How to Tamp Espresso Without Tamper? Espresso Tamping for Beginners

Can tamping your espresso make a drastic difference to the taste of your coffee? Yes, it absolutely can. Can you tamp without owning a tamper, though? Yes, you can but the results aren't going to be as good as if you were using a proper tamper. Let's look into how you can do it right.

Tamping Your Coffee Grounds Without a Coffee Tamper

As you probably know if you want to achieve that fantastic espresso taste when making coffee you'll want to make sure you tamp your coffee grounds. This will let you achieve an even extraction and help you make the perfect shot of espresso. A tamper can seem expensive if you're not planning on making a shot of espresso on a regular basis, though. 

What Can You Use to Tamp Espresso?

We tried a very wide variety of kitchen utensils and tools trying to find out which will work best as an improvised espresso tamper. We tried a ladle and a spoon but their concave shapes simply didn't work and you'd still end up with a shot of espresso that's simply meh. 

The objects we found to work best as an improvised tamper were pestles and beer bottles (or any other type of glass bottle). The pestle works best for tamping as its shape is very similar to the one of an espresso tamper. The only difference is that while most tampers have hard edges, the pestle's are rounded. Despite that, after tamping with a pestle we got a decent shot of espresso with almost each use.

Measure and Level Your Coffee Grounds

Once you've found your tamping tool, the rest of the process is basically the same as what you'd do if you were using a proper tamper. You need to make sure that you've filled your portafilter with coffee above the brim. Then you'll want to use your finger to swipe away all the excess grounds. You shouldn't press on the coffee with your hands though. This will make your tamp uneven and give you an awful shot of espresso with a bad flavor and less caffeine.

Put the Portafilter on a Countertop or a Table

You don't want to tamp your coffee while holding the portafilter in your hands. This will give you a bad tamp. That's why you should put it on a kitchen countertop or a steady table. This way you're more likely to be tamping the coffee grounds evenly and avoid brewing a poor shot of espresso.

Position Yourself and Your Improvised Espresso Tamper Correctly

Instinctively you'll probably put the portafilter away from your body not get coffee all over your clothes. This is unlikely and you're probably going to tamp your espresso poorly. What you should aim to do when tamping is to push down with your body and not with your wrists. This will not only give you a better tamping technique but will also be better for your hands.

How you do that is by positioning the portafilter closer to your body and keeping your wrist straight. Then fold your elbow to around a 90 degree angle and push down with your body weight.

Start Tamping Lightly

When you've positioned yourself correctly you can start tamping (pushing down). Aim to press down with around 15 bars of pressure. It's vital that you do it without moving the pestle or beer bottle and keeping it at 90 degrees to make sure you have the top of your coffee grounds flat. This is the only way to achieve an evenly extracted shot of espresso with the best taste.

Increase the Pressure

When you have leveled your coffee you can increase the pressure. This will compress the grounds more tightly in your portafilter and push all the air out. You should aim for 30 bars of pressure for the best tamp for your espresso.

Why Is Tamping Your Espresso Shot Important?

Tamping your coffee grounds is crucial if you want to make a delicious shot of espresso. This is because to brew an espresso you need finely ground coffee. 

As you probably know espresso is made by using a very high pressure to push the water through the coffee grounds. This means that it's going to be in very short contact with the coffee. If you want to achieve the perfect coffee extraction for your shot of espresso, you'll want to grind your coffee finely. This is the only way to allow the water to extract more flavor for less time. If you have fine grounds, it's easier for the hot water to extract coffee out of them.

Why do you need to tamp them in the portafilter though? An espresso machine generates around 9 bars of pressure. This is 9 times the air pressure that we're feeling on Earth, which is a lot. As the water is pushed through the portafilter with such force, if you don't tamp your grounds, they'll be pushed out of the way. This will give you a poor shot of espresso which will have a watery flavor and little caffeine.

