Better distribution = better espresso
When I first started pulling espresso shots as a nervous 17 year old, my instructor Tony, was a smooth talking 38 year old with a gold earring and an immaculately well groomed goatee. ‘The key to good espresso’ he’d say with a wink, ‘is to cram as much coffee as you can into the portafilter’. Clacking the doser on the grinder until a small mountain of coffee grounds was piled up high above the rim of the basket, he would tamp with gorilla like force, followed by a sharp tap with the top of the tamper on the side of the portafilter, a couple more clacks from the grinder, another firm unforgiving tamp, another tap on the side and so on.
Back then not many people gave much thought about how the flavour of the espresso was impacted by the way the coffee grounds were packed into the portafilter, but as our understanding of espresso has evolved so has the importance of good distribution. Good distribution can be the difference between an average espresso and an outstanding espresso, between mediocrity and amazing, so what is good distribution?
Evenness for the win
Good distribution is all about getting the ground coffee from the grinder into the filter basket in a way that distributes the grounds as evenly as possible. The more evenly the water flows through the puck the better tasting your espresso will be, it sounds obvious but its importance often gets overlooked, especially when the orders start piling up.
Water is a remorseless coffee dissolving monster
Water will always find the path of least resistance, if you have more coffee piled up to one side, or a big mountain in the middle and less around the edges, it will find the path of least resistance and go for it, creating uneven extraction, as illustrated below.
What you want to achieve in your distribution is an even density of coffee across the whole puck, resulting in even water flow and better tasting extraction as illustrated below.
The more evenly distributed the coffee, the more even the density when tamped, the more even the water flows through it and the more even the extraction of the espresso. Seems like I’m saying even a lot right? That is because it is super important and it all starts with good distribution,
Tamping covers up poor technique.
To highlight just how important distribution is prepare two shots, first pile the coffee up on one side of the portafilter and tamp it all down, then in another portafilter carefully distribute the coffee evenly and tamp, notice that once you tamp it all looks evenly distributed? Now assess their flavor, making note of sweetness and balance. Poor distribution results in espresso that tastes both sour and bitter and lacking clarity.
Whatever your style, make sure you keep it even.
There are several ways to distribute coffee, from grinding directly into the portafilter, to using a dosing cup or jam funnel, or manual finger methods like the Stockfleth. Whatever method you choose for your workflow the key is that your grinds are ending nicely spread across the basket, with no major piles, cracks, or indents.
Little details, big impacts.
When it gets busy it is easy to lose sight of the little details in order to get drinks out fast, yet the little details can have a big impact on flavor. The best baristas are the ones that get stoked as they tamp down on a perfect centered fluffy little mound of coffee grounds, knowing that their espresso is going to pour evenly, extract well and taste amazing. Taking care of the little details results in better tasting brews.