Tamping For Improved Espresso Coffee Extraction

Tamping For Improved Espresso Coffee Extraction

For many years I had always prescribed to the school of thought that tamping had been over complicated, somewhat unnecessarily, by folks who were looking for problems that just weren't there.  That was until I tied the NSEW technique using a VST basket. Here is my story of discovery.

In my experience the biggest gains to be made for the home barista seeking The God Shot was in addressing the following issues:

  • Using a suitable dose for your basket

  • Adjusting your grind to achieve sensible shot times and brew ratios

  • Breaking clumps and achieving a good distribution before tamping (WDT)

  • Good, consistent straight up and down tamping technique

However, at some stage in 2014, I started using an 18g VST basket in lieu of my Bezzera double and this started the discovery process for me that there was more to tamping. Now, up until then, I thought the Bezzera was the only basket I would ever need. It genuinely worked well and it was easy to achieve consistent results.

But one day I was giving the VST another try and I started to notice the other flavour dimensions in my Brazil Brauna that weren't evident when I used the traditional basket. This was enough to pique my interest in the VST and I started using it exclusively.

Living with the VST was not easy though; I found that achieving consistency was more difficult and achieving trouble free pours (observed from a naked portafilter) needed more work. I always had a niggling feeling that there was something that could be better but I couldn't put my finger on it. 

With my basic tamping technique, a shot that would start nice and slow would not behave well later in the pour. It often blonded too early. A compromise that I reached was to let shots begin a little faster courtesy of a coarser grind or marginally lower (0.1g) dose; so with less initial restriction they would run better for longer. But this still wasn't as good as it should be.

So, one day after coming back to the various technical discussions about  tamping, I decided to try the NSEW tamp technique using my standard 58mm tamper in the VST basket and the result was a revelation for me. Yes, after playing with espresso machines for more than a decade, the penny finally dropped.  

The NSEW technique involves the following simple steps after you dose, de-clump and distribute:

  • Straight tamp to level the bed
  • Corner tamp along the two main axes, in the order North, South, East and West
  • Finish with another straight tamp and twist-polish

That's it! Once you do this your shots will start more slowly but flow with more body and consistency. And there are no catches; it takes barely any time and is very reliable. If necessary, grind a touch coarser to maintain 25 to 30 second shot times. Now you can incorporate this into you overall espresso making repertoire, with a comprehensive brewing guide here.

Footnote: Experiments with a VST matched tamper have proven equally successful. More news on this at a later date...

Tagged : Workshop, How-to, Tamping, Espresso,

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