In part one of our guide to the perfect espresso, I told you about my espresso maker of choice: the Alex Duetto II by Izzo. In part two of the series, I detailed my espresso grinder of choice: the Mahlkönig K30 Vario single espresso grinder. Today, we’ve got the final piece in my espresso series, and in it, I’m going to tell you about a variety of barista tools that I’m using – all of which play an integral role in ensuring the espresso making process is as simple and consistent as possible.
“Is your choice of barista tools really that important?” you may be thinking, and the answer is absolutely yes. In preparing espresso, once the coffee is ground into the portafilter, the action you as a barista will undertake is the all-important tamp, which means using a tamper to press the coffee down into the basket. It’s a highly debated topic – how hard should you tamp, which tamper shape should you use, etc., and I’m here to help guide you in the tamper decision making process. I’m also going to detail a couple extra addtions to the espresso making process (namely, a milk steaming thermometer and knockbox), both of which will make your life easier as a home barista.
Read on for the final installment of our guide to the perfect espresso and the tools of the trade that will make your barista life much easier.
Torr Tampers Overview
If espresso making is an art form, then the tamper is your paint brush. It’s the one element in the espresso making process that varies based on your direct input. A perfect grind and dose with the wrong tamp can ruin the perfect espresso shot.
So what’s the perfect tamp? Talk to some baristas, and they prefer a finer grind with a light tamp. Other baristas prefer a coarser grind with a hard tamp. What I’ve found is that different espresso blends work better with different tamping techniques – some like a light tamp, some like a hard tamp – you just need to experiment to see what you like best for each coffee.
That’s where the tamper comes into play. The key to tamping is the ability to produce a repeatable tamp every time, then adjusting your grinder settings from there. If you can’t keep your tamping pressure consistent, you can’t pick a grind setting, because the espresso flow will vary depending on your tamping pressure.
For example, let’s say you’re experimenting with a light tamp. As long as you keep tamping pressure the same, the flow rate of your espresso shot will only change if you alter your grind setting. If you can’t keep tamping pressure consistent, however, the amount of espresso produced will go up or down (sometimes significantly), even at the same grind setting, making it virtually impossible to get consistent results.
So what’s the key to a consistent tamp? In my opinion, it’s finding a tamper that fits comfortably into your hand. I tried multiple tampers from different brands, and for me, Torr tampers (made by cafekultur in Germany) were by-and-large my favorites. They’re incredibly comfortable, and they come in varying sizes, depending on your fit preferences. On top of their comfort, they’re also beautifully crafted, to the point they’re nothing short of barista art.
I liked Torr tampers so much I bought not one, not two, but four of them. Overkill? Maybe. But they’re gorgeous to look at, and most importantly, they give me repeatable results every time I use them. For home espresso making, you’ve got to add at least one to your barista tool arsenal.
Torr Tamper Pistons
Torr Tampers consist of two parts: the piston (the bottom metal portion that fits into the basket) and the handle. Depending on your color and material preferences, handles are interchangeable with pistons, allowing for a tremendous level of customization, as I’ll detail shortly.
Looking at the Torr pistons first, there are a total of four shapes you can opt for: flat, soft convex, strong convex, and another convex that’s flat in the center and tapers on the edges. Which one is best? There’s really no right or wrong answer, as every barista has their own preferences. When making espresso, however, a weak point of the puck (i.e., the coffee in the basket) is around the edges. If not distributed and tamped correctly, water can break through the edges early (known as channeling), which lessens the quality of the espresso. The idea behind convex tampers is that they help reduce channeling on the edges, because they provide a little additional support around the puck’s edge.
I personally own convex and flat, and if I had to pick one, I’d pick soft convex as the overall winner. It may be my imagination, but I feel like in triple baskets, I note a little less channeling than I do with a flat tamper. For single and double baskets, I use both convex and flat interchangeably, and get exceptional results from each.
Once you’ve picked a shape, step two is picking a material. Torr Tamper pistons are available in either stainless steel or titanium, with the titanium featuring a gorgeous black finish. Again, which you select is entirely up to you, but let me state for the record that the machining of both is absolutely incredible. They’re CNC machined, hand finished and polished in a multistage process, and the end result is a perfectly crafted piece of engineering.
Lastly, the final option with the piston is selecting the size (in mm), which is simply a case of matching the size basket you’re using in your portafilter.
