Durham coffee inventor becomes star of the barista world

Push tamper

The biggest competition in the coffee industry, the World Barista Championship, has produced an unlikely British star – someone who was not even taking part in the contest.

The British representative in the this year’s world finals in America was the UK barista champion, Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood of Bath, who finished a very creditable fifth in the world placings. However, Maxwell’s performance and presentation to the judges have had the effect of propelling a British operator to overnight international fame – his use of the Push tamper, created by Peter Southern of Clockwork Espresso in Durham, excited so much interest that the inventor’s website crashed through heavy traffic.

A ‘tamper’ is one of the most vital pieces of equipment in the espresso world. It is used to compress coffee grounds into a firm ‘cake’ in a filter basket, before hot water is passed through to brew the coffee. Good tamping can make all the difference between a tasty espresso and a horrible one, and the skill of correct tamping technique is widely discussed among baristas.

The Push is said to give a barista a new degree of control over the tamping of coffee – it guarantees a perfectly level bed, which is important for the way the water flows through the coffee, and a manageable depth of coffee, which is equally important. However, it is also promoted as allowing a safer and more natural posture while tamping.

This is because it has no handle. Virtually all other tampers have a vertical wooden handle, and the conventional technique is for the barista to lean over the tamper, pushing downwards with a twisting motion of the wrist – this is blamed for a number of repetitive strain injuries and discomfort.

By contrast, the Push tamper has no handle, is about the size and shape of an ice-hockey puck, and can be held conveniently between fingers and thumb.

There is an odd story behind its invention.

“The company I work for had a very nice commercial espresso machine in the office,” Peter Southern told us. “I had worked as a barista before, so I could make great coffee for myself, and everyone else asked me to show them how to do it. The great problem was that their tamping was never level, which frustrated them, so I set about designing a tamper which would help them.”

He showed his work to the UK barista champion over a Skype video link.

“I held the tamper up to the camera to show him how it worked, and he said ‘can I have one?’ He had some suggestions, and the call was on a Friday, so I worked all weekend at the lathe, getting the measurements correct to the millimetre, and he said ‘I’ll use it in the competition’.”

The reaction when Maxwell used it in the world championships was quite extreme. Those around the world watching the contest on video link kept posting comments online, asking about the strange new tamper; Peter Southern, who was in America helping Maxwell prepare for the contest, replied referring enquirers to his website, which crashed under the level of traffic.

There is as yet no word as to when the Push will be on general sale. Peter Southern has filed the patent on the item, but is not being rushed into production or distribution, nor will he be drawn on the likely price of the item. For the moment, he is simply accepting ‘expressions of interest’.

*

Story by Boughton’s Coffee House magazine, the leading news site for the British coffee trade.

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