Are you looking to buy your first semi-automatic or automatic espresso machine and need some comparisons about portafilters? Unsure of what one even is and need some advice?
Also called a portaholder, it is a device that merely a handle and a filter basket for holding the coffee grounds while they are inserted into the brew head of your machine. Simple in concept but the devil is in the details. Many espresso machines come equipped with one or two and there are aftermarket upgrades that can be purchased to improve extraction. The three basic types of portafilters include the pressurized, commercial, and pod.
Usually found on cheaper, entry level machines, the pressurized types of portafilters are generally easier to use for the beginner as they create the pressure for you and they do not depend on any tamping techniques or (to some extent) the ability of your grinder to create the right grinding profiles for ground coffee. These work by restricting the flow of the espresso by a variety of methods, dependent on the manufacturer, and can include gaskets, springs between the basket and handle, or engineered into the filter basket or handle. When the pressure from the boiler overcomes the restriction, the coffee shoots out. The pressurized systems were created to remove variables for beginners to create decent quality espresso. Consistent tamping, a consistent grind made with a high quality coffee grinder, fresh beans, and the correct brew temperatures are all necessary evils when using commercial version to create flavorful shots and pressurization minimizes some of these variables. Read more on the basics of how to craft an espresso drink.
This ability to easily create consistent shots is not without its drawbacks. Pressurized variants are usually cheaply made of aluminum and plastic and are smaller at 53mm which reduces their ability maintain heat and they tend to break much more often than the commercial varieties. The puck is wetter making cleaning chores messier. Pressurized systems also are not very feedback friendly in determining if you are getting the best results from the pull in comparison to the commercial types – especially bottomless varieties.
The “crema” they produce are really just a sort of fake crema that is visually appealing but is produced by the introduction of the extra pressure and not by the quality and freshness of the beans or the tamping techniques of the barista. This lack of feedback often leads to bland and/or bitter tasting espresso and can hinder the you in “dialing in” your shots. If you are making lattes or cappuccinos, this does not matter as much as these drinks were partially designed to hide the taste of bitter, ill-prepared coffee.
The commercial type portafilter, found both on the best home espresso machines and commercial varieties, are 57-58 millimeter in diameter made of chrome plated brass, and often weigh more than one pound leading better heat retention and stability. They are very difficult to damage due to their strong construction and the larger diameter contributes to better extraction of the brew. Most espresso aficionados agree that this type, with some practice, has the ability to product much better pulls than that of the pressurized variety. These generally come in single or double shot versions, feature spouts, and many of the prosumer espresso machines include both from the factory.
A subset of the commercial varieties are bottomless or naked portafilters. These do away with the spouts so that one can see the espresso flow and are generally used by those learning the craft. They allow the barista to see if any “channeling” is occurring. Channeling is when water shoots a hole through the espresso puck and makes no contact with the grounds and is usually causes by uneven tampering techniques , too much or too little of a dose, or an inconsistent grind with too many or few “fines.” Espresso flow should by honey colored. A bottomless portafilter allows you to see the stream of blonde water intermixed within the honey and alerts you to fact that you need to adjust the variables to get a more flavorful shot. Usually, channeling and extraction issues are due to either an inconsistent grind with many small and larger particles or inconsistent tamping of the coffee puck.
TIP: A specialized tampers, such as the Espro Calibrated Tamper, that ensures you get a consistent 30 lb tamp each and every time you brew and helps the barista to take one more variable out of the espresso equation.
Pod portafilters, are unsurprisingly, made for espresso pods. Pods are similar to the concept of Keriug Coffee Cups in that they are a prepackaged container which contain ground and tamped coffee and allows the user to conveniently insert and remove the capsule with no mess or fuss. To read more about espresso pods click here.
There are also many different adapters or even complete assemblies that can be purchased or even come with the machine from the factory. For example, the new Faema Carisma Espresso Machine includes an E.S.E adapter to allow the consumer to use most pods.
The compatibility of portafilters between brands sometimes becomes an issue. Most manufacturers make their own versions and even those of the same diameter sometimes do not fit those of other makes. This holds especially true in the lower priced entry levels and in the upper end dual boilers. The portafilters for E61 group based heat exchanger espresso machines (HX) will generally fit between all makes due to a standardized brew group; we stock and recommend this bottomless E61 portafilter here. Some enterprising coffee hobbyists often modify their preferred variety to use on their machines. One popular modification among the coffee geeks and home-barrista forums is to modify the high quality La Marzocco portafilters by light filing (note this voids the warranty and is not recommend for strict liability purposes) or by using a thinner gasket.
To see all our complete selection of portafilters click here.
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