How do I start a review of an electronic tamper? There's only one way. I have to begin by saying that, yes, this is an electronic tamper, and no, this is not a joke. Far from it.
I first was made aware of the MG Coffee Tools "Smart-Tamp" at the Boston SCAA exhibition. At that time it was a working, pre-production model and I was told that there were modifications coming. A number of refinements have been made since I saw the working units at the show, but the basic operation is still the same. The tamper has a real-time readout of the tamping force displayed electronically using a series of hash marks and numerals illuminated by LEDs in the base, each indicating a specific tamping force. Please, no science lessons on force vs. mass. "Senator, I respectfully refuse to answer on the grounds that I was an art major."
Smart-Tamp is available in your choice of either pounds of kilograms. It arrives with two bases, one flat and one curved, and batteries are also included. The bases come in your choice of three sizes: 53mm, 58mm, or 58.4mm (the later for the VST baskets). And there is a choice of handle color: brown, blue, and "highlighter" yellow. I received the Smart-Tamp seen here: blue, 58mm, calibrated in pounds. With batteries installed it weighs approximately 444 grams with the flat base and 461 grams with the curved base; about one pound.
Around the perimeter of the base you find a series of numerals and intermediate tick marks which are protected by a transparent cover plate. This scale is calibrated in either kilograms or pounds (two separate models). The numerals for the pound model are 12, 18, 24, 30, 36, and 42, with two ticks between each numeral position, each tick representing two pounds. The kilogram model's numerals are 5, 10, 15, and 20, with four tick marks between each numeral, each representing one kilogram (2.2 pounds).
Begin by installing the batteries. They come in a factory-sealed package, so I opened the package and inserted them. The coin-cell battery holder is of very high quality and one of the best I have seen. The area around the battery holders is filled with a silicone gasket that is custom molded and fits perfectly, protecting the backside of the printed circuit board.
The plastic base of the holder is marked "+" meaning the positive side goes down. No problem (that is, no problem once I figured out that the positive side of the batteries goes against the "+" symbol molded in the plastic battery holder). After flipping the batteries over (and being glad that the battery case is designed to protect against reverse polarity) I was in business. The batteries are held securely, but not at all difficult to remove without tools. They popped out by just a fingernail applied as a lever. A straightened, small paper clip would suffice as well.
Next step is to install the base which crews on easily. To protect the electronics, the base is sealed by an O-ring on the tamper body. Still, the user guide warns that in order to protect the electronics from damage to never submerge the tamper in water. Just wipe the exterior with a damp cloth.
Chose the base of your preference: flat or curved. The curve is very subtle and should help those with situations such as :
Puck-edge sealing problems.
Curved shower screens.
Shower screen with protruding hardware.
Baskets with slightly concave bottoms (looking into the basket).
Pick a base and screw it onto the bottom of the tamper and you are now ready to go.
The only other notable items in the user guide are:
The tamper should always be stored with the base installed to keep the innards clean and protected.
Never exceed the maximum force as indicated on the scale (42 pounds or 20 kilograms as the case may be).
When tamping, only hold the tamper by the handle, avoiding contact with the base as that will compromise accuracy.
Give the tamper a shake and it is energized by its two coin batteries. When energized an "on" icon illuminates indicating that the Smart-Tamp is ready. The LED illumination against the black base is easily seen in any situation except full sunlight.
The Smart-Tamp powers down after ten seconds of inactivity. I struggled at first to find the best way to get it to energize (Star trek reference intended). "Gentle" is stated in the instructions, and after a little practice I found I could most easily energize it by holding the handle parallel to the floor and giving it a gentle shake. For the heavy-handed baristas in the audience (my heavy hand is raised), you may have a bit of a learning curve to find what works. Just be gentle, but no worries- shaken-tamper syndrome is not a chargeable offense here.
