Michael Sinclair discovers Pullman tampers, a South Australia based business that wouldn’t swap their product for all the tea in China.
Don’t know what a coffee tamper is? It’s the heavy metal disc that your bearded barista uses to compress the ground coffee to make your daily hit of caffeine. And a company in South Australia makes the best in the world.
Coffee geeks cannot stop raving about Pullman tampers. A cult following has developed online, with amateur home aficionados and professional baristas alike praising how they help to make the perfect espresso.
So why are Pullman tampers the best in the business?
A good tamper provides even pressure when 'tamping' ground coffee into the coffee basket. Uneven tamping leads to 'channelling', where hot water goes through the coffee too fast, producing weak, watery espresso, while over-extraction produces bitter and burnt flavours.
To avoid these problems, Pullman coffee tampers are measured to 0.05mm accuracy to create the perfect fit. It’s this level of detail that sees entry level tampers starting at AUD$120 and top-of-the-range models starting at $220. Cheap tampers can go for as little as $15 online, yet the coffee geeks are willing to pay a hefty premium to get their hands on a Pullman tamper.
Pullman CEO Mark Ruta says the business has come a long way since its inception ten years ago in Adelaide.
"It started by making one tamper in a shed in 2004 and it just grew from there. We now make approximately 4,000 tampers a year with 35% going overseas, particularly to Asia,” Mark says.
The tamper grew in popularity thanks to the involvement of some of Australia’s leading baristas. Prototypes were made and sent to key trade figures. A conversation started and baristas were able to give feedback on what worked and what could be improved.
One of the baristas involved with the design of the Pullman ‘Nexus’ tamper in 2008 was Craig Simon, who also happens to be the 2014 Australian National Barista Champion.
“A lot of thought has gone into the design which makes it a beautiful tool,” Craig says.
“It’s tactile, has a nice weight distribution and it’s made to fit your hand.”
Interestingly, Craig sees an occupational health and safety advantage using a Pullman tamper.
“Applying pressure when tamping can be hard on the body and RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) can set in, so having a tamper that minimises stress is really important,” Craig says.
Spruiking by brand champions like Craig helped Pullman tampers take off. Once people started talking, online coffee forums like coffeesnobs.com.au and coffeegeek.com.au helped spread the word.
The online interest is also helping Pullman tampers in China, where 'western' coffee culture is rapidly growing, particularly with the younger demographic.
Fortunately for Mark, his tampers could be a part of a new morning ritual to help wake the sleeping dragon for its morning coffee hit.
He has signed on with Ultimate Coffee in Shanghai, where CEO Robin Lin says there is still a long way to educate Chinese coffee drinkers. All manner of coffee shops are already doing business, from the multi-national Starbucks chain down to independent specialty cafes and shops.
For Lin, he can see a strong future for Pullman tampers in China, despite their hefty price tag.
“I expect the growth of Pullman tampers in China would be around 15-20 per cent each year,” Lin says. “The number will be more if wages go up.”
With the average wage of a barista in China ranging from AUD $700 to $1500 per month, the cost of a Pullman tamper is quite expensive, but the optimism about the opportunities in such a large and immature market cannot be denied.
But Mark is already looking further afield to some of the strongest coffee markets in the world.
Pullman tampers sponsored the 2014 World Barista Championships in Italy and he’s preparing to do it again in Seattle in 2015. It will be nice to know he won’t be alone, with Aussie barista champ Craig over there as well.
Here’s good luck to them both. Success is a-brewing!