What happens when the water pushes the coffee out of the way is called floating. What happens is the grounds are pushed aside and the porta filter is left filled with water. Then the grounds simply float in it and you get no extraction out of them.

What Is the Perfect Tamping Pressure?

You're probably asking yourself how hard you should tamp your espresso. Most coffee experts agree that a tamping pressure of 20 to 30 pounds is just enough to make the coffee grounds fit snugly into the portafilter and give you an evenly extracted cup of espresso. How do you know when you're putting 20 to 30 pounds of pressure on your coffee grounds though?

One option is to practice with a scale. Take your tamper and push down until around 25 pounds show up on the screen. This is by no means easy to get right each time though, as depending on how rested your body is, 25 pounds of pressure may require different effort on your side.

The other option that we actually recommend is getting a pressure calibrated tamper. Such a device will always give you exactly the right amount of tamping force and you'll be an espresso tamping pro. This will give you the best shot of espresso with each brew, if you do everything else right. Get your pressure callibrated tamper now.

What Happens When Tamping Espresso Too Hard?

You already know what happens if you don't tamp your coffee hard enough. What happens if you use too much pressure for tamping though? The espresso you'll get is equally bad. It'll have a bland but burnt taste and isn't going to wake you up.

What will happen if you're tamping too hard is the water will find the spots where the coffee grounds are more loose and push them out of the way. This will compress the rest of the coffee. This way the water will only flow through the formed channels resulting in a process known as channeling in the coffee world. These little canals in your coffee will stay in contact with water much longer than they're supposed to. This will result in burnt coffee due to over extraction. Even though your shot espresso will be burnt, it's going to have a lower caffeine level as there's only so much caffeine that you can extract.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Tampers Worth It?

A regular tamper will set you back around $30-40 which can be a lot if you're on a budget or simply don't want to invest into your espresso machine. While the price may seem high for a bit of metal that you're only going to use to press down on coffee, a tamper is well worth it.

It's the best way to make sure you'll make the best cup of espresso you possibly could. You won't have to worry about keeping a pestle straight or even finding one and a tamper will fit much better into your hands. 

Do You Always Have to Tamp Espresso?

Yes, if you want to make a delicious cup of espresso, just like the one you'd had in a coffee shop, you should tamp it for each brew. The good thing is that tamping only takes a few seconds but will make a massive difference to the taste of your coffee. 

How Do You Measure Espresso Tamping Pressure?

As we previously mentioned, the tamping pressure is crucial for the taste of your espresso. The bad news here is that it takes a lot of pressure to be tamping with the right amount of pressure. You can practice with a kitchen scale but make sure you get a scale that's made for at least 30-40 bars of pressure in case you push too hard.

Another, much easier way to make sure you're tamping with the right amount of force is to purchase a pressure calibrated espresso tamper. These tampers are spring loaded and will always give you around 20-30 pounds of pressure. Get yours now.

How Do You Know You're Tamping Correctly?

You'll know you've tamped your espresso correctly by the taste of your brew. If your espresso is strong and has an intense flavor, you're doing everything right. If your coffee is bland or burnt and you're not feeling energized after drinking it, there's probably something wrong.

The way to find out if what's wrong is your tamping is to check the portafilter after you make coffee. If the coffee inside resembles a wet puck and it doesn't completely fall apart when you take it out of the portafilter, your tamping is fine. In that case it's either the beans you're using that are bad, they were ground a long time ago or there's something wrong with your espresso machine.

Final Thoughts

Tamping espresso is a vital step in your coffee brewing process. This way you will make sure your coffee is evenly extracted out of the grounds and that they don't burn or float. If you don't own a tamper, you can still improvise but it'll be more tricky to get it right. Use a pestle or a beer bottle to press down on your coffee but make sure you keep it straight throughout the entire process.

Even though you can still tamp without a tamper the results will be mediocre at best. That's why we recommend investing in a calibrated pressure tamper. Buy yours today.