Comparing Portafilters

If you are looking for a either a semi or fully automatic espresso machine you will notice that there is a feature called the Portafilter. This is the part of the espresso machine that holds the coffee. What is important to understand when choosing a machine is that you know what kind of portafilter it has. There are three basic types, commercial, pressurized and pod. The first two accept ground coffee and the last works only with pods. The 4th choice is called the Adapter - it converts the portafilter to another style.

Understanding the differences between the portafilters will help you choose the right espresso machine. If it too hard to use, does not give you the control you need or is too limited in what coffee you can use; it will drastically effect the success you have with your espresso machine.True espresso is brewed at approximately 8 atmospheres of pressure. If you brew with less pressure your coffee will be weak and unsatisfying. If you brew with too much pressure the coffee will be bitter. So, play close attention as to how each type of portafilter functions and match that to your expectations.

  1. Commercial
  2. Pressurized
  3. Pod
  4. Adapters
Commercial Portafilter

Commercial Portafilter Handle

The commercial style portafilter is designed work like their brethren found on the big commercial equipment. They are usually 58 millimeters in diameter (vs 53 mm for other types) and weigh up to one pound or more. They are usually made of chrome plated brass which is used for its’ heat stability properties and ram tough durability. The greater diameter creates a larger surface area which aids in the extraction process as well. This type is widely known for the excellent coffee that it can produce. At first, they can be finicky and difficult to operate. The reason for this goes back to our discussion on the critical nature of the pressure required to produce a proper espresso. In order to obtain this pressure the user must understand what we call the Ritual. You can read my article to fully comprehend what this means. But, I will give you a quick synopsis so you will understand. Step 1. Take ground coffee and place into the portafilter.
Step 2. Using a tamper, firmly compact the coffee.
Step 3. Lock the portafilter into the group (the receptacle on the espresso machine)
Step 4. Turn on the pump. The pump sends hot water to the group and back pressure is created by that water trying to pass through the coffee. With a commercial portafilter, you control the amount of pressure by adjusting the density of the coffee. This is easily accomplished by changing two variables: 1. How fine the coffee is ground.
2. How hard you tamp the coffee.
How do you know when the right pressure has been developed? By timing the shot. For this I have created what I call the Golden Rule.

Double Shot

Use a 30 lb tamp and two scoops of coffee the extraction should take 20 to 30 seconds for 2 to 2.5 ounces of espresso

With a little experience you will be able to tell by watching the pour. It will appear as golden-honey. The crema that forms in your cup will be a marbleized foam that indicates you have achieved Java Heaven.

So, the finer the grind and the harder you tamp the denser the coffee becomes and thus the greater the back pressure. Of course, the opposite holds true for a coarser grind and lighter tamp. A commercial style portafilter is in my opinion the gold standard of brewing the best espresso. The process can seem complex at first but it is really not difficult once you understand the process. We call it "breaking the mystique" and it is fully explained in my "Ritual of Making Espresso" article.

You will find that this is the only handle available with the "Prosumer" models as well as lower priced espresso machines by Gaggia, Rancilio and FrancisFrancis. Examples of prosumer machines are ECM, Pasquini and Expobar. For the record, prosumer machines are based on commercial equipment and are the ultimate machine for home use. They can also be used in a light commercial enviroment.

Pressurized Portafilter Pressurized Portafilter

This type of portafilter creates the pressure for you. That’s right, it is not dependent on your tamping and grinding correctly. They have a device that will only allow the water to pass when the appropriate pressure has been developed. These systems were created to make it easier to obtain good coffee. Espresso is known for it’s intense flavor, but many users came to think that it was nothing but bitter. If they knew to make some simple adjustments they would have saved their pallet. To bypass this experience the pressurized portafilters were developed. Some use a valve and others use a special filter basket. The result is the same for both, proper pressure development and excellent espresso. You do not need to be as concerned for following the golden rule laid out in our Ritual of Making Espresso article. Just pour in the coffee, give it a light tamp and go. Like the finicky commercial type handles the pressurized have their own issues. The pressurized portafilters are generally light weight by comparison and normally run no larger then 53 mm in diameter. They are made of aluminum and plastic which are not as good at maintaining heat stability and the not as durable as the commercial types. It is also difficult to tell if you are getting the optimum results from the coffee. Where it is easy to tell with the commercial portafilter - you can tell simply by watching the espresso pour - the pressurized system has a tendency to mask these visual clues. Espresso machines with pressurized portafilters are: Saeco, La Pavoni (non-manual), Capresso & Krups.

Pod Portafilters Francis Portafilter Handle

Like the name implies, these portafilters are designed for Pods. What are pods? They allow you too escape the mess of ground coffee by prepackaging the coffee into sealed filter paper. The coffee has already been properly ground and tamped (packed). All you do is place a single pod into the portafilter and lock into the espresso machine group. Turn on the pump and stop at the desired level. Remove the pod like you would a tea bag and you are done. The ground are all self contained. Seems really simple and it is. There is a uniform standard called the E.S.E system which stands of Easy Serving Espresso. This is an industry standard that many roasters and machine manufacturers have joined. This consortium allows the consumer to purchase from a wide variety of products and manufacturers and know that they are all designed to work with each other. So, pods made by Illy will work on FrancisFrancis machines as well as Saeco and Lavazza pods will fit as well. The E.S.E. Standard is nearly universal and accepted by most of the major players in the coffee industry.Ok, I always find a downside so what is it this time? Well, pods do have some limitations. They come as single shot only and can run up to 4 times the cost of ground coffee. However, the quality is good, little preparation knowledge is required and clean up is the simplest of the semi-automatics.Other machines that are designed to accept E.S.E pods are: Gaggia (with an optional pod adapter) & La Pavoni. The Solis machines will work well with pods, but are not E.S.E certified.

Adapters

If you find that you love one machine but it doesn’t have the portafilter style you are looking for. It is possible that it may have an adapter, or even a extra portafilter. Many machine manufacturers recognized that consumers want flexibility and designed ways to turn a commercial or pressurized into a pod portafilter. The Gaggia’s all have a "perfect crema" disk that slides in the portafilter under the filter basket and acts like a pressurized portafilter. The FrancisFrancis machines even come (free) with an extra portafilter handle designed just for pods.The Compare-O-Matic will show you what portafilter comes standard with each espresso machine and which have adapters. This is displayed under "Features".

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