Earlier in the year I wrote a post detailing distribution and what it should achieve. It all boiled down to evenness, speed, ergonomics and cleanliness. I’m still a strong advocate for the tapping method—what I believe to be the most effective and practical choice for professional baristas. Today I’m going to show you what distribution by tapping looks like, how I do it, what can go wrong and how to fix it; all immortalised in sassy GIF format.
When distributing, the aim is for a perfectly homogenous and flat mass of coffee grinds: no air pockets, divots, cracks, slopes or similar nonsense. Now, I said perfect; not ‘pretty good’.
This is not perfection:
This is also not perfection:
This. Is. Perfection.
Nothing less is acceptable. If you can’t imagine a tiny Tiger Woods using your grinds as a world-class putting green, you’re not trying hard enough. And no, I don’t care how busy your bar is. This result is perfectly achievable within less than 3 seconds.
For optimum distribution, both the vertical and horizontal distribution of grinds must be considered. Here’s how.
Tapping the basket sideways with the palm of your hand will push the grinds to the edges of the basket and even out their density. It’s a little tricky, but once you master it you’ll never look back. Here’s what will probably go wrong.
Tapping too hard does this:
Tapping too softly does this:
Twisting the handle so the coffee falls in the direction you want does this:
What you really need to do is stop thinking. Stop it. Just try tapping at different speeds and angles. Try things you thought wouldn’t work. At first you’ll probably be frustrated, but your muscles will soon learn what to do. After some practice the coffee will do precisely as you wish without much effort at all.
Turning your brain off and tapping the portafilter does this:
Soon you’ll be able to make that happen in record time.
Vertical taps will collapse the grinds lower into the basket, eliminating any air pockets and increasing density.
This can be performed before or after horizontal tapping. Most choose to do it first if the grinds are sitting high in the basket. This helps reduce the mess when it comes time for horizontal work. Others will do it last if their grinds are too compressed to move fluidly when tapping horizontally. Some grinders produce fluffy fluid grinds, others produce compacted bricks. Vertically collapsing last will help break down the latter.
I don’t have a shred of empirical evidence for which should come first. Sorrs, we’re working on it!
Aim for a consistent number of taps for every handle, and make them count. Drop the handle from the same height or guide it with your free hand. Be deliberate and firm. If you tap during grinding, do it at the same time every time. You know, do whatever you’re doing, all of it, the same way every time. I usually do two solid, precise taps on the forks of the grinder, or on the bench:
No follow through:
It’s kind of impossible to maintain consistency when jiggling or shaking the handle around. Flimsy grinder forks, a rubber tamping mat or a lightweight bench won’t get the job done properly:
Stop worrying. Poke one with your finger and it breaks apart instantly. Now think about how hard you’re tamping. Now think about 110 pounds per square inch of water pressure. Is it still a clump after all that?
Stop worrying. Fines are what makes up the undissolved solid portion of espressos, giving them their signature texture. If you want to avoid fines migration then you probably shouldn’t be pumping water through the grinds, which effectively migrates the vast majority of them through the basket and into your cup.
“Matt, you’re such an idealist. It doesn’t matter that much. Go back to your cave.”
Get a fellow barista to make you two nearly identical espressos. One with slightly imperfect distribution, the other as best they possibly can. Taste them blind. Upon seeing the difference you’ll likely experience a brief ebullition of sorrow as you recall the number of sub-standard espressos you’ve served people.
Evenness and consistency are the most important things to remember, regardless of distribution technique.
Take the time to make that putting green perfect.