Torr Tamper Handles
After picking the perfect piston for your espresso making fun, step two is far more about style: picking the handle. Torr tampers come in a stunning selection of woods, which includes zebra wood, burled walnut, Brasilian palisander, violet wood and African blackwood. Every handle is hand-crafted from the finest woods harvested from responsibly managed FSC-certified forests, with all the wood hand-selected by the artisans using it. Once raw materials are selected, they’re then hand-shaped on a lathe in a multi-step shaping process – a process that takes up to a few months – then given a natural oil finish. No synthetic stains are used, which means that the true beauty of the wood is always perfectly showcased and no two handles are ever the same.
In addition to the wood, Torr tampers are also available in an aluminum construction in several colors and designs, including white, black and red. Torr’s aluminum handles all note a lead-free finish that’s extremely comfortable to the touch, and it’s also formulated specifically to resist fingerprints and smudging, meaning it will maintain it’s lustrous appearance even after extended use.
The final choice in handles is in regards to size: classic or XS. I personally own both, and having what I would consider to be medium to large hands, the classic is the better fit for me. For small to medium hands, I’d opt for the XS. What they both have in common, however, is their balance – in either size, the balance of Torr tampers is superb. Their weight is perfect, they just feel right in your hand, and when tamping, they make it incredibly easy to get absolutely consistent results with each and every tamp. This, is tandem with the fact they look absolutely stunning, makes Torr tampers my favorite option for tamping, without question.
Knock BoXx by cafecultur
When purchasing Torr tampers for my espresso making journey, I picked up a few other accessories as well, which I’ve found make the process significantly more convenient. The first is the Knock BoXx by cafecultur, which if you’re new to espresso making, is the easiest way to dispose of the coffee puck after you’ve made an espresso. Basically, it’s an industrial strength stainless steel box with a bar across the center that lets you knock the portafilter against it. By doing so, the entire coffee puck is disposed of in one fell swoop, with a quick wipe of the portafilter all that’s necessary to clean it. Without a knockbox, it’s difficult to get all the used coffee out of the portafilter without manually having to scrape it out or rinse it in the sink, so the BoXx saves a significant amount of cleanup time.
Because the act of hitting your portafilter into a stainless steel box by itself would be a loud, rattling process, the BoXx notes three levels of suspension to reduce noise and shock. First, a layer of foam is sandwiched between the inner and outer boxes; a second layer of foam is placed on the bottom of the BoXx; and lastly, the knock bar is both padded and spring loaded. It’s a system that works quite well, as it not only completely empties the used coffee, it’s not overly loud or jarring to the portafilter.
And if you’d like to add a bit of style to your BoXx, as with the portafilter, it’s available in several finishes, including burled walnut, stainless steel, ebony, palisander and more.
I have the stainless steel BoXx, I’ve used it every day since I purchased my espresso making setup, and it’s performed beautifully, carrying out it’s designated function and still looking and working like new in the process.
The final thing I’d recommend to those of you new to espresso making is a milk thermometer – something that will make it significantly easier learning how to steam your milk. Unbeknownst to almost every major coffee chain, when steaming milk, there’s an ideal temperature you’re trying to achieve – right in the 145 degree Fahrenheit range. At this temperature, milk develops a beautifully sweet flavor and texture. If you go higher than 150 degrees, milk quickly develops a burnt taste and the texture is destroyed. Steam less, however, and the milk won’t be hot enough, and will feel like lukewarm milk with no additional texture or taste.
Because of this narrow temperature band, a thermometer makes it much easier to hit your desired temperature. Cafekultur’s thermometer features a large, easy-to-read dial with a marked temperature point to get you into the right range. It’s also made from stainless steel and notes a low placed measuring point, making it ideal for frothing pitchers. It also features a clip to hook inside your steaming pitcher, allowing for hands free temperature readings.
Once you’re familiar with steaming milk you likely won’t use a milk thermometer, but when starting out, I highly recommend one to help significantly reduce the learning curve.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, wraps up our three part guide to the perfect espresso. If you’re a coffee lover, I can’t recommend enough learning how to make espresso, as the quality of what you can make at home is absolutely astonishing. You’ll drastically better the offerings of those put out by national coffee chains and match those of the country’s best independent coffee houses. It’s a learning experience, to be sure, but once you do it, you’ll never look at coffee the same way again.
To learn more about Torr Tampers and accessories, you can head over to the cafekultur website for their full lineup of barista tools. Lastly, you can check out my Torr tampers and accessories of choice in the gallery below.