I spend a lot of time researching specific products, alternatives and prices before I purchase anything. This primarily comes from wanting the best tools for the job and having little money to spend on toys. I make spreadsheets so I can keep track of advantages, disadvantages and where to purchase each of the options. People often ask me about products that I have purchased and would recommend for both photography and coffee, so for that reason, I thought I’d start a review series for my blog. The series will involve shooting and talking about some of the things I use day in, day out. I’ll try and explain why I like something, how I use it and why I purchased it over an alternative. I would love some discussion in the comments, especially if you take my advice and pickup something that I have reviewed or if you find a great alternative to share.
This week, I want to start with a coffee related product that I have loved since I got it: the Pullman Barista Tamper. When I purchased my coffee machine, I had done a lot of reading about what makes a good espresso. There are a few important things that can make or destroy a good coffee before the ground up beans even come into contact with water. Grinding the beans is obviously important, so I’ll try and do a post one day about my grinder, however, arguably the most important steps that go into making a good shot are the dosing and tamping. Dosing refers to the volume and distribution of the coffee grinds in the basket and tamping is the process of flattening out and slightly compressing the grinds in the basket. These two steps are imperative to create even distribution and density in the basket so that when pressured water is applied, the water will come into contact with the coffee evenly. When you fail to dose and tamp accurately, you will notice that the coffee has reduced colour, flavour and intensity. This is because the water runs through the coffee grinds and takes the ‘path of least resistance’ through an area that has less coffee grind or was not quite as compressed as the coffee around it. This path is referred to as channeling, and you not only lose the desired flavour of the coffee, you also end up with burnt coffee exiting the basket and dripping into your cup. Dosing is largely done manually and does not require any specific tools, but it does take some practice to do consistently. Tamping requires the use of a flat or convex surface that gets depressed into the surface of the coffee grinds. This should be done with flat, even pressure.
Before purchasing the Pullman Tamper, I was using the tamper that came with my machine. It was an average tamper that had a slight convex surface. It was of decent weight and felt quite good in the hands, but it just didn’t do the job well enough. My old tamper did not fill the basket and I found I was trying all sorts of random tamping techniques to evenly depress the surface of my coffee. I was initially depressing the middle of the coffee, and then systematically making an X-shape to depress the entire surface of the coffee. I was never happy with the result, and I constantly had problems with channeling and flavourless shots. These mistakes were amplified when drinking espressos or macchiatos.
I hunted around on the ‘net for a while to find the right tool for the job. Coffeesnobs and Home Barista were great sources of information; I was almost unanimously pointed towards Greg Pullman and his handmade, unique products. I’ve noticed recently that Greg seems to be selling the tops and bases separately – there are heaps of colours to choose from and the tampers are fully custom. I chose the stealth black handle with flat base (obviously) and it’s gorgeous. The main advantage of these tampers however, is not the colour selection. The selling point for me was having the tamper machined to fit my filter basket perfectly. Greg Pullman can make the tamper fit a basket you already own (you need to measure it accurately, or send it in for him to measure), or you can purchase a basket from him to use too. I picked up a Synesso double basket (roughly $20) to go with my tamper and it hasn’t left my portafilter yet. Having a tamper fit this well has significantly improved the quality and consistence of my shots and I highly recommend this product to you all!
As you would expect, these tampers are not the cheapest on the market. When I purchased mine it was around $180 including a double basket (shipped). Apart from now having the best tool for the job, I am also wasting less coffee, so I figured that over the long run, the quality and quantity of coffee saved easily outweighs the investment. This product feels indestructible and will last a lifetime. The Pullman Tamper is ergonomically designed to be suitable for daily abuse in a cafe, so the light use (by comparison) that mine is going to see at home will not be stressful for the tamper, or my wrist/hand. If you are having problems with your tamping, have a look at whether your tamper is suitable for your basket and consider picking up a Pullman Barista Tamper to get the job done right.