A barista during a typical shift will pull hundreds of shots of espresso. One of the fundamental skills needed by a barista to pull a decent shot is to evenly distribute and compress freshly ground coffee inside of the portafilter.
Even though this may seem like a basic, mundane task, it’s also one of the hardest for any barista to truly master; it’s worrying about consistent tamping and the leveling of your coffee that’s going to keep any veteran awake at night.
Manually tamping coffee consistently is quite tricky to execute flawlessly every time. Even if you’ve taken time to practice with a bathroom scale, the required 30lbs of pressure and even more so when you’re rushed off your feet working behind a busy counter.
Any barista will tell you that there’s a need for something that can distribute coffee a bit better than a traditional tamper.
Now I’m not saying that a skilled barista cannot tamp evenly or consistently.
It’s more the need for a distribution tool that can produce the same results regardless of the barista’s skill level or their response to the stress of a rush period where you typically start to see tamping skills and consistency start to waver.
You only need a small error in the distribution and tamping of the coffee to cause the dreaded channeling phenomenon. You are forcing the pressurized water to pass through the coffee grinds by the path of least resistance.
No big deal? Think again.
Channeling causes a small amount of the coffee to come in contact with too much water while the rest of the coffee remains under-extracted. The resulting pulled espresso will be sour, bitter, and with an unpleasant thin mouthfeel.
Nobody – not even the barista, let alone the customers want that to happen. Unfortunately, humans are prone to mistakes, especially when there’s room left for error, as there is with a traditional tamper.
This is where the espresso leveler helps remove some of the inconsistency and human error when evenly distributing coffee inside your portafilter.
The Espresso Leveler (aka. Distribution Tool)
The espresso leveler’s job is to level out your coffee before you tamp down to help reduce having areas of high compression and low compression, which can lead to channeling.
You probably tap your loaded portafilter on the side of the table, and you may think that you have a relatively even-looking surface before you tamp down.
You won’t realize, but when you’re tamping, there’s almost always a specific part of the coffee puck that’s going to be more compressed and other parts that will be way less compressed due to how the coffee has been distributed before the tamp.
As I have mentioned previously, this will cause pressurized water to find the easiest way through the part that has less resistance (less coffee), which will lead to an over-extracted bitter and unpalatable coffee.
The concept of the coffee distribution tool is that you have three fins and an adjustable leveler, so when you put the distribution tool on top of your portafilter and spin it, it will level out and help distribute all the coffee inside the filter basket evenly.
This isn’t possible with a traditional tamper.
The Traditional Tamper
Unlike the espresso leveler that evens out your coffee, the tamp’s job is to pack the coffee grounds inside the portafilter basket. A skilled barista will be able to pack the grounds evenly without the need for a distribution tool, but it’s challenging to do consistently.
With an espresso tamp, you’re essentially taking it from a pile of loose ‘dosed’ grounds and turning it into a tightly compressed cake inside of the portafilter basket.
A good tamp will create a resistance (with evenly compacted coffee) that makes the pressurized water work harder to saturate the grounds and extract all that great coffee flavor.
As the water passes through the packed coffee, it pulls oils from the grounds and creates the much-loved bold taste and rich texture your customers will expect from a quality espresso.
Benefits of Coffee Leveling Tools
By using an espresso leveler, you’re essentially reducing the chance of human error and helping to ensure that your coffee is evenly distributed inside of the filter basket with minimal effort.
If the coffee falls into an uneven mound in the basket after grinding, you will not adequately level it with a tamp alone, even with maximum pressure.
Sure, the surface of the coffee puck will look smooth and even, but there will be different imperfections under the surface. Also, the surface may have no lumps, but they will remain under the surface of the coffee puck.
All these unseen problems with your packed coffee will contribute to the formation of sections with a higher or lower density to which a uniform flow will be impossible.
The tamper will compress the coffee inside the filter basket but doesn’t save it from lumps and unevenness.
Espresso Leveler or Tamper? Which Should You Use?
By now, you should have a better understanding of the pros and cons of both the espresso leveler (distribution tool) and the tamper. So, which should you use?
This is where opinions differ. Many “old-school” baristas prefer to stick to the tried-and-true espresso tamp, while it seems the new breed of barista likes a quick spin with the leveler rather than the tamp.
Ideally, it would be best if you used both. The barista needs to create a uniform surface with the espresso coffee leveler in the basket before the tempering phase, which will add additional compaction to obtain adequate water pressure resistance.
The leveler eradicates the tamping inconsistency factor and makes every shot as consistent as the next. This makes the leveler the perfect choice for busy cafes where barista skill levels may differ.
The Best of Both Worlds?
An adjustable leveler that doubles as a tamp – like this one.
With this espresso leveler style, you can adjust the depth so that you get a firm ‘tamp’ once the tool is spun down to touch the basket edge. As a bonus, your tamp will be perfectly level each time!
At home, I have been testing this style of leveler tool exclusively for the last few months.
Although I was initially very skeptical and shrugged it off as a neat tool to create an even surface for my tamp, I can now say that I’m a true believer, and it can do both leveling and tamping very well.
I have seen significant improvement in my extractions using just the espresso distribution tool.
Occasionally, I will adjust the leveler’s depth when changing my coffee beans, but it is a very unscientific adjustment, to be honest.
I basically adjust so that the tool is flush with the filter basket’s rim when very light pressure is applied.
During my testing, I have found that tamping pressure isn’t particularly critical for my machine. The shots extracted are on-par or, even better, using the espresso leveler distribution tool instead of the tamp.
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