When looking for the espresso machine, you might stumble over the word portafilter, wondering what it is and why it’s so critical in the brewing process. Sometimes, even the most top-notch espresso machines fail to produce delicious coffee drinks because of the wrong portafilter.
The relationship between the espresso machine and portafilter is important as the machine literally relies on that component. A portafilter is where water and coffee combine together to produce a fantastic drink.
Learning how to choose and use a portafilter will help you control the size of your espresso shots as well as master certain brewing techniques. With a variety of portafilters, it’s also important to know what type is best for you. Here’s your little guide to learning everything about a portafilter.
What Is a Portafilter?
If you’ve ever noticed how professional baristas make coffee drinks, chances are you saw how a portafilter worked. Also renowned as a group handle, a portafilter is an essential component of the espresso machine attached to the group head, which keeps the coffee grounds (also known as a puck) during the brewing process.
The portafilter is that exact component of the machine where the hot water is pushed through to extract the espresso. The portafilter consists of only several parts, such as a handle, filter basket, tension spring, gauge, and the spout.
Portafilters vary in size, ranging from 40 to 58 mm, as well as come in different hole designs and shapes. Larger sizes are considered to be better as they offer more flexibility in the coffee grounds added to the brewing process.
Portafilters are not interchangeable. Each manufacturer offers its own size, shape, and hole in its brand, depending on the model. Even if you’re sure your portafilter comes 58 mm in size, the outer casing’s shape might not let another 58 mm portafilter lock into the group head of the espresso machine.
The number and setting of flanges, the bowl’s diameter, and the angle of the locking mechanism that the flanges sit-in play a key role in deciding which size of the portafilter you need.
What Are Portafilter Components?
As mentioned above, a portafilter consists of three major components, including the filter basket, tension spring, and spout. The filter basket is where you place your ground coffee beans. The filter basket is attached inside the portafilter.
There are three sizes of the portafilter baskets, including single, double, and triple shot baskets. The single-shot basket features a smaller set of holes at the bottom, lowering flow speed, as well as holds 8 to 10 grams of ground coffee.
The double shot basket holds 16 to 22 grams of coffee and is used in both prosumer and commercial espresso machines. The triple shot basket holds 30 to 35 grams of ground coffee.
The tension spring is a component that keeps the filter basket fixed inside the portafilter when you brew the espresso. A tiny hole with a chute found at the portafilter’s bottom is called a spout. Through this hole, the brewed coffee is extracted into a cup below it.
The pressure gauge is found in some portafilters, too. This component is particularly crucial when using commercial espresso machines. The pressure gauge lets you control the output pressure of the pump if your espresso machine doesn’t have a pressure gauge itself.
What Are the Types of Portafilters?
Even though all portafilters share a similar function, you can find at least four basic types that work differently. The style might stay the same but a design might vary in terms of the hole patterns, hole sizes, and filter baskets. There are pressurized, non-pressurized, bottomless, and pod portafilters.
The pressurized portafilters aid in forming additional pressure during the brewing process. This type of portafilters is usually found in entry-level and cheap espresso machines.
The pressurized portafilter is recommended for the beginner barista as it doesn’t depend on any tamping consistency or the grinder’s ability to form the proper grinding profiles for regular ground coffee beans.
The pressurized portafilter works by limiting the espresso flow by involving various methods based on the manufacturer. It might also comprise gaskets, or springs between the handle and basket, or be built into the handle or filter basket.
The coffee shoots out in case the pressure from the boiler avoids the limitation. The pressurized portafilter helps to prevent variables for espresso novice to brew top-quality coffee. Yet, if you choose this type of portafilter, keep in mind that you’ll have very restricted control over your shot.
The pressurized portafilters are usually made of poor quality plastic and aluminum. They’re smaller in size (53 mm), which lowers their ability to keep heat. When compared to other types, the pressurized portafilters have a higher chance of breaking.
The “crema” a pressurized portafilter creates resembles fake crema, which looks appealing yet is made with the help of the extra pressure, but not by the barista’s tamping techniques or the freshness or quality of the beans.
When compared with the pressurized portafilters, non-pressurized portafilters (sometimes called commercial) rely on the dosage, grind-size, and the tamp’s evenness to produce the right pressure when brewing the espresso. The pressure is produced from the tamped down espresso instead of the extra mechanical factor that the pressurized portafilters offer.
Made from chrome-plated brass, non-pressurized portafilters have a diameter that varies between 57 to 58 millimeters. They tend to have better stability and heat retention thanks to their weight that equals one pound. The larger diameter of this type of portafilter ensures better extraction of the coffee and strong construction of it guarantees durability.
The majority of professional baristas choose a non-pressurized portafilter as it lets them make the espresso by experimenting with the variables like evenness, dosage, and grind -size.
