So you’re researching espresso machines and you’re wondering what exactly the portafilter does.
This guide can help.
By the time you’re done reading, you’ll have a good understanding of…
- What a portafilter actually is and how it works.
- The different components of a portafilter.
- Different types of portafilters.
- How to use one the right way!
WHAT IS A PORTAFTILER?
If you’ve ever seen an espresso machine, you’ve probably noticed a “handle” that sticks out where the coffee comes out of.
That’s the portafilter (also sometimes referred to as a "group handle").
This spoon-looking device harbors a basket which is actually what holds the coffee grounds during the pulling or extracting of the espresso shot.
The handle and little notches of the portafilter allows the user or barista to “lock it in” to the machine so that it doesn't fall off during the process.
To be more specific, a portafilter locks into a machine's respective “group head”.
Smaller espresso machines typically have one group head, while the larger commercial machines have more to suit a higher volume and demand.
The handle is the portion of the portafilter that the user holds to secure onto the group-head. While it’s not the most technical part of the device, the weight and feel of the handle can play a big role in the ergonomics or how the portafilter feels in the user’s hand.
The basket is the part of the portafilter that holds actual coffee grinds. Equipped with holes, it’s positioned below where the water passes through the grinds.
With some pressurized portafilter models, the mechanism for creating the additional pressure is built into the basket itself with a singular hole.
The spout is the “swoop-like” portion that you see on some portafilter models.
Depending on whether it’s a single or a double, there will either be one or two spouts. These spouts help the espresso flow out of the portafilter more evenly.
Namely, if you’re pulling a double espresso shot, having two spouts will allow the espresso to flow evenly into two cups.
If a portafilter does not have a spout, it’s considered to be bottomless or naked portafilter.
A long clip-like device that keeps the basket inside the portafilter by applying pressure. Having the right clip makes it easier to take the basket in and out.
Some portafilters will have a pressure gauge which is especially important in commercial machines. It allows you to check the output pressure of your pump in the case that there’s no pressure gauge on the machine itself.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF PORTAFTILERS
While all portafilters serve the same function, there are different types that work in slightly different ways.
Each manufacturer has a slightly different design in terms of filter baskets, hole sizes and hole patterns, but the overaching styles remain the same.
As the name implies, pressurized portafilters have a mechanism of creating additional pressure during the brewing process.
This makes these types of portafilters more beginner-friendly.
You’re not solely relying on grind-size and tamping consistency to create the appropriate amount of pressure. The pressurized mechanism of the portafilter greatly assists in that process.
For some brands, the pressurization mechanism is built into the basket of the portafilter. Others, it’s built into the device itself. Some varieties even give you the ability to “toggle” the pressure on and off by removing the pressure mechanism.
This mechanism is typically a single point that creates pressure found below the basket holes.
Unlike their pressurized counter-parts, non-pressurized portafilters rely on the grind-size, dosage and the evenness of the tamp to create the appropriate amount of pressure during the brewing process.
The pressure is created from the tamped down coffee rather than the additional mechanical factor found on pressurized portafilters.
More experienced baristas may prefer using a non-pressurized portafilter simply because it allows them to “craft” the espresso by modifying the variables listed above (grind-size, dosage and evenness).
A bottomless portafilter is also referred to as a “naked” portafilter or used to pull “naked shots” or “naked extractions”.
Bottomless portafilters get their name because they don’t have a spout on the bottom portion.
As a result, these naked portafilters are considered a great way for a barista to refine their technique. When you’re using one, problems will be very apparent. Far more-so than if the coffee was coming through a spout.
This is because you can actually see how the espresso drips through the basket.
Ideally, the espresso should start dripping from the outside edges and form a stream going down the middle.
However, if you mess up any of the variables (like grind-size, dose or evenness of the tamp), you’ll get uneven streams and/or espresso shooting out in random directions – otherwise known as spurting.
Can be a great way to illustrate tamping mistakes because it’s not coming through the spout. You can see the espresso coming out in an uneven fashion or streams of espresso shooting out in random directions (otherwise known as spurting) from inconsistent tamping or grind size.
As a result, most people consider these bottomless portafilters to be messier. Even experienced baristas sometimes shy away from them.
But if you’re looking to improve your technique and master the craft, it’s definitely worth trying out.
Bottomless portafilters also usually result in more crema.
Do note: Before you use a bottomless portafilter it’s quite important that you have a high-quality grinder. This will give you a tight control on the dose and grind size.
In more recent times, with the popularity of Keurig machines, some commercial establishments and home-users turned to prepackaged pods for making their espresso.
A pod portafilter simply refers to a portafilter that a pre-packed espresso pod can be used in – most typically an E.S.E pod.
E.S.E stands for “Easy Serving Espresso Pod” and was created by the company illy.
While these pods certainly have a convenience aspect, some find that they take away from the craft as you’re not picking a grind size, dosing or evenly tamping.
As a result, most pod portafilters you’re going to find are going to be of the pressurized variety.
A portafilter adapter allows you to make small modifications so that you can use your portafilter beyond the functionality that it has out of the box. In most cases, people use adapters to make their current portafilters more pod friendly.
HOW TO USE A PORTAFILTER
Here’s a quick and easy run-down so you can get a demonstration how you’d use a portafilter.
Here’s how you get started putting your portafilter to use…
Put your grinds in the portafilter: Using your grinder or by manually scooping the grounds, loosely overfill the portafilter. This means that the grounds are not compressed and they’re slightly overflowing at the top.
Depending on what you have at your disposal, the grinds can either be measured with a manual scoop, by weight on a scale, or by volumetric/weight dosing with a grinder.
Level it off: Just like you would if you were baking with flour, level off the top of the grounds so that it’s even.
Tamp it: Use the tamper to compress the coffee grinds. There will typically be a line in the basket which shows how deep the user should compress the grinds.
Lock It in & Pull / Start Your Machine: Lock the portafilter into the machine and pull your shot as dictated by the type of espresso machine you have.
Readjust: If your espresso didn’t come out the way you want it to, try making some adjustments. It takes several tries of adjusting grind coarseness and/or tamping pressure. Once it comes out how you like, be sure to stay consistent so that the shots keep coming out just how you like them.
Congrats! You've made it to the end - you're a portafilter pro!
In all seriousness, the best way to learn about espresso is to get your hands dirty and start pulling some shots yourselves.
If you've got a commercial application, you'll want to check out our list of best commercial espresso machines so that you can find the one that best suits your needs.