I get emails asking me what I’m harping on about, and I do realize that to the uninitiated, this does seem a bit confusing, so I thought I’d try to clear up the confusion with this post.
Espresso baskets are full of small holes, the espresso is extracted, and the holes in the basket allow it to flow into the cup without the grounds ending up in your cup too.
Crema that forms on top of your espresso, is a side effect of good extraction and has nothing to do with the design of the basket, as such.
To produce well-extracted shots of espresso requires:
- Good quality, freshly roasted coffee beans.
- Dialling in, which means adjusting the grind size until you’ve found the perfect grind for that coffee with that espresso machine.
- 9 bars of pressure, which has always been widely regarded as the perfect pressure for perfect extraction
But there’s a problem.
The above requires a more expensive espresso machine than many people are willing to buy, plus:
- A grinder capable of grinding fine enough for espresso.
- A grinder capable of finely tuning to properly dial in.
- The development of home barista skills – which many people aren’t interested in developing.
So home coffee machine manufacturers came up with an alternative way of creating cheaper espresso machines aimed at the domestic market.
These machines usually pull shots at 15 bars of pressure, and they have pressured baskets instead of standard baskets. These baskets have a small hole in the bottom which the espresso is forced through under the higher pressure.
This doesn’t lead to perfect extraction, though, as the marketing blurb would usually suggest – instead it leads to the illusion of perfect extraction.
You see, what we know as espresso crema, is the side effect of good extraction. A well extracted shot of espresso has the distinctive looking crema, it looks the part and tastes the part.
It’s not just a visual thing either, true espresso crema traps a lot of bitterness, so it gives a different experience if you stir the crema in, or drink it with the crema still on the surface.
I prefer the latter, but don’t tell James Hoffman! ;-).
Pressurized baskets don’t ensure good extraction, they ensure the illusion of good extraction by creating artificial crema.
It doesn’t taste like crema, it doesn’t have the same kind of mouthfeel as crema, and in my opinion, it’s not crema.
Similar is the case with Nespresso machines, and even more so with the new Nespresso Vertuo machines.
This isn’t to say that all of these kinds of machines are bad, or that pressured baskets in and of themselves are bad, it’s more a case of “horses for courses”.
If you want a cheap espresso machine, and you don’t want to be spending money on a decent grinder, you don’t want to be spending time dialling in, and your palate isn’t all that developed anyway, you might be more than happy with a cheaper espresso machine with pressured baskets, and pre-ground coffee or a cheaper grinder.
But if you have a fairly well developed palate, if you can tell a good shot from a bad shot, and if you want the true home barista experience, then you’re going to need an espresso machine with a standard basket, a capable grinder, and to develop some home barista skills.
By the way, some espresso machines such as the Gaggia Classic Pro and the Sage Bambino Plus come with both standard baskets, and pressured baskets, so the user can choose which way to go.
Not all pressured baskets behave quite the same as others. For example, the pressured basket that also comes with the Sage Bambino Plus doesn’t produce an overly synthetic looking crema, while the basket on the Swan Retro espresso machine, for example, produces stiff “crema” which looks like it would probably keep a flake erect!
So there you go, if you were wondering what was the difference between standard baskets and pressured baskets, now you know :-).
Other questions you may have:
What is a Pressurised basket?
Instead of being a basket full of holes (as with standard portafilter baskets), pressurised baskets can have a varying number of holes on the first layer of the basket, but on the bottom layer, they usually have a single, small hole which the espresso is forced through.
This combined with the usually higher pressure (usually 15 bars) produces a foam which looks like the crema you’d usually associate with a perfectly extracted shot of espresso.
Do you tamp a pressurized portafilter?
Yeah, you’d still tamp the ground coffee in a pressurized portafilter basket, but I wouldn’t worry too much about the pressure of the tamp. I’d be more concerned with ensuring a level surface of the tamped puck of coffee.
What is a non pressurized portafilter?
Also known as a standard espresso basket, these are basically just normal espresso portafilter baskets, they simply hold the puck of ground coffee, and stop the coffee grounds from landing in your cup.
Is a bottomless portafilter better?
Better is a subjective term, but bottomless AKA naked portafilters, are certainly cool! As well as being cool, though, bottomless portafilters allow you to see exactly what’s going on, and most importantly they allow you to see if channelling is happening.
Channelling is when jets of pressurised water find paths of least resistance through the coffee.
When this happens, instead of just a mesmerising stream of espresso, you’ll see various random jets of water and steam. What this leads to, ultimately, is bad tasting espresso.
But mainly, bottomless portafilters are better, because of how cool it looks to see espresso flowing through a naked portafilter. As long as there’s no channelling, which doesn’t look cool at all.
Are all Portafilters the same size?
Nah. The standard commercial portafilter size is 58mm, but various espresso machines use different sized portafilters. The reason for this is that it would make far too much sense for all brands to use the same size portafilter, this would make all of our lives far too easy ;-).
I actually have no idea why some brands use different sized portafilters. Sage coffee machines at the lower end of the range, such as the Bambino Plus, Duo Temp Pro, Barista Express and Barista Pro all have 54mm portafilters.
La Pavoni Europiccola lever espresso machines have 49mm portafilters for the earlier “pre-Millenium” machines, 1st and 2nd generation, while the older post-Millenium machines have 54mm portafilters.
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This article firstly appeared at Coffee Blog – The UK Specialty Coffee Blog – For Lovers of REAL Coffee!