Tamping is rather difficult to describe, not so much because it’s hard to do or involves many steps, but because it’s considered to be a very complex art and anything I say here will be disputed by self-described tamping “experts.” Before I even try to describe tamping, let me just say this: if a certain tamping method works for you, that’s all that matters. So just shut up and drink your espresso.
And now, back to the information.
Wait, did you say “tamping”?
Tamping is Espressonian for “packing ground coffee into a filter basket.” Short of a shrink-ray, there’s no way you could fit seven grams of grounds into a single shot basket. While you could just tamp with your spoon, or if you’re really lazy — your thumb — it’s best to pack the grounds evenly. For this, a special utensil has been developed: the tamper. Yes, at this point humans have a specialized tool for any task possible.
If you’re interested in purchasing a tamper, or if you just want to know what’s available, check out my tamper buying guide on this very website.
Tampering with a tamper
So, how should one push on coffee? Don’t put too much pressure on the coffee, or your pump won’t be able to get water through. Just level out the grounds with your finger and then pack them down firmly in one swift motion. Teach those damn coffee grounds a lesson, but don’t scar them (that’s what the scalding hot water is for.)
About thirty pounds of pressure is typically considered ideal, although the important thing is to try and tamp with the same pressure every time. Consistency helps because if you encounter a problem with your espresso technique, you can troubleshoot one step at a time independently. If you have a bathroom scale, you can practice pushing about thirty pounds. That’s about how hard you should tamp each time. I know this sounds anal, but bad tamping will produce lousy espresso.
Let’s twist again
A common argument is whether or not you should tamp with a slight twisting motion. This important and life-changing decision is up to you, try it both ways and see what works. In my experience, a little twist prevents coffee from sticking.
Getting coffee stuck to the bottom of your tamper may not sound like a big deal, but it is! That stuck coffee just made a pit in your otherwise evenly packed ground coffee, and now the water won’t flow through evenly. That’s why I always twist as I tamp.