Lately I've been tamper happy in the home here because I seem to own almost every quality tamper made to fit a 58mm portafilter basket. The most recent addition is a tamper that I should have owned for some time but didn't: a Reg Barber custom model tamper. All told, I have about $170 worth of tampers in my home (not including cheaper tampers or plastic versions), and you think with all that choice, I'd be confused as to which ones I use day to day.
But for me, there's one clear winner.
Before I tell you which one is the best for me, please keep in mind this is a very subjective thing, just like the taste of coffee beans. Just because a tamper works well for me, may not make it work well for you. And then there's the flat vs. rounded bottom controversy. Who would have thought that tampers would be so bloody complicated!
Reg Barber Steel Tamper supplied by Whole Latte Love (website)
Todd Saltzman of Whole Latte Love (WLL) was kind enough to send along one of their custom-stamped stainless steel and rosewood Reg Barber tampers. The Reg is a serious piece of work that just exudes class and quality. The polished and distinctive rosewood, and the nice fit and finish to the tamping element make this a first rate tamper that has many fans.
Reg Barber Aluminum Tamper purchased direct
The aluminum version of the Reg Barber isn't the heavyweight the steel model is, but nevertheless looks like a serious piece of artistic and functional equipment for the serious espresso enthusiast.
Ergo Tamper purchased direct from Espresso Vivace (website)
This is an aluminum heavy piston style tamper designed by David Schomer of Espresso Vivace for use in his shop. Available in different piston diameters, and it was recently changed from a flat tamper to a convex model.
Price: $40, Extra pistons $15
Steel Tamper supplied by Espresso Parts NW (website)
Terry Ziniewicz of Espresso Parts Northwest (EPNW) supplied CoffeeGeek with this convex all metal tamper when he was first developing it. Now in full production run, it is the heaviest tamper in this lineup and also one of the tallest.
Price: $38 Ed note: orignally posted price was $32, the "sale price".
Aluminum Tamper supplied by Espresso Parts NW (website)
Before Terry Z. designed the all steel tamper, he worked on this aluminum billet tamper. Lighter than the steel, it has a good fit and finish, with a Derlin plastic insert.
Using the Tampers
The tamper in this roundup I've been using the longest is the Ergo Tamper - it has about a year on the next closest competitor, the aluminum Espresso Parts tamper, and for the longest time I thought I found the tamper that was ideal for me - that being the Ergo Tamper. But the opportunity to try all these different models has found a new 'favourite' for me. Here's my thoughts on each tamper:
Ergo Tamper: As mentioned above, I have about 1.5 years' experience with this tamper, using it daily. As you can see from the photo, it's been beat up, but that's a good thing - I wear this tamper like a badge of honour and experience. All the nicks you see come from me doing the automatic inverse "rap" against the portafilter to knock loose grounds before doing my polishing tamp.
I used this tamper for such a long time because it fit my baskets well - the baskets I use for the Pasquini Livia. However, the 58mm Ergo piston has a bit of trouble fitting well in the La Marzocco standard basket, because it hits the ridge and seems to grip and grit itself to that ridge, making it hard to spin and polish the puck. The grinder has an okay weight to it, though I wish it were heavier. I like the fit in my hand, and because it is shorter than the tampers from EPNW, my prolonged use of the Ergo Tamper made those other tampers hard to use initially.
Reg Barber Tampers: I got both steel and aluminum versions of the Reg Barber around the same time - I bought the aluminum one, and WLL sent me the steel one. They are easily the best looking tampers in my collection by a long margin, and the finish on the wood and the metal portions is first rate.
I wish I could say the same about the logo placement. This is a complaint I have heard from others as well, and I hope that Reg gets a 'handle' on this issue and fixes it. The problem is that custom logos on the top of the white plastic insert are not centered perfectly. In fact, my WLL logo version is so off centered, that many people notice it right away. I only mention this because the rest of the product is so perfect looking, the off canter logo is especially noticeable.
Using the Reg Barber tampers is a joy - it fits the hand well, the thickness of the tamper is just the right size to "level" it with the top of your filter basket for making perfect doses of coffee, and it looks damned good doing it. The tampers are in the flat style, which all the others in this roundup don't follow - they all feature convex bases. I'm a firm convert to the convex style of tamper, which makes the Reg less than ideal for my style of tamping. Still, it is a first rate tamper, and as long as Reg has fixed the logo placement issues, it is very much worth the money.
Espresso Parts Tampers
Terry Z. called me a few months back asking me to scope out a new tamper he was having made in Washington State. He sent the first version - an aluminum solid block tamper with very sleek lines and very, very tall. I liked it, but not as much as my Ergo Tamper... part of the reason is it is much taller than the Ergo model, and it took me some time to get used to it. It is also lighter than the Ergo by a small amount. I liked the tamper, but didn't see it replacing my Vivace tamper.
This all changed when Terry sent me one of the first versions of the all-steel model. I love using this tamper, and it has become my daily use model for a lot of different reasons. The most important is weight. It's the heaviest tamper in my lineup, and using it is a joy because it's almost like a passive assist system for doing a nice, firm tamp. I also love the look of it. I don't know of EPNW is still using the same metal, but the version I have has a high concentration of nickel in it, and it almost looks Titanium coloured. The piston portion is sized so that it is absolutely top-flush with the top of a filter basket when you tamp down the right amount of coffee - a good helper for getting those perfect coffee doses in the basket. This tamper is a pleasure to use - the only drawback is for people with smaller hands - it may be slightly too tall to be comfortable.
My favourite tamper these days is the EPNW steel model, without a doubt. The combination of good feel and hefty weight make it a winner for me. The Reg Barber steel model is heavy too, but it's all bottom weight, making it seem a bit off balanced at times, especially when I do the reverse flip to knock the side of a filter basket. Bottom weight is great for the tamping portion of the "art of tamping" but I like putting a bit of flourish and panache into my ritual, and part of that ritual is spinning the tamper in your hand and knocking the portafilter with the top of the handle to dislodge loose grounds. It's very easy to do this with the EPNW, harder with the Reg steel model.
The aluminum models by both EPNW and Reg Barber are too light for my liking. If I never used the steel models, I probably wouldn't have an issue with the weight of the aluminum ones, but once you go heavy, you don't want to go back.
It was for this same reason I stopped using the Ergo Tamper. Too light now. If Vivace ever makes a steel model, I might move back to the Ergo model, but until that day, the EPNW all steel version is the ultimate tamper for me.