Once on, you tamp as you would with any "regular" tamper, but as the force is increased, numerals and ticks on the aforementioned scale become illuminated, in sequence, one at a time, indicating the force being applied. As the force is increased or decreased, the tamper display changes accordingly, and does so at a rate that makes the Smart-Tamp very responsive. The advance of the illuminated point is such that it makes it easy to avoid overshooting your intended target force.
When first handling the Smart Tamp the handle felt a little loose. Matt Kampner (the "M" in MG Tools; George Grant being the "G") informed me that this is by design to be sure that there is no stress on the sensor so that when the Smart-Tamp is energized it will properly zero out for accurate results. Other than that, the tamper feels solid and substantial.
About the only negative comment is that the bottom edge (the threaded portion) of the main body where the base screws on is a bit rough from the machining process. Best not to put it down on a delicate surface (wood table, table cloth, etc.). I mentioned this to the Smart Tamp folks and they are looking into a solution.
On my first morning I had an excellent opportunity to test not only the Smart-Tamp, but my observations on tamping in general. I have often said that if you find that you have to tamp at some specific force, you are likely compensating for some other problem. But sometimes, such compensation is all you have to rescue your coffee. A batch I had roasted to a lighter level than normal (normal for me) was giving me some difficulty. New jars with efficient lids slowed out-gassing was also a possible factor. To put the Smart-Tamp to its first test I used a slightly smaller dose and ground finer, then tamped at about 24 pounds instead of 30. The result was a better extraction and smoother taste (which my wife could sense even in her cappa). With the multiple variables involved here I am not claiming any scientific justification for the results, but results they were nonetheless. The tool's value is that it was possible to do so as well as to be able to repeat the process precisely.
The next morning I tried the curved base. Even if you have no use for it and choose not to use it on a regular basis, the curved base will afford a good test of your ability to tamp flat and level. The curved surface affords (or causes, depending on your point of view) a rocking motion if you are not in control and thus it makes an excellent training tool for level tamping.
This morning, the third day, I doses 15.5 grams for each of two cappuccinos. The grind I started with was approximately 6 "marks" (the Kony is a stepless, conical grinder) finer than I normally use. So a slightly smaller dose and a finer grind takes a lighter tamp, at least that was my theory. I tamped this at 24 pounds indicated on the Smart Tamp. The extraction was quite nice. To take this a step further, I ground one step finer that that previous extraction and tamped to 22 pounds (one tick-mark less on the Smart Tamp). This flowed nearly the same as the previous extraction.
Whether or not there was any taste difference or change in body is not my main goal here. What I was intended to test was how far I could push the envelope of acceptable extraction in terms of dose and grind by matching to a tamping force. I do have the advantage of owning a Titan conical grinder which, by the nature of the burrs, has a much greater range of usable grind settings than any flat grinder. But the ability to precisely control the tamp when dealing with such extreme parameters does point towards the usefulness of having a tamper that can do so.
The handle fit my hand well. The handle is approximately 3.2 inches high, and the knob portion of the handle is approximately 1.8" at its widest. The powder coat finish is appealing and of high quality. I was concerned that the gloss finish would be slippery, but between the size of the handle and the finish a secure grip is ensured on the one-pound tamper.
For years I been among those who have tried to educate new baristas that "tapping" the side of the portafilter is not only not necessary but counterproductive. One particular click-tamper from another company has a soft (vinyl or silicone) logo cover at the top of the handle designed to be used to tap the portafilter. The Smart-Tamp has a metal logo at the top of the handle. George and Matt describe themselves as "two espresso enthusiasts," and I offer into evidence this metal logo which will dissuade the user from banging on their portafilter. And really, I shouldn't have to say it, but this is an electronic tool, not a hammer.
Out at the "Mojave Air and Space Port", site of the the first air race with pit stops, site of the creation and launch of the Rutan Voyager, SpaceShipOne, and many other historic events, there is a small shop where these two enthusiasts are producing what has to be the most innovative tamper I have ever seen.
