The razzle dazzle big stage of the World Barista Championship is home to many innovations: vacuum sealed espresso shots, sous vide geisha beans, carbonically macerated rare coffee varieties, and on. But one piece of kit that drew the curiosity of many at the 2015 WBC was the strange, green, handle-less tamper used by United Kingdom champion Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, a three-time WBC finalist and owner of Colonna & Small’s, a quality-focused coffee bar in Bath. Turns out this tamper has a story: UK-based designer Pete Southern of Clockwork Espresso is responsible for what he calls, simply, PUSH—an adjustable, hockey puck-shaped tamper that Southern claims will guarantee a level, consistent tamp every time.
Pete Southern has already welcomed quite a bit of interest in his new invention, even without an official SCAA booth—it’s just been him, some prototypes, and a few business cards in his pocket. I caught up with Southern outside the competition arena during WBC weekend to ask him a few questions.
How does the PUSH tamper work?
So there’s a little scale on the side, and you wind it in and out to set the height that you want to tamp to. And then once you’re happy with it, you just lock it in position and then that’s it—it’s locked. It sits on top of the portafilter basket and it’s always level and exactly the same. So as long as your dose is approximately the same each time, your shots should be identical.
Can you tell me a little about yourself? How did the idea for the tamper come about?
I have a day job—I work for a company that makes DNA analysis machines so my background is sort of in engineering and design. We have an espresso machine [at our office] and the other members of the staff kind of struggle to make decent coffee because tamping is pretty hard, and takes a lot of practice. Unless you’re going to spend hours and hours and pull hundreds of shots, it’s pretty hard to get good at it, and they used to complain that their coffee wasn’t very nice and that they preferred mine. They didn’t understand why theirs was so much different than mine.
I’m not an amazing barista by any means, but I can tamp, and their tamping would be totally wonky and really inconsistent, so I set about trying to make something to help them make better coffee. They didn’t really have an interest in becoming amazing baristas—they just wanted a nice cup of coffee and to go back to work. So, I came up with this.
How did Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood come to compete in the WBC with your tamper? That’s pretty great publicity!
I approached Maxwell, and he kind of wasn’t super keen at first because he hadn’t seen one or anything—I was kind of just like, “Hey, I have this tamper, do you want to see it?” And he was like, “No, I’m a bit busy to be honest.” But I persisted and managed to get a Skype call with him, and I showed it to him on the video, and he was like, “Ah yeah, now I see, I really like it.” So I shipped him one the next day, and he had a couple of slight tweaks that he wanted for his—so I spent all weekend in the machine shop making him one by hand, and he said he was happy with it, so then I ordered him some proper production ones to compete with, and then I booked a ticket to come out here.
I think this was the best way to let the world know about it, and also the best way to kind of test it out, because I’m not a champion barista, and I don’t have any plans to be. I wanted someone to tell me, “Yeah, it works,” and to test it out really thoroughly, in a really high-end environment, and that’s what he did.
What kind of research did you do before designing the product?
We use VST baskets in our office, so these ones are made for VSTs. I guess eventually we’ll work on ones that will work with other size baskets. But really, we were just trying to solve that problem—the functionality came first, before any aspects of the design. I wanted a tamper that made tamping easier and made the drinks more consistent. I also—funny enough, from a post on Sprudge—came across a report into the health problems of tamping, which was really interesting. I read the whole paper and I’ve actually gotten in touch with one of the authors of it, and they want to repeat the study but with this tamper, and that’s the reason why it doesn’t have that sort of typical handle on it.
The problem is, you end up like this [mimics tamping motion], having shoulder and back problems, and if you do that hundreds of times a day, it’s going to cause you problems, whereas with PUSH, you sort of lean over it, and you—well, you push. It hasn’t been tested on any kind of large scale yet, but we believe that it’s going to make baristas’ lives a lot better and give them less health problems.
Do you think in a few years, this is something that might be commonly found in specialty cafes all over the world?
I don’t see any reason why people wouldn’t use it because, I mean to be honest, if you’re not using this tamper, then your tamps probably aren’t as good as they could be. You’re not going to get a better tamp with another tamper because this is always level, it’s always exactly the same. Even Maxwell has bad days—sometimes I’m sure his tamps aren’t exactly perfect.
How can people get their hands on a tamper?
It’s not available for sale yet, but there’s a “Register Interest” part on my website where people can sign up and then they’ll get an alert when the pre-order opens. In the next few weeks, we’ll be setting up distribution chains around the world. We’ve gotten offers from all sorts of different companies—I’ve already been approached by some pretty big companies whilst we’ve been here.
What’s next for Clockwork Espresso? Do you have any other ideas in the works?
Yes, many—but they’re all secret right now!
Joanna Han (@joannakarenina) is a Sprudge.com contributor based in New York City. Read more Joanna Han on Sprudge.