Continuing on from part 1, where I started the exploration of Filter Baskets, Tampers, and the Quest for Better Espresso, and learned that an over-sized 58.35 mm tamper (or tamper optimized for your basket size) absolutely does make a difference, and that there are many characteristics to consider when choosing a tamper; this post dives into comparing some different styles of tampers, the different characteristics of each, and what it means to you when choosing a tamper. But let's start at the beginning with my very first tamper.
Not really knowing what I was getting into when I bought my first espresso machine or why spending more on a tamper might make a difference, I bought a very simple, no-name, 58 mm, stainless steel based, rosewood handled tamper. This tamper has served me very well for a number of years now, and coincidentally, the size and shape have always been great. With a total height of about 3" and a handle height of about 2.5", I liked the ability to "palm" this tamper and do an initial leveling tamp with my finger tips around the perimeter of the tamper. The handle also fits quite well in terms of being present enough to give me some control, but not really dictating how I hold the tamper. As I said in my previous post, I would still be using this tamper, but found it to be lacking when it came to demanding coffees in precision filter baskets, like the VST and IMS. The consistency of the tamp or evenness of the puck just wasn't quite there. I actually tried to just replace the base of this tamper, but the thread size was non-standard.
I suppose I learned how much I valued the shorter handle of the rosewood tamper and the ability to do the fingertip leveling tamp when I received this ECM convex tamper with my Technika IV Profi espresso machine. I received this tamper for free when I purchased my machine and I had been curious to try out a convex tamper because they were designed to seal the edges of the espresso puck better. I do think it does a good job of this, and I think it does an even better job of tamping a single basket, as the convex curve works to compress the deeper center of most single baskets a little better. At nearly 4" tall, with a 3.5" length from top of base to top of handle, what I immediately missed when using this tamper, was the ability to do my finger tip leveling tamp, and the comfort of being able to put my thumb and index finger on the edge of the tamper piston to tamp. It is often times recommended to ever so slightly allow your thumb and index finger hang over the edge of the tamper piston, such that you can feel the edge or guide the tamper into the basket more level. On the ECM tamper, the top edge of the piston actually has a little raised lip to it, and the top of the base itself has a slight relief or bowl. This actually works really well if you prefer to just grip the handle, as your fingers comfortably rest in this space, however if you like to have your fingers on the perimeter of the tamper, it creates a hard edge for your fingers to tamp against. This is neither a positive or a negative in general, as both tamping styles are fine so long as you achieve the goal of creating a consistent and level bed of coffee. I personally find it more difficult to reference how level or straight my tamp is when gripping the tamper by the handle alone. For anyone with this grip style, seeking a convex tamper, the ECM is very well made with a substantial feel similar to their portafilters. For me, it's another one in the collection and a reference to what is too long of a handle or piston/edge profile I do not prefer.
Making precision tampers to order in a variety of styles at less money than the big name brands, Coffee Complements on eBay, is definitely worth a look. Their tampers are available in all of the common, and a lot of the less common base styles, in nearly any size you could want. I found the tamper to be very well made, with good finishing, and exactly what I ordered at 58.35 with the nutation base.
This base style has side walls that angle back towards the handle to create a more precise edge at the perimeter that allows for nutation of the tamper, or the oscillation similar to a spinning quarter coming to rest, and prevents suctioning the coffee back up when removing the tamper. Nutation is used to better seal or compress the grounds, specifically at the edges. This helps eliminate donut extractions and can also be used to slow an extraction down further as it does really compress the puck. This thread on home-barista.com, goes into a good discussion on what it is and how to do it right. I used a nutation method (and still do sometimes) for many years to compensate for the slightly undersized piston of the rosewood tamper. My personal preference was to do this very lightly using just the weight of the tamper, or sometimes even less, mainly as a leveling/distribution method and to seal the edges.
The suction concern comes from removing the tamper after tamping the coffee grounds. If the tamper is too tight of a fit within the filter basket, a suction effect can occur actually disturbing the compaction of grounds within the basket. This is why you see some tampers with a lip or ridge on the side to prevent this suction.
I ordered this particular tamper from Coffee Complements with the nutation base and the brass handle tamper, as it was their shortest handle to ensure I could still maintain my fingertip leveling tamp. Unfortunately, I found the handle to be every so slightly too short, making it somewhat awkward or less natural when doing the actual tamp and removing the tamper. The tamper was also on the heavy side, which I didn't anticipate to be a problem, but maybe since the heft was combined with the shorter handles, I just felt like I had a lack of control over the tamper. These slightly less desirable qualities combined with the exterior edge detail on the tamper being just a bit too sharp of a transition, creating a pretty hard edge for my fingers to tamp against, ultimately knocked this one out of contention. Again, this is mainly only an issue if you're one to allow your thumb and index finger to slightly overlap the edge of the tamper and guide it into the basket, but something to take into consideration as it relates to your tamping style. Ultimately, this tamper was really close to being good, and at a killer price, but it just wasn't for me.
So the quest continued. After returning the Coffee Complements tamper, I had some time to rethink just how tall the overall height needed to be, and even more importantly the handle length, or the height from the top of the tamper base, or piston, to the top of the handle. I also evaluated what kind of angle or transition I thought might be best on the top of the tamper base as to not create a hard edge for my fingers to press against. This would be an even bigger concern in a commercial setting where repetition would quickly cause some sore spots. Naturally, I started with the low hanging fruit, looking at common models that were readily available. I then turned to some smaller and more custom shops, before really going into the deep end with a custom combination.
Next week, I cover the main tampers considered, and we'll go in depth with the one I ultimately landed on. As always, if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please feel free to get in touch via the Contact Page, Twitter, or Instagram.