Pressurized vs Non-Pressurized Portafilter

A portafilter is a detachable part of an espresso machine where coffee grounds are held and where coffee comes out. Essentially, it’s the coffee filter of an espresso maker as it also carries out the job of filtering the coffee grounds out while allowing the coffee liquid to go through.

If you own an espresso maker, it most likely already came with a portafilter of its own that you have been using without issues so far. As a portafilter is a relatively simple contraption that your espresso maker cannot function with, you probably haven’t thought that there would be different types of portafilters.

You might be surprised to hear this, but it’s actually possible to get different types of portafilters for your espresso maker that can completely change how you should brew your espresso and how it turns out.

The two main categories portafilters split into are pressurized and non-pressurized portafilters, with significant differences between each other. If you want to take your espresso game to the next level, this is something you definitely don’t want to miss.

Quick Recap on the Parts of a Portafilter

Let’s do a quick recap for those who aren’t familiar with how a portafilter is built.

A portafilter consists of a handle, a body, a filter basket, and a spout. Both the handle and the spout are connected to the body of the portafilter, and the filter basket is a detachable part that fits in the body of the portafilter. The coffee grounds rest in the filter basket, and the coffee liquid goes out of the spout.

Being pressurized or non-pressurized is an attribute of the portafilter basket, meaning that you can switch between a pressurized basket and a non-pressurized basket any time you wish to.

So, let’s quickly get down to the differences between a pressurized and a non-pressurized portafilter.  

Differences Between a Pressurized and a Non-Pressurized Portafilter

The main difference between a pressurized and a non-pressurized portafilter basket is that while a non-pressurized basket is single-layered with the same holes in both sides of the filter, a pressurized basket has an additional layer that has a singular small hole. This system creates pressure in the second layer due to the rate of coffee input being greater than output.

For the most part, pressurized baskets are found in home espresso machines, whereas non-pressurized baskets are deemed to be more suitable for professional settings. The reason behind this is the fact that pressurized baskets are way more forgiving than non-pressurized ones, creating a more consistent experience.

Factors such as uneven grind size and incorrect tamping have a much smaller effect on your espresso with a pressurized basket, as the added pressure allows water to extract all of the grounds evenly as if they were perfectly ground and tamped. On the other hand, not getting the grind size and the tamping down correctly would cause your espresso to be under-extracted with a non-pressurized basket.

Aside from this, a pressurized basket allows for a foam layer to be produced on top of your espresso, which is also called “fake crema” at times due to it being a product of pressure and air rather than the emulsion of coffee oils that creates real crema.

Right now, it may look like there are no downsides to a pressurized portafilter. That being said, there is a reason why non-pressurized portafilters are preferred in professional environments.

While a pressurized portafilter is better at compensating for faults in preparation, a non-pressurized portafilter produces a much better shot of espresso if the preparation has been done perfectly.

With the right grind and the right amount of force used for tamping, a non-pressurized basket blows a pressurized basket out of the water in terms of the flavor and body produced. In fact, as a pressurized portafilter is built to compensate for faults, using a pressurized portafilter with perfectly ground coffee beans and the right technique for tamping can cause your espresso to be over-extracted due to the added pressure.

As a rule of thumb, a pressurized portafilter requires a grind size that is quite coarser than what espresso actually calls for due to the resistance that is caused by the grounds not being required anymore as the portafilter supplies it.

What Is a Pressurized (Double-Wall) Portafilter?

Now, it’s time to get down to the inner workings of a pressurized portafilter and understand how it does what it does.

If you look at a double-wall basket, you’ll notice that there are a multitude of small holes in the inner side where the coffee grounds rest, but only a singular small hole at the outer side where coffee comes out.

Between the outer hole and the area the coffee grounds rest, there is a layer where coffee liquid accumulates due to the input of the layer being much larger than the output. As the pressure in this layer increases due to the increased amount of coffee liquid, the coffee liquid starts flowing out of the hole into the cup.

This system allows water to be distributed more evenly throughout the grounds despite imperfections, providing a better extraction.

Since coffee makes its way through two different layers in the case of a pressurized portafilter, it’s also called a double-wall portafilter.

Pros

  • The extra pressure that is caused by the portafilter allows coffee to be extracted optimally, even if it’s not properly ground or tamped.
  • It’s quite hard to make an undrinkable cup of coffee with a pressurized portafilter as it’s designed to prevent that.

Cons

  • A pressurized portafilter can backfire and cause your coffee to be over-extracted if your grind is not flawed.
  • It’s not possible to brew a shot of espresso that is as rich in body and flavor as you could with a non-pressurized portafilter.
  • You don’t have much control over your brew as there is the element of added pressure by the filter.

What Is a Non-Pressurized (Single-Wall) Portafilter?

The design of a non-pressurized portafilter is rather simple compared to its pressurized counterpart.

The single-wall basket has only one layer, meaning that the holes on either end of the basket are the same. As soon as the water is poured into the filter, coffee comes out from the other side without any room to wait.

Because of this, factors such as grind size and tamping gain a lot more importance. If the grind size isn’t fine enough or the coffee grounds haven’t been tamped with enough force, there won’t be enough resistance to slow the flow of water down, which results in coffee grounds being under-extracted.

Since coffee makes its way through a single layer in the case of a non-pressurized portafilter, it’s also called a single-wall portafilter.

Pros

  • When conditions are satisfied, a non-pressurized portafilter produces the best espresso shot possible.
  • You’re in control of the brewing process as the pressure is completely controlled by the grind size and tamping force you’ve chosen.

Cons

  • It’s quite easy to get your espresso completely wrong as the filter doesn’t really help you compensate for mistakes.
  • Getting the grind quality right will most likely require you to invest in a better grinder that will set you back a decent amount of money.

Choosing Between a Pressurized and a Non-Pressurized Portafilter

Now that we know everything that separates a pressurized portafilter from a non-pressurized one, it is time to get down to finding out which one is more suitable for you.

At this point, the question you should be asking yourself is whether you can satisfy the conditions that are required to make a non-pressurized portafilter work or not.

For starters, you will have to invest in a quality grinder that can provide you with the perfect grind that is required for a non-pressurized portafilter to work, which could be a sizable budgetary commitment for some.

After buying the grinder, you will also have to experiment to find out which grind size works best, meaning that you will have to spend a decent amount of time on trial and error.

When you get the grind down, you will be moving on to perfecting your tamping technique, which isn’t as easy as it looks. Since it’s possible to easily over or under-tamp your coffee grounds, there will also be a certain level of experimentation before you get it down.

If you feel like you’re okay with all of these conditions and would really like to take your espresso to the next level, then you should buy a non-pressurized portafilter and get to experimenting right away.

If all this is too much for you, sticking with a pressurized portafilter will provide you with a better espresso shot than a non-pressurized portafilter, meaning that there is no reason to switch.

Conclusion

Both pressurized portafilters and non-pressurized portafilters come with their strengths and weaknesses, leaving the choice down to personal preference.

We can say that a pressurized portafilter will certainly do the job for those who are looking to brew espresso easily. On the other hand, those who are looking to improve their cup of espresso as much as possible should definitely experiment with a non-pressurized portafilter.

While coffee snobs may tell you that using a pressurized portafilter can never produce real espresso, there is no point listening to such nonsense, as using a non-pressurized portafilter takes a large amount of effort both in terms of effort and budget.

Have a great day, and enjoy your coffee!