I had a friend who used to drive me insane. Whatever happened, he could never miss an espresso shot. I’ve never found one of his shots bitter, burnt, under-extracted, over-extracted — not once! I was incredibly envious because he wasn’t really experienced with coffee.
When I asked him, he finally revealed his secret — the pressurized portafilter!
In this post, I’ll explain “what is a pressurized portafilter” and everything about this ingenious tool. How does it work? What makes it unique? And why is it the best option for beginners? Let’s see!
What is a Pressurized Portafilter?
A pressurized portafilter is a portafilter with a small hole in the bottom of the basket which creates a pressure build-up in order to force the coffee through the hole. A pressurized portafilter is also referred to as a “double-wall” portafilter.
Pressurized vs. Non-Pressurized Portafilter: What’s the Difference?
If you look at pressurized and non-pressurized baskets from the top, you won’t spot any difference. They’re both circular. They have the same depth. And they have dozens of tiny holes at the bottom screen.
However, when you flip them, you’ll instantly know what sets them apart. In a non-pressurized portafilter, the tiny holes extend to the bottom surface as-is. The espresso will flow into your cup as soon as they pass through these holes.
When you flip a pressurized portafilter, you’ll see only one hole. Espresso will first pass through the tiny holes on the top screen, and then the flow will be tethered at the single hole in the bottom layer. Because there are two layers, pressurized portafilters are also known as “double-wall” portafilters — although “double-floor” would’ve been more accurate.
Why are pressurized portafilters better for beginners?
Pressurized portafilters are better for beginners because they are more forgiving with respect to grind size and tamping. To better illustrate the benefits of a pressurized portafilter, we have to quickly review how a non-pressurized basket produces espresso.
The Non-Pressurized Process: Too Many Variables
When using a non-pressurized basket, the hot water first flows into the empty space above the puck. When the pressure builds up, it’ll start to flow through the grounds, extracting the flavorful compounds. Once it reaches the basket’s bottom, it’ll flow smoothly through the numerous holes.
To use this type of baskets, you must be fairly experienced in making espresso. If the grind is too coarse, water will flow faster through the puck, leaving you with thin, under-extracted espresso.
If the grind is too fine, water will spend too much time contacting the grounds, leading to burnt, over-extracted coffee.
To make matters even worse, it’s not only about the grind size. You also have to perfect your tamping. If you don’t evenly distribute the grounds, water will pick the way that has the least resistance, resulting in either under or over-extraction.
The-Pressurized Portafilter: An Automated Process
In a pressurized basket, you don’t have to care that much about the grind size or consistency. If the grind is too coarse, water will flow rapidly through the grounds, but it’ll instantly slow down once it reaches the single hole at the bottom. This way, the rest of the water can carry on the extraction process normally.
And of course, every pressurized basket has a meticulous design that prevents the pressure from soaring up, which is why these baskets don’t usually produce burnt espresso.
As for the tamping, you should still do it to compress the coffee downwards and create enough clearance for the hot water. But the good news is, you don’t have to perfect the tamping direction — the pressurized system will automatically correct those mistakes.
What are the disadvantages of pressurized portafilters?
Despite being convenient, the pressurized portafilters fall short of their non-pressurized counterparts in the following points.
They Restrict Your Grind Size
Pressurized portafilters can only work with coarse grinds. Why? Well, a fine grind will have a resistance of its own, especially if you tamp it well. Add that to the inherent pressure of the pressurized portafilters, and you’ll completely choke your machine!
But what’s wrong about coarse grinds, you might ask? Coarse grinds have less surface area than their fine counterparts. As a result, they yield less flavorful compounds, leaving you with thin espresso shots.
They Mess Up the Crema
As I said earlier, the non-pressurized portafilter allows the espresso to flow smoothly through the wide screen. This is one of the most important factors that allow the development of the perfect crema.
In case your unfamiliar, espresso crema should be full of flavor and aroma. It shouldn’t be too thin or too thick. And it should stay floating above your espresso for about 2 minutes.
No matter what you do, pressurized portafilters can never yield that crema. Because espresso gushes through an incredibly tiny hole, coffee oils emulsify and mix with too much air, leading to a crema that looks thick, but tastes thin. And of course, this crema will dive earlier into the shot, affecting the overall smoothness and lending a bitter taste.
You Can’t Fine-Tune Your Espresso
If you own a high-end espresso machine, using a non-pressurized portafilter will allow you to adjust pretty much everything — machine pressure, water temperature, grind size, dose, yield, and so forth.
With a pressurized model, you’ll be stuck with the default settings. If you try to pull a enhanced shot, the pressure system will either mess up your espresso or choke it completely.
Limited Extraction Rate
As I explained earlier, water will initially flow rapidly through the puck before it slows down at the pressure valve at the bottom of a pressurized portafilter.
As you might’ve guessed, this process will inadvertently detract from the espresso’s strength. You’ll pull a shot that’s more watery and less sweet than those made with a non-pressurized basket.
When should you use pressurized and non-pressurized portafilters?
To make sure you get the difference, I thought I should end this post with a quick comparison, explaining the ideal situations for pressurized and non-pressurized portafilters.
Use a Pressurized Portafilter If You Own an Entry-Level Grinder
If your grinder can’t achieve a consistent, fine grind, you’ll struggle with a non-pressurized portafilter.
The built-in valve of the pressurized model will make up for any discrepancies in the grind size. It can even allow you to use commercial pre-ground coffee.
Use a Pressurized Portafilter If You’re Short On Time
Don’t have enough time to perfect the tamping, dosing, temperature, and grinding? Set the machine on the default settings and go for a pressurized portafilter.
Even though this may not give you the ideal taste you crave, it’ll still be good enough on tight mornings where you can’t get by without espresso.
Use a Non-Pressurized Portafilter If You Know What You’re Doing
Do you know your way around an espresso machine? Well, don’t waste that priceless talent on a pressurized portafilter!
Get a non-pressurized model so that you can adjust everything down to the smallest details.
Use a Non-Pressurized Portafilter If You Want the Best Espresso Shot Possible
If you want to enjoy a perfect crema on top of a strong, adequately extracted shot, a non-pressurized portafilter would be a no-brainer.
Do you tamp a pressurized portafilter?
It’s not necessary to tamp a pressurized portafilter: tamping is extremely crucial in a non-pressurized model because it’s the only thing that builds pressure inside the grounds, forcing the water to slow down and extract more flavor. In a pressurized portafilter, you already have a valve that controls this process.
Just press lightly to level the grounds and keep the group head clean.
As you saw, pressurized filters aren’t that bad. I know that the coffee community frowns upon them, but nobody can deny that they’re extremely valuable for beginners. Just remember to use a coarse grind because fine coffee will literally choke your machine.