If you have an espresso machine, or are looking at ways to improve the end result, then one of the most cost effective ‘upgrades’ is to get a VST or IMS basket for your portafilter. For the cost of between £30 and £60 you will improve the consistency and extraction of your coffee, guaranteed! Sound too good to be true? Read on;
What is a precision portafilter basket?
The portafilter basket is the metal filter that sits inside the portafilter, it has a fine mesh at the bottom that allows the water to filter through but not the coffee. Specialty portafilter baskets are made with such a precision that all holes in the basket are the same size with a very small margin for error.
This is important because the water being pushed through the coffee will always try to find the path of least resistance, if it manages to, this is a sure-fire way to create channelling in the espresso. Channelling in espresso will result in an uneven extraction and inconsistency from shot to shot.
One of the key battles in espresso making is achieving consistency and a VST or IMS basket is just one of the tools to overcome this.
What is a VST Portafilter Basket?
VST is the company that has primarily had a history of technology products, Vince Fedele is the engineer of many technology products such as refractometers, advanced robotics and other advanced technology not necessarily associated with coffee. The story goes, Vince Fedele, one day whilst making an espresso, inspected his basket and saw there was very little uniformity with the holes at the bottom of his basket and between different baskets that he had. Vince then decided to do something about it, and almost single handedly ‘levelled up’ the entire specialty coffee industry. He set out to make a portafilter basket with the precision of machining that he had always expected in his company’s technology products.
VST portafilter baskets are designed to have a precise volume when properly packed with coffee grounds, you’ll buy baskets with specific dose sizes. The holes at the bottom are precision made and when you buy one, it will come with a hole size distribution graph and quality assurance data.
Precision is proven and the result is more consistent flow. You can buy them in different dose sizes, and you can see this affects the distribution and size of the holes. So depending on your usual dose sizes you can buy a basket that matches this.
Buying a VST Portafilter Basket
There a few variables to look out for when buying a VST Basket, first you want one that fits your portafilter size, the standard commercial portafilter size is 58mm, but many home machines come with 57mm, 56mm or other sizes.
What is an IMS Portafilter Basket?
IMS (Industria Materiali Stampati) baskets are similar to VST baskets in that they are designed to provide consistent espresso shots. However, IMS baskets are made with a finer mesh, which allows for a more even distribution of water over the coffee grounds and can result in a smoother espresso shot.
In the past few years, the IMS basket and Shower screen have become staples for competition level baristas as precision made equipment reduces the variables in making espresso. They are now completely accessible for the home barista, commercially available for anyone with an espresso machine at home to buy.
Buy an IMS portafilter Basket
IMS are slightly cheaper than VST baskets, but aren't as tightly calibrated, however they can provide a bit more flexibility if you are just starting out and don't know quite what your dose should be.
Are Precision Baskets Better than Stock?
All of these baskets are considered to be far superior to stock baskets that come with most espresso machines because they are much more precisely made and provide more precise control over the espresso-making process. We are a bunch of control freaks when it comes to chasing the God shot, we want to have control over as many variables as we can.
It is worth noting that while these baskets were developed by specific companies, they have become widely used in the espresso industry and are not proprietary to any one brand or company. You may have to research which basket is going to fit your portafilter and decide what dose size suits your use case.
Looking at the data
This study by Clive Coffee goes into great detail using analysis under a microscope to and observation of channelling in 40 shots to produce this interesting study.
The results are unsurprising, in that that a precision basket is better built and has the ability to reduce the channelling in your espresso.
Do Specialty Baskets Make Your Espresso Taste Better?
Yes, your espresso will taste better because having a high quality VST of IMS basket is going to help you consistently extract your espresso and because of this the espresso will likely taste better. However, ditch the notion that buying the most expensive portafilter basket is going to make espresso shots taste better than they were previously.
It is important to remember that the most important thing to consider with espresso is technique and then the freshness of the coffee. After these two items, the portafilter basket is the next item that you can control to ensure that your espresso is consistent shot after shot.
In short, a good quality portafilter basket will support consistent extraction, providing a foundation for delicious espresso shots, but it is not a silver bullet. As always, technique, recipe and coffee freshness are key.
Precision Baskets - Should I Choose IMS or VST?
Whether you choose to go with a VST or an IMS basket, or whether you don’t have a choice by what will fit your portafilter, upgrading to a precision basket is an obvious and easy upgrade that is worth the investment.
IMS vs VST Basket
Fundamentally they are both precision made baskets, they are both well respected brands in the world of specialty and third wave coffee. The main difference is in the diameter of the holes, the VST has smaller holes and in fairness, slightly more consistent to each other. However the IMS often tops the taste tests, especially for home espresso machines.