What is a portafilter?
All espresso machines, whether they are manual, semi-automatic, super-automatic, or commercial/professional, have what is called a portafilter.
A portafilter is, by itself, a quite simple, but necessary component that is part of every espresso machine.
The portafilter is considered by many people, professional baristas included, to be THE most important factor to successfully brewing espresso.
More accurately, however, learning how to correctly prepare what goes into the portafilter, which are the ground espresso/coffee beans, as well as how the ground coffee is compressed (tamped) after it is put into the portafilter, is actually the most important part of brewing up great espresso.
Definition of a Portafilter
In a nutshell, the portafilter (also sometimes spelled porta-filter) is the component of the espresso maker that holds the ground espresso beans (coffee grounds) prior to and during the brewing process.
Above a portafilter with ground coffee from the best breville espresso machine.
The portafilter is the component of the espresso machine where hot water is run through the grounds and the espresso flavor is extracted from the grounds, at which point the extracted espresso continues on its journey down to the bottom of the portafilter, through a hole and/or chute at the bottom, into the waiting espresso cup below.
The portafilter itself is comprised of only a few parts, most of them non-mechanical in nature, including a handle (such as the black one in this photo), which allows the person who is brewing the espresso to easily hold the portafilter unit.
Another important part of the portafilter is the filter basket. This fits inside the exterior of the portafilter.
It is normally made of metal and has tiny holes all over the bottom of it which act as a screen and allow the water with the extracted espresso flavor to run through, down towards the bottom and out a hole or chute into the cup sitting below the portafilter.
The filter baskets on the picture are from the Breville Barista Express.
A good comparison that might help you understand exactly what the portafilter and filter basket are is to think about the basket on a standard drip coffee maker that holds the paper filter.
The basket that holds the paper filter would be comparable to the portafilter on an espresso machine, and the metal filter basket with small holes on an espresso machine would be equal to the paper filters used in a standard drip coffee maker.
The portafilter does not work entirely alone; rather, it is comprised of just a few other necessary components, including:
The filter basket
The filter basket containing tiny holes in which the ground coffee is placed, which is attached inside the portafilter.
The coffee in the portafilter’s filter basket is then tamped (compressed) by the person making the espresso, and the entire portafilter unit, including the basket with coffee grounds, is affixed to the machine.
The above portafilter is the one from the Delonghi Dedica.
The water is then extracted through the ground coffee in the portafilter/basket — similar to a standard drip coffee maker.
The tension spring
Holds the filter basket in place inside the portafilter during the brewing process.
A hole with a chute located at the bottom of the portafilter, through which the brewed espresso is extracted into a waiting cup or mug below it.
How to Use a Portafilter
Learning to use a portafilter correctly, namely what goes into the portafilter (coffee grounds), is a very important part of brewing espresso.
Although the word itself sounds very complicated, it is not difficult to correctly use one after you have learned a couple of basics.
Correctly using a portafilter is probably the most important part of brewing up a good espresso beverage, and there are two basics you will need to learn which WILL definitely take some practice to learn…no way around it.
If you are truly interested in learning to make great, over-the-top espresso at home for yourself, your family, and/or your guests, you will need to learn how to correctly accomplish the two things below.
One step is done prior to adding the ground coffee into the portafilter, while the other is done after adding the coffee grounds to the portafilter, but prior to starting the espresso brewing process. The two “things” include the following:
Learning how to grind your coffee beans to the correct consistency
In other words, not grinding the beans enough or grinding them too finely — incorrect consistency of ground coffee placed into the portafilter results in sub-optimal espresso.
This is a skill that can only be learned with practice, although a good grinder that is at least mid-range in price can also go a long way toward helping you to learn this skill much more quickly.
Coffee that is too coarse or too finely results in espresso that is not of optimum quality.
Learning how to tamp (compress/pack) the ground coffee in the portafilter correctly
Ground coffee that is too loosely compressed or too tightly packed into the portafilter will result in sub-optimal espresso. This second factor also can only be learned with practice.
Basic Steps for Portafilter Use
The basic steps for using a portafilter are as follows:
The (correctly) ground coffee is placed into the portafilter and filter basket. (The grinding part of this step is one of the two that will need to be learned with practice.)
The coffee grounds are then compressed (tamped) to just the right compression with a tamper. (This is the other step that will take some practice to master.)
After tamping the grounds, the portafilter unit is then affixed into the “brew group” of the machine.
The machine is then switched on and a pump in the brew group pumps hot water into contact with the grounds, where the flavor is then extracted from the grounds.
The water with the extracted coffee flavor then dispenses out of a spout located on the bottom of the portafilter, into the waiting cup below.
As mentioned above, there are different types of espresso machine portafilters made. The type of portafilter on any particular machine is determined mostly by the classification of that particular machine. Below is a rundown of information regarding each type of portafilter, and in what type of machine(s) you can expect to see each type of portafilter.
What Kinds of Portafilters Are There?
There are different kinds of portafilters available, including non-pressurized portafilters, pressurized portafilters, and pod portafilters.
In addition, you can also find portafilter adaptors, for using with today’s popular E.S.E. (easy serve espresso) pods/capsules.
Non-pressurized portafilters are the type of portafilter offered with many of today’s semi-automatic home espresso machines.
A non-pressurized portafilter is also the type commonly used by professional baristas at Starbucks and other commercial coffee stands.
Whether the machine has or does not have, a pressurized portafilter is definitely something to keep in mind when you are searching for a home espresso machine.
Particularly if you either have no interest in training time and just want to have your espresso made, in which case you would want to consider a pressurized portafilter.
Or whether you are more of a hands-on person who wants to take the time to learn the two key elements needed for using a non-pressurized (commercial) type of portafilter, in which case you would want to consider a non-pressurized one.
