Portafilters are like an artist's paintbrush. They are the most important tool a budding home barista like you can wield in the quest for espresso splendor. As explored in our Quick Espresso Maker Buying Guide, a good machine, great coffee, the right grind, and a skilled hand are the four ingredients necessary to create true espresso. The last element, "mano" or the hand of the barista in truth refers to their skill with the espresso maker's portafilter.
Portafilters accompany semi-automatic or fully-automatic espresso makers and are responsible for holding ground coffee. Before purchasing a semi-automatic espresso maker, it is extremely important to take into consideration what type of portafilter the machine uses and how well you will be able to master that particular portafilter. If the portafilter is too difficult to use, stagnates your control, or limits the coffee you can brew; you will not enjoy your espresso maker as you should.
There are four main types of portafilters which include commercial, pressurized, pod, and adapters. Portafilters are responsible for creating the necessary pressure to brew palatable espresso. As you read about the 4 different types below, think to yourself: day after day which portafilter do I want to wake up to?
Commercial style portafilters, as their name implies, resemble the kind of portafilters found on machines used in commercial settings. They are large (58 millimeters in diameter), heavy (a pound or more), and extremely durable. With a head made of chrome plated brass, they insure heat stability which is a key factor when it comes to making good espresso.
Commercial portafilters are capable of producing some of the finest home brewed espresso, however it may take a little patience learning the ins and outs of the right coffee dosage (amount), compression of the coffee, and firmness of the tamp. Achieving espresso excellence with commercial style portafilters requires the following steps:
With this last step, the necessary pressure needed to brew espresso is created as hot water is sent to the group and passes through the coffee. While it is true that semi-automatic espresso makers do "automatically" create this pressure, your hand greatly affects the pressure in the realm of grind fineness and tamp hardness. In other words, if you grind your coffee fine, tamp it firmly; your coffee will be dense. Densely tamped coffee greatly affects the pressure. Commercial style portafilters are the optimal style portafilter for achieving the right tamp and the right pressure. For more on creating optimal pressure and brewing the perfect espresso, check out BeverageFactory.com's "How to Brew" section!
Like their name implies, pressurized portafilters create the pressure necessary for brewing espresso and they do all the work for you! Unlike commercial portafilters, where it is up to you to grind and tamp the coffee correctly, pressurized portafilters insure proper pressure by use of a special valve or basket which insures water will not pass through until the correct pressure develops. Where commercial style portafilters can be finicky, pressurized portafilters guarantee a solid tasting brew every time you use your espresso maker. All you need to do is grind the coffee, pour it in the portafilter, tamp it lightly, and attach it to your espresso maker.
While pressurized portafilters do offer convenience, you loose the ability to truly control the flavor of your brew as you can with commercial style portafilters. Also, since they are made with aluminum and plastic they are not as durable nor do they maintain heat like their brass or chrome plated cousin. With commercial style portafilters, it is possible to judge your pour by watching it flow through he portafilter. With pressurized portafilters, you loose these visual clues as the pour is blocked by its basket or valve. Semi-automatic espresso makers outfitted by pressurized portafilters include Krups, Capresso, Saeco and la Pavoni.
Many semi-automatic espresso makers on the market are designed exclusively for or accept pods. For these espresso makers, a pod portafilter is necessary. What the heck is a pod you be thinking? Good question! Pod's are single shots of prepackaged coffee sealed into filter paper. They are convenient in that they eliminate any mess made with grinding and tamping coffee and the espresso they brew is quite good. However, as stated they come only in single shot form and they tend to be somewhat prier than ground coffee.
When using a pod portafilter on your semi-automatic espresso maker, all you need to do is place one pod into the portafilter and then place the portafilter in lock position to its group. The Easy Serving Espresso Industy, or ESE insures that most pods manufactured by multiple coffee providers will work with most espresso makers. You will want to look for ESE compatibility when purchasing your espresso maker or pods. Espresso Makers by La Pavoni will work with pods, Gaggia with a pod adapter and Solis espresso makers are not ESE certified but work surprisingly well with pods.
Espresso machine manufacturers have made it possible for you to buy one type of machine and then perhaps use a different type of portafilter than comes standard with the machine thanks to adapters. Adapters or sometimes extra portafilters give you flexibility and you can such things as turn a commercial or pressurized portafilter into a pod portafilter. Check out our Espresso Makers Exposed section to see what adapters and portafilters come with which semi-automatic espresso makers.