Designed for espresso pods, pod portafilters are simply the prepackaged containers that include tamped and ground coffee beans and let you insert and eliminate the capsule fast and easy. These pods have appeared with the popularity of Keurig machines.
Although these pods are convenient to use, you have no choice when deciding on which dosing, grind size, or tamping you would like to choose. Therefore, the majority of pod portafilters available on the market are usually of the pressurized type.
Also called “naked extractions” and “naked portafilters,” bottomless portafilters feature no spout on the bottom portion. This type of portafilters is highly popular among baristas as it allows them to refine their espresso brewing technique.
With a bottomless portafilter, it’s easy to spot a problem when compared to the portafilters with a spout. That’s because it lets you monitor how the coffee drips through the portafilter basket. In fact, the espresso must begin to drip from the outside edges of the portafilter and create a stream coming through the middle.
If you fail to use the variables, such as the evenness of the tamp, dosage, or grind-size, you might receive uneven streams. Not to mention that your drink can shoot out in different directions. Spurting is a big problem for baristas.
Bottomless portafilters are considered to be the messiest type of portafilters so many baristas avoid using them. However, if you’re a beginner who would like to practice their espresso brewing techniques, choosing a bottomless portafilter is a win-win solution. An added bonus: Bottomless portafilters tend to produce more crema.
These aren’t actually the type of portafilters, but knowing about these adapters is critical. Portafilter adapters let you make little modifications in order to take full advantage of your portafilter (beyond the functionality.) In many cases, baristas use portafilter adapters to turn their current portafilters into a more pod-friendly portafilter.
The portafilter compatibility – between different brands – is often a problem. The majority of manufacturers develop their own models and those of a similar diameter often don’t fit the models of other manufacturers. This is particularly true for the cheaper espresso machines.
The portafilters for E61 equipped heat exchanger espresso machine groups typically fit between all models because of a standard brew group. Professional baristas can modify their preferred portafilter so that they could use it in their espresso machines.
For instance, they can modify the top quality La Marzocco portafilters by using a thinner gasket or by light filing. The problem is this modification voids the warranty and safety measures.
How to Use a Portafilter
Sure, a manual is a great source for learning how to use a chosen portafilter. However, there are a few steps you should take and avoid when starting your brewing process:
1. What kind of drink are you going to enjoy?
Before you even switch on your espresso machine, you should think about the kind of drink you’d like to make. Is it classic espresso, cappuccino, or Americano? Do you want a single or double shot?
If you’re going to brew a single shot, you’ll need 6 to 8 grams of coffee grounds. About 13 to 15 grams are needed for making a double shot.
Once you decide on the drink, start grinding the needed amount of coffee. Using too much or too little coffee grounds will result in over- or under-extracted beverage that you won’t be able to drink. A similar step is required when you want to make a cappuccino or latte.
2. Grind your beans correctly
The way you grind your beans can significantly affect the taste of your coffee. It’s recommended to use a high-quality grinder in order to get a fine grind. If you use too coarse grinds, you risk under extracting your coffee. Using too fine grinds can clog your espresso machine and you can over-extract your drink.
Pre-packaged ground coffee sounds like a great option, yet you don’t know how fresh it is. Plus, a consistent size is generally different and not suitable for many espresso machines.
3. Master tamping techniques
Tamping coffee grounds seems like an easy task. Unless you’re an experienced barista, you might experience some troubles on this step. The loosely packed coffee grinds alter the way the pressurized water comes through the coffee puck (the compressed coffee in a portafilter). Moreover, it can change the espresso flow and the final taste of your drink.
Practice a consistent tamping technique to ensure your coffee grinds are tightly packed. Also, make sure there are no ruts, valleys, or peaks in the espresso puck.
The top of the puck must be smooth and flat without any single hole. If you notice any ruts or peaks, loosen the grinds up with a spoon and tamp the grinds again.
4. Lock your portafilter into the group head
Once your coffee grinds are perfectly tamped, it’s time to lock your portafilter into the group head of your espresso machine. Each espresso machine has its own group head and thus there are different ways to lock portafilters.
If you don’t like the taste of your espresso, it might mean that you did something wrong. Consider changing the grind settings on the grinder. If this doesn’t help, try another tamping technique. It takes time and practice to learn how to use a portafilter correctly and brew your dream espresso.
If you’re planning to buy or have already bought the espresso machine, learning about a portafilter is a must. One of the biggest challenges to overcome here is selecting the size and type of the portafilter your espresso machine is fully compatible with.
Learning how to use a portafilter correctly is also essential as the taste of your drink depends on your tamping skills and coffee grinds. Opt for coffee beans rather than pre-packaged ground coffee.
Finally, read your manual before using a portafilter, and feel free to experiment and practice different brewing methods. Start with classic espresso before trying other brewing methods.
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