Whether to get a machine with a pressurized or non-pressurized portafilter should be something you decide upon before purchasing a machine, based basically on the self-training you want to put yourself through.
After you have decided upon either a pressurized or non-pressurized portafilter, you should then search for a machine that has available what you have decided upon.
Details about the differences in portafilters are provided below.
Non-pressurized portafilters, which are typically what you will get with a semi-automatic home espresso machine, normally measure 49 or 53 mm in diameter.
Using a non-pressurized portafilter commands the person using the machine to have acquired some knowledge of the correct coarseness of the coffee beans ground.
These portafilters also require some knowledge of tamping (compressing) the grounds to the correct level, in order to achieve optimum results.
Commercial portafilters are also non-pressurized and are the ones commonly used by professional baristas at Starbucks or other coffee stands.
Commercial portafilters are the largest and of the best quality, measuring 58 mm in diameter. Just as the one on the photo above.
They also are much more durable/resilent and made of much stronger/thicker metal than the portafilters of home espresso machines.
The quality of the metal used to make these commercial portafilters ensures much better heat stability and consistency — definitely one of the major factors involved with achieving a superior end result.
Baristas who use a non-pressurized, commercial type of portafilter are trained regarding both the correct consistency of ground coffee to work best with the hands-on method, as well as the correct compression (tamping) required for the ground coffee.
Summary about non-pressurized portafilters
If you are a hands-on type of person who wants to have complete control of your finished espresso beverages, your best bet would be to consider an espresso machine that does have a non-pressurized portafilter, and then spend some time learning how to grind and tamp the grounds so they make the perfect espresso.
If you are someone who is willing to endure a self-training period, possibly involved with some online research, and want optimum results with complete control, keep in mind that most semi-automatic home espresso machine portafilters are non-pressurized, meaning the tamping (compressing) of the grounds is done by the person brewing the espresso.
Pressurized portafilters come standard with most, if not all, of today’s super-automatic home espresso machines.
Rather than requiring the home barista to have (or acquire) knowledge regarding tamping, a pressurized portafilter does the tamping work for you.
In addition, there are some semi-automatic espresso machines offered that have the option of choosing pressurized portafilters. This would be something to keep in mind in your search for the home espresso machine that is right for you.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that although you can achieve “acceptable” end results with a pressurized portafilter, most, if not all, of the ability to have complete control of the flavor of the brewed espresso is lost, and you will have to live with the settings the machine offers. For most people, the settings offered on these machines are very acceptable and you likely will be pleased with your choice.
Summary of pressurized portafilters
If you are someone who “just wants” your espresso without a lot of fuss and muss, and really don’t care about learning the hows and whys but instead just want to make espresso at home, out of the box with a machine that offers a much more simple push-button type of operation, somewhat as easy to use and similar to using a standard coffee maker, then a machine with a pressurized portafilter is probably what you are looking for.
If you have the patience to endure some self-training and experimentation with different grind levels, as well as tamping of those grind levels and drinking lots of espresso in the process, then a non-pressurized portafilter will likely do you good in the long run (although not such a long run, it truly does not take a ton of practice, although it may seem like it does in the beginning).
Pod portafilters are available with some of today’s semi-automatic home espresso machines.
Normally with a semi-auto machine, the home barista is required to correctly tamp the ground coffee into the portafilter prior to the brewing process beginning.
With a pod portafilter, however, the grounds used are contained within what is called a “pod.” An espresso pod is basically a single shot of espresso packaged into coffee filter paper that is sealed. Many people prefer to use pods over messing around with a coffee bean grinder and/or using a tamper to compress the ground coffee into the portafilter, and for them, using a pod portafilter means simply popping a pod into the portafilter and beginning the brewing process.
One drawback that many home baristas find with using pods and pod portafilters is that using these limits the brewed espresso strength. If you are someone who prefers to have complete control over the strength of your espresso, a pod portafilter likely would not be your best choice.
What you will need to keep in mind when searching for a home espresso machine, if you are interested in getting one that has pod capability, is to make sure that the machine you are considering is compatible with easy serve espresso (E.S.E.) pods. Normally manufacturers will boast this as a high selling point, so you should have no trouble identifying whether or not a particular machine is pod-compatible.
Also available to the home barista is what is called a portafilter adaptor.
An adaptor allows someone to purchase the machine he or she wants, and then supplement the portafilter that comes with that particular machine with a portafilter adaptor. These adaptors allow for much flexibility, in that on a day-to-day basis you can choose to either simply pop in a pod, with the use of an adaptor, or on those special weekend mornings when you have more time, to utilize the grinding and tamping process, allowing for more control of the end product, although being more time consuming.
Before you decide on a machine, some research should be done to see if there is an adaptor that will work with the particular machine you are considering. This would have been impossible to list here on this page, due to the numerous variety of home espresso machines available in today’s market.
Important Things To Keep in Mind When Choosing A Portafilter
It cannot be stressed enough that the very single utmost important part of using an espresso machine is both the grind consistency of the coffee used, and how compact the grounds have been tamped. You have basically two options to consider…
…a non-pressurized portafilter, which comes standard with most of today’s semi-auto home espresso machines, will require some practice before you will learn how to get optimum results. This is due to needing to use the correct grind coarseness of the coffee used, as well as how much the coffee grounds are tamped (compressed/packed) into the portafilter…
…or, you can opt for a pressurized portafilter, which is available with most super-auto home espresso machines. A pressurized one basically does all of the tamping for you. Combine a pressurized portafilter with a machine that has a built-in grinder, and all the work, other than turning a dial or two, or pushing a button or two, is done for you.