Craft: Tamp like a Champ

Thursday, 29 June, 2017

It’s a noise that is part of the fabric of making an espresso; that tapping of the tamper against the side of the portafilter after perfectly compacting the coffee, but many aren’t aware of the importance of the Tamper. Wayne Oberholzer, SA National Champ 2012 and 2016, gives us a bit of insight into this piece of barista equipment and TheCoffeeMag catches up with the foremost producer of quality tampers world wide, the legendary Reg Barber.

He was just an ordinary guy who wanted to make better coffee, now he’s known worldwide as The Tamper Man. Reg Barber will make you the tamper of your dreams. 

So what led to the moment that you decided to make your first tamper? Were you a barista?

I wanted to open a cafe, I went down to Seattle for Barista training and found out that they were using a tiny plastic tamper that was uncomfortable and hard to use. I decided that I'd find a way to make a better one when I got home. Pretty simple really.

On a scale of 1 to 10, just how important do you think it is to have a 'good' tamper as a barista?

It is definitely 10. It's like a server at a busy restaurant with a good pen. You need something comfortable and personal. Something that suits just you. 

What is your definition of a 'good' tamper?

A good tamper will fit the portafilter and your hand perfectly. It will have the right amount of weight for you and the base design will give you the pour you are looking for. And being pleasing to the eye is never a bad thing!

What do you think makes your tampers so world-renowned? (without giving away any secrets of course)

My tampers are well designed and made with precision. A big part of their popularity is the ability to personalise the tamper. There are literally hundreds (maybe thousands) of combinations that can go into a tamper. Handle material (various woods, aluminum, powder-coated, stainless steel), base material (stainless, aluminum, copper, etc.), base configurations (C-flat, Ripple, C-ripple)
colour combinations, handle heights and designs. And there is the laser engraving to totally personalize a tamper. It is possible to own a tamper that no one else in the world owns. I think that is very appealing. Also, I am always having fun by inventing new designs.

How has the coffee industry changed since you began making tampers in 1995?

The specialty coffee industry has been through so many changes. When I first started the importance of a good tamper wasn't even on the list. It's gone through so much growth and has had many achievements. It has grown from a handful of professionals to this huge family worldwide. 

And in terms of the design of tampers? Have there been many significant innovations through the years?

Absolutely. In the beginning I made a short tamper made of Maple and stainless steel. Throughout the years I have created new designs that I wanted to experiment with and listened to suggestions from others. The tampers I've designed and introduced that I think have been the most significant are the Radical Pro (a long thin handle design which forces one to put pressure at the base rather then higher up the handle), the C-flat, the Ripple and the C-Ripple (the ripple effect creates more surface area for the water to pass through the coffee encouraging a more even extraction). 

What have the highlights of your journey been?

My highlight has been the fact that the last eight World Barista Champions have used my tamper. Travel has also been very special to me, learning about different cultures in different countries, meeting people from all over the world and documenting the travel through my photography. 

How big is your team now, and just how many Tampers do you guys produce?

At this time, it’s still very much a small family business; it's my daughter, her husband and myself. In a typical year we will make 10,000 tampers. 

Do you have any advice for baristas looking to buy a tamper, what should they be looking for?

I think as long as it's one of mine they are headed in the right direction (followed by his signature jolly smile).

What tamper do you use? Does it just depend on your mood, or do you have an old faithful?

I don't actually have a favorite tamper, however I still have the very first one I ever made. My favorite might be the last one I made - I love creating and improving. 

Now we hear from Wayne Oberholzer, 2016 SA Barista Champion, about his special relationship with his tamper:

Anyone who is worth their salt as a barista has at least one on them at all times. I carry mine, Big Bertha, with me wherever I go. I have lost it a few times, but she always finds her way back to me.

My Reg Barber tamp, with a C-Ripple base, hybrid black handle with RB on the top, that weighs a perfect 502g, is my connection to coffee making. It sits perfectly in my hand like that of an inviting handshake from a great friend. I know exactly how it feels in my hand, I know when I am skew on my tamping, and I know just the right amount of weight I need to put on her to get that perfect tamp pressure. She gave me the extra help and confidence needed at the World Barista Championships last year. I love her.

I, like so many of my coffee friends, am the proud owner of my very own tamper; actually I have 4 tampers to be precise. A Nuova Simonelli WBC edition, Intelligentsia Black Cat, La Marzocco and, of course, my Reg Barber. For the coffee uninitiated, this may sound a bit ridiculous, but it does make a difference what tamper you use. Be it physical or be it mental, it makes a difference in the quality of coffee you can extract.

I once watched a program about rally drivers, and the amount of effort and attention to detail that goes into everything they do on the cars and with the drivers. Something that stood out to me was tyre choice, and how a lot of times, team principles would override the information from both the car and the tyre experts for the choice of the driver. They found that if a given compound and tread should give the car and driver more of an edge, if the driver was not happy with the choice, the car sometimes ran slower. However when the driver felt confident about his choice of tyres and equipment, he at times would out-perform the expectations of the equipment and run much faster times. It all came down to driver confidence.

Now I'm not trying to suggest that we baristas are high performance $500 000 pieces of equipment, but it does come down to confidence when producing quality espresso time and time again and just where do we get that confidence? It's my tamper, my coffee and my equipment. For almost all baristas, their tamper will forever remain a massive part of their coffee making experience. They give them names and look after them like small children. When we are spending time with colleagues in the coffee industry, we are constantly showing them off. They are our pride and joy in the coffee world.

So next time you see a bunch of grown men and woman huddling around each other and oohing and ahhing over these strange metal and wooden objects, you'll understand that we aren't crazy... Maybe not normal, but most certainly not crazy.

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