Being able to tamp in measured increments of either 2 or 2.2 pounds (depending on the model you choose), should satisfy most any barista. While we have debated the benefits of tamping to 20, or 30, or fifty pounds, I feel that most would agree that tamping to some desired force within a two pound margin is sufficiently accurate.
If one accepts that the ability to vary the tamping force in a repeatable way is valuable, the benefit of the Smart Tamp is that there are no time-consuming adjustments to make nor external calibrations needed to check the adjustment. Just press down until the desired force is registered. Want to keep all the variables the same except of tamping two pounds less on the next extraction because this extraction one flowed too slow? It takes no more time to achieve that then it would if this was a "standard" tamper.
If you read this far you are likely asking yourself whether such accuracy in tamping force is necessary, beneficial, or required. Some possible applications of the Smart Tamp could be:
Used in a coffee shop for training or daily use to lessen the chance of repetitive stress injuries from over tamping.
Training new baristas whether in a commercial establishment or for home baristas.
Eliminating tamping force as a variable, particularly when attempting to find the source of a problem.
For users who need specific tamps such as owners of manual lever machines.
For those with grinders that offer a limited range of adjustment.
To try new approaches. Dose a little less, grind a little finer, and tamp 4 pounds lighter.
Looking cool! If you think "polishing" the puck makes you look cool, compared to the Smart Tamp, y'all don't know cool yet! "You have a PID? Ya, that's nice, but I got me an electronic tamper!"
And if that isn't enough, haven't you always wanted to say, "Sure I can make you an espresso. Hold on while I turn on my tamper."
But seriously, if you strive to eliminate ALL variables, and have already done precision temperature control, a tenth-of-a-gram digital scale for dose, your distribution is good as proven by the bottomless portafilter you use, you have adjusted pump pressure with an accurate gauge, and you roast your own coffee, then this device just might be the last thing you need for control and repeatability of variables.
Stepless, flat-burr grinders operate in a narrower useful range of grind settings than a large conical; stepped flat-burr grinders even more so. The Rocky, as an example, normally offers one of two "steps" in an acceptable range of grind setting, and one of these is often marginal. Not much to work with there. In that instance, the user is left with dose as a variable to tune for taste. The Smart Tamp offers the possibility of tamp force as an added variable, supplying one more "tuning tool" to adjust taste, and possibly giving one additional, useful "click" on the grinder.
In my experience, once you hit the 35 pound point in most situations the coffee has virtually no room to compact further and increased tamping force has little to no effect. The maximum of 42 pounds of force that can be measured by the Smart Tamp would seem to indicate that the M-G Coffee Tools folks believe that as well. So the conclusions I have come to in this early stage of testing indicate that in some situations, a lighter tamp can be beneficial. It allows a finer grind which requires a lighter tamp, all other things being equal.
A contradiction of my previous theories concerning tamping? No. I have said that if you need a specific light tamp you are likely compensating for some other factor. That factor might be purposely self-imposed (lower dose and finer grind as an example). It is very easy to tamp at a maximum force to achieve all the compression reasonably possible. But to get an accurate lighter tamp at a consistent force is difficult without a tool that can measure that light tamp precisely. Thus the value of the Smart Tamp.
Whether you need it or just want it, that is a decision you have to make. The Smart Tamp is currently available through direct sales from M-G Tools for $125.00 plus shipping. For the home barista, if you think of it as a fine tuning tool to control what is likely the last vestige of variable left in the formula, this could be the tool for you.
The limited warranty states that the Smart-Tamp will be free from defects in workmanship and materials under normal use for a period of one year from the original purchase date. A sales receipt from the MG Coffee Tools authorized sales retailer or from MGCoffeeTools.com is required for warranty service.
And before you write letters, the answer is, "No," I did not ask them if a Bluetooth or WiFi model was going to be available anytime soon. "TampLogger" anyone? Let's not get carried away.