Mocopan Coffee’s Babin Gurung on correct tamping techniques to achieve consistent espresso extractions.
Correct tamping is one of the most understated skills necessary for even extraction. How hard you should tamp, whether it matters, and the future of automatic tampers still sparks conversation behind the coffee bar. Tamping is important for even extraction, but the difference of ideas come around the technique involved. Over the years, I have seen, heard, and read about various tamping techniques and found some work better than the others.
Simply put, tamping creates resistance in ground coffee and minimises gaps, causing water to pass slowly for extraction of all the favourable solubles. Extraction is the key word here and it is what can make or break your coffee. So, here are two things a good tamping technique should achieve:
Consistency: A good tamping technique should create consistent pressure in every shot of coffee you make. The idea is to promote even distribution so the water flows through individual grains of coffee and extracts as much flavour as possible. Keeping tamping consistent means you can focus on other variables such as distribution, grind size, or dose to change the outcome of flavour in your coffee. This can be particularly challenging in cafés where there are multiple baristas. Different methods of tamping can create different results leading to inconsistent coffee for the customers.
Care: Good tamping technique should minimise repetitive strain injury, also known as RSI, to your body. Far too often we see injuries in baristas to their backs, wrist joints, ligaments, and muscles due to poor practices. This can negatively impact baristas’ long-term physical health, ultimately affecting business operations.
Now that we know what factors to consider, let’s take a look at the best manual tamping practice.
Position: Stand in your natural standing position. Comfort is key as baristas spend many hours on their feet. Stand sideways to your work bench and hold your tamper like a flashlight while fully wrapping it (see figure 2). This will keep your back straight and minimise repetitive bend in your wrist.
Placement: Place your tamper flat and even on top of your group handle before pressing it. This is to avoid slope which can cause uneven flow and extraction. This means the flavour of your coffee can change from cup to cup.
Press: Instead of using your arm strength which can cause strain, lean your body forward to add the weight (approximately 15 kilograms). This means you are not using excessive force when tamping, giving you more consistency while reducing strain.
One of the most commonly asked questions is “how hard do I tamp?” Try three different tamps: light, hard, and very hard. You will notice a change in extraction between light and hard tamp. Once coffee grounds have firmed up, pressing harder does not make any significant difference. The “sweet spot” is where your coffee grind is firm enough and stops moving further. It is more important to keep the pressure consistent per coffee than the amount you apply.
If you’ve ever wondered about double tamping, it is essentially where you tamp once with half the dose, and a second time with a full dose. What you’re basically doing is creating two layers of coffee in your handle where water has to pass through two separate beds of coffee with a pause in between. This will create a slower and uneven extraction of flavours, so best avoid this method.
Some baristas like to tap the side of the group handle to ensure nothing sticks to the side wall of the basket. But what this actually does is shifts the puck, creating a channel around it. You could go back and tamp it again – double-tamping – but it doesn’t fix the channelling issue. This will cause water to flow around the puck and not through it, giving a faster and inconsistent extraction. The best solution to avoiding excess coffee on the side wall is to get a tamper that fits your group handle perfectly.
Spring-loaded manual tamper
There are few brands and models of spring-loaded tampers available. They are designed to give consistent pressure like an automatic tamper does, but without the price tag.
Is the automatic tamper the way of the future? Well, in many ways, it can be. It encapsuleates the two main features a good tamping should have: consistency and care. Automatic tampers can be set to a specific amount of pressure which produces consistent results and you are also less likely to develop RSI through its use. From a training perspective, I spend a fair bit of time teaching new baristas on tamping and monitor their techniques throughout the session.
Now, if a café has an automatic tamper, I focus very little on tamping but instead use the time to talk about other aspects of coffee making. Automatic tampers do come with a price tag but if used properly, a lot of time can be saved in a busy café, giving you long-term return on your investment.
As more and more cafés are realising this and have embraced them as part of the standard café setup, tamping may no longer be part of conversation behind the coffee bar and be replaced with something even more exciting.