One of the big things we aim for at It All Started Here is consistency – you’re only as good as your weakest drink, so you need to make sure your weakest drink is still up there.
I’m all for letting equipment do the work where possible as once it’s properly set up and dialled in, it’s one less thing to worry about. You can focus on the customer and keeping things flowing instead of weighing everything twice. Volumetrics and grinders with reliable timers are invaluable during service. Tamping is a bit of weak point in the search for consistency as it needs a person and people are prone to error.
For bigger events there might be a few of us working on the stall. Generally I would set up the grinder and volumetrics and put other people on shots. They could get on with grind-tamp-pull (a fairly mechanical process, if we’re honest) and I could keep an eye on shot times while doing milk. I’d always get a bit paranoid about tamping being the likely source of error in this though; it takes a lot of practice and muscle memory to get repeatability which can stand up when stuff starts hitting the fan.
There’s two elements to a consistent tamp: pressure (using the same amount of force each time) and being level (making sure that the bed of coffee is perfectly flat and not sloping to one side).
At the moment, opinion seems to be that pressure doesn’t make that big a difference – as long as the bed has been given a reasonably firm tamp, the job’s done. Some unscientific tests showed that pressure doesn’t really affect time (although extraction wasn’t measured), so beyond tamping firmly, the big concern is getting your tamp level.
If your tamp isn’t level then water might not flow through the puck evenly, which is bad. Sure, learning to tamp evenly is great, but that takes time and time is a luxury we don’t always have. If there’s a way to make sure that a tamp is always level, I’m all over it.
Enter two products which address this: the Clockwork Espresso Push Tamp, and the Mahlgut Palm tamper.
The Push first came on the scene around April 2015; Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood used one in his UKBC routine and the internet was immediately ablaze with discussion.
Clockwork announced that it would be producing a small number of Beta testing models; these were to be paid for in full by the ‘testers’ (of which I was one). It was several months before the first Betas made it out into the wild, but, in October 2015, we managed to get our hands on number 1:
Since then, Clockwork have continued to refine their product – slight variations have been spotted, like the below, but still nothing on general sale.
In the meantime, Mahlgut have released a similar product. Someone at Coffee Forums was kind enough to lend us their Palm tamper, so we got a chance to put them side by side:
The Push is 393g but feels heavier. I’ve had a few metal handled tampers before which weighed in at 500-700g and the Push has a similar ‘heft’ to those in the hand, perhaps because of how the weight is distributed. It is a 58.65mm base which is pushing the boundaries of what will fit in a VST*, although Clockwork have indicated that the production version may be a 58.55mm. Pricing hasn’t been confirmed yet, and we’ve been asked not to disclose what the Beta versions cost, but this is a premium product. Adjustment is made by loosening a grub screw, and the base has handy markings so you can go between settings easily:
I wasn’t bowled over by the Push immediately; it took me a while to get a good routine going with it. Because it fits so well in the basket, if you were a bit carefree in how you remove it you could end up creating a vacuum (at least I think that’s what was happening) and damaging the puck . The really tight fit in the basket can also make it ‘stick’ if grinds get trapped between the side of the tamper and the basket. Going down to 58.55mm would likely fix this.
It got a bit of a baptism of fire though – at Glasgow Coffee Festival, we worked with Foundry Coffee Roasters and did 600 shots over the day. Not much scope to learn new equipment when you’re so busy! Slight niggles with it sticking from time to time aside, the Push really seemed to make the process easier and help us keep up with the demand.
Previously, getting a pour to start out each of the spouts at exactly the same time was a cause for minor celebration (and giving yourself +10 barista points). With the Push (and the Mahlgut, and likely any good fitting palm tamper), it just happens. Every time. Although you lose a bit of manual input into the process, you’re making it much more repeatable.
The Mahlgut weighs 1152g. Over a kilo. It is seriously heavy. The version we tried was 58.4mm, which is more of a ‘standard’ oversized tamper, but it’s available in various sizes up to 58.6mm. The tamper costs €139-149 from Mahlgut. Again, an expensive bit of kit. You adjust it by unscrewing the top part, which then allows the base to screw in and out. Although this mechanism is presumably what adds to the height of tamper, it’s nice being able to make adjustments without having to remember where the key is.
I’ve been enjoying the Push the last few months, both at home and on the stall. The only drawback with these tampers is at home; I single dose and change beans/dose/grind settings several times a day sometimes. Different beans have different densities and so sit higher and lower in the basket. I try to use a ‘one setting fits all’ approach but sometimes the edge of the tamper doesn’t quite make it to the basket which means you lose the guarantee of it being level. (You could get round this by recording a setting for each bean and adjusting for each shot, but I’m too lazy for that).
Last Sunday we were doing the coffee at Bakery47’s first birthday, which was going to be busy. I took both the tampers with me, set them up and pulled a few shots with each when dialling in. I thought it would be interesting to see which I gravitated to when the pace picked up and I needed to work quickly and consistently.
We ended up doing about 150 coffees in a little under four hours, and it was just me working. Pretty hectic.
In terms of how often I used it, the Push won hands down. For me, it felt a lot more comfortable in the hand than the Mahlgut. The Push is lower profile and easier to grip; the Mahlgut is heavy and slightly cumbersome. For the home barista, the extra heft of the Malhgut might not be an issue, but I wouldn’t want to pick it up 200 times a day.
The Push leaves a much cleaner seal around the side of the basket, although it is a larger diameter than the Mahlgut. The Mahlgut comes in several sizes, up to 58.6mm, so maybe it isn’t fair to compare them on this. I also didn’t feel that the Mahlgut locked entirely reliably – there was still some play in the base. The Push doesn’t move once locked, although you do need the adjustment key to make changes to it.
It’s likely that more and more Push/Palm style tampers will come to the market soon, and that’s a good thing; they are so much more consistent and I could see them becoming the standard eventually. I’m not entirely sure at the current price points they represent good value for the home barista, but a lot of premium tampers cost in the region of £100 at the moment so it’s not too much of a stretch.
If I had to choose which to buy tomorrow, it would be the Push (you could actually order a Mahlgut tomorrow, however; the Push isn’t available for general sale).
Although the Push edges it for me, this was mainly based on subjective things like weight and feel in the hand – both perform the same function in a similar way and there isn’t much between them in terms of results. Either of these tampers represents a big step forward in addressing a fallible part of the process and really helping to improve consistency.
*It’s worth noting that I ordered fresh VST baskets after I got the Push, and they didn’t fit. Turns out they were 0.1mm smaller than standard. A tiny amount, but when you’re pushing the limits these fine margins can make a big difference. I emailed VST to ask about this, and they said they recommend a maximum tamper size of 58.35mm to match their basket sizes; any tampers produced in bigger sizes were at the manufacturer’s risk. Given standard tampers are creeping up towards 58.5mm (The Pergtamp is 58.55mm and the Pullman Big Step 58.6mm), it will be interesting to see how this pans out.