidentally, the internet was just coming on board. This combination of a lack of supply and new distribution channel was what Reg calls the “perfect storm” to pave his way as an international supplier.
In a decade and a half of making tampers, Reg has had a huge impact on the engineering of the barista tool. He notes that he was the first to come up with a two-part tamper that allows the combination of different materials for the base and the handle. He was also the first to offer a wooden handle and the first to use a Delron insert. Reg also changed the industry from measuring in the American standard of inches to the more international style of millimetres and the first to provide custom-ordered tampers to any size via the internet.
Reg Barber tampers currently come in four different style bases, with several different types of handles in wood, powder coated, anodized and all aluminum, and in every colour. While he’s had up to six employees in the past, these days he works with his daughter and son-in-law and together they make around 10,000 coffee tampers a year.
So what makes one tamper better than another? Technical details aside, Reg says a lot of it comes down to the confidence of the barista and their comfort with the tamper.
“The number one thing I tell everyone is how it makes you feel,” he says. “You can have any tamper and as long as you feel good about it, you’ll make good coffee. It’s like a luxury item, it’s very personal.”
In fact, for a barista working daily behind a machine, Reg points out their coffee tamper is the only personal item they really have. With their own specialised coffee tamper, it’s a way to personalise the process. He knows some baristas with collections of up to 20 tampers.
To continually improve his product, Reg travels regularly to all of the world’s major coffee events, talking to baristas about what they want and learning about trends. For the last 10 years he’s attended all the American and Canadian competitions and six years ago he started touring world specialty coffee championship events.
“You just talk to people and engineer everything from scratch. You figure out what the coffee is doing and work backwards from there,” he says. “Everyone keeps telling me I can’t go any further, but I always come up with some room for experimenting. Coffee is always evolving, so I have to evolve with it.”
Reg regularly sends out his tampers to a network of baristas he’s met during his travels to test out his latest designs. In this sense, his travels have become so much more than just about research, but also a way to support an industry that has made his career.
“I just felt it was necessary as part of my learning to go out and learn about my clients. If it weren’t for baristas, I wouldn’t have a job. I should be there supporting them, be there when they need it,” he says. “I have so many friends around the world now, it just gives me goosebumps to think about it.”
For Reg, these events really epitomise everything he loves about the coffee industry. While the competitiveness is there to help advance the industry, Reg says it’s really about people coming together and sharing a passion.
He recounts one story of a competitor who had come down from Whitehorse, in Canada’s northern territory of Yukon, with a total population of around 34,000. The barista didn’t know she needed any equipment and had arrived with nothing. When the other competitors found out, they all scrambled to get the equipment together so she could compete.
“That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? I don’t really care for the competitions in the true sense of the word. I think that when everyone just helps out that’s the best part,” Reg says. “If I don’t have fun,
I don’t want to do it.”