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What I learned on Twitter yesterday about refractometers & bright coffee
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boar_d_laze
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Posted Thu Apr 17, 2014, 2:07pm
Subject: Re: What I learned on Twitter yesterday about refractometers & bright coffee
 

Mike,

The link between the EK43 and the refractometer crowd is people.  Kaminsky, Perger, etc.  The link between bright coffee and the refractometer crowd is people.  Notably at Craft, Heart and Wendelboe.  No one in this thread said or implied that using a refractometer makes the connection automatically -- as though a VST kit and an EK43 came as cracker-jack prizes in every bag of Wendelboe coffee.  While I understand that you -- a measurements guy -- don't want to be lumped with the EK43 and blond roast guys, if you're not aware that there's considerable overlap between the "objective readings," "bright coffee" and "EK43" groups, you're not paying attention.

You still haven't explained how a refractometer can help the low volume user improve his coffee in ways that a moderately well educated palate can not. As you know from other conversations, particularly those involving Another Jim (Schulman), although we disagree on some matters I have great respect for you.  Thus, it's keenly disappointing you've manifested an intention to not return while leaving us nothing more than the same old vague.  If anyone could supply specifics, it would be you.

Rich
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MWJB
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Posted Thu Apr 17, 2014, 3:48pm
Subject: Re: What I learned on Twitter yesterday about refractometers & bright coffee
 

Hi Rich,

Well, I'm always up for reasoned debate & discussion...sometimes, seeing the same drum being beaten can make threads & posting a chore...I certainly don't exclude myself from contributing to that! Knowing you have a problem is half way to fixing...about as far as I ever seem to get. ;-)

I see Perger/Kaminsky (Rao before them) as using objective measurement to communicate what the EK does that makes it (apparently) unique. They're vocal about the numbers and it's easy to be swept along & think the numbers are "it", but plenty have noted & experienced how easy it is to drop out of the "sweet" zone, the EK seems to make a different drink to what most typically expect from espresso and shifts the ideal range, not necessarily extending it. People who still prize short, concentrated espresso (like other VST users, who still own & highly rate conicals) may not be swayed, nor feel the need to adopt these methods? Also note, that the EK & light roasts appear to make a good team because of the sweetness that they are raving about, it's actually billed as a way to get away from acidic coffee with light roasts?

I don't only/always measure (and if I ever do, it follows tasting), I measure a handful of steeped brews especially if I get a new brewer, then go by taste & only measure if things go awry. Percolation, it's much more enlightening. What I have learned though, is I prefer steeped brews at far longer steep times than is typically recommended. We often panic at any sign of bitterness and assume bitterness is a sign of overextraction, but as AndyS noted from Rao's observations, you get peaks & troughs (Rao's humps)...some brewers work faster than others, if a brew in one method is bitter at a longer time than another, it makes sense to reduce time & reign back extraction. If the resulting coffee is just never as good in that brewer you might assume the beans 'just don't suit it' (if nominally roasted, it is rarely the bean at fault, may not be ideal preference, but not 'malfunction' bad either)? If the brewers follow a broadly similar protocol and you have a typical measurable extraction yield, you might find experimenting with more counter-intuative steps, like going even longer, provides a benefit? Sometimes it's just not that clear cut when you are over/under & what do do next.

I'd say it's given me a better understanding of my own preference (& the mechanics of brewing), which probably doesn't always concur with the roaster's preference, or advice...but that doesn't mean I'm right/wrong, nor that we're necessarily looking for the same thing, but I do have a fall-back if following outside advice doesn't deliver, I spend less time flogging dead horses. Assumptions, without tasting, as to what yield will definitely taste bad, as Mark quoted earlier, does seem a little over-zealous.

With drip, you might find the shape of a brewer, or bed, has an effect flow rate/method - again parameters that give good results in one, may give so-so results in another at the same ratio & temp, you might put down certain characteristics to paper, brewer or some other factor, when in reality you may need to tweak the yield (say by adding water in more smaller pulses to raise it, or fewer larger pulses to lower it). These things are very hard to necessarily pin down, or communicate to others by time alone. If I say, "try 12g at 60g/l in a Kalita 155, aim for 21%" you might (inevitably?) use different grind & pour to get to the same point, different time (within reason) but you'll have a reference yield to work from.

Mostly it helps make brewing a lot more repeatable, to the extent that you are aiming for & often hitting a half of the "ideal box". It can really help cut down on wastage...I'm not going to pretend for the small volume user it's going to pay for itself in a reasonable timeframe, but the less coffee that goes down the sink the more you enjoy. You can still mess things up with uneven grinds, extractions & poor protocol.

Another Jim himself recently wrote about how dull burrs might throw out extraction, or limit the yield, this is another area where the refractometer can help. Burrs are good? Still sour/acidic? Bad roast or even a bad batch of a known good roast?

Er, thanks I didn't perceive vagueness was a failing of mine (I'll add it to the list)...the verbose posting I'm well aware of ...like I said, "knowing I have a problem"...& so on...;-)
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farmroast
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Posted Thu Apr 17, 2014, 4:02pm
Subject: Re: What I learned on Twitter yesterday about refractometers & bright coffee
 

The great thing about roasting at home is you can try anything. And the Strega and Cremina add flexibility. Learned from Tom early on that beans that worked well at a light roast for espresso were quite limited. Beans with high but not too extreme acidity and very high sweetness and at least enough body to hold it together. I love sour and don't need as much sweetness or body as some others for it to be enjoyable.  I'm not much of a beer drinker but had a Lost Abbey sour beer recently and liked it, a friend took a sip and said nope, not for me. The recent ECX re-creation of the original IMV dp ethiopian flavor profile can produce a really nice bright espresso for my tastes. Part of the problem seems to be thinking any really good coffee can work as a light roasted espresso. I'm glad that there is some serious interest in light/bright espresso. But I agree that this type of espresso is not a destination. And when done badly is simply horrible. I still very much enjoy selective medium and lower acid lots or slightly taming with roasting when necessary in various full city ranges. My guess is these that many here including myself generally prefer will most likely become the next sort of thing worked on again.

 
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MarkPrince
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Posted Thu Apr 17, 2014, 5:04pm
Subject: Re: What I learned on Twitter yesterday about refractometers & bright coffee
 

I don't have time for a long reply here right now, but I felt I must jump in and just say, regardless of the side of coin being discussed here and what side various people are on... this has turned into a fantastic discussion. :D

More later.

Mark

 
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jpender
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Posted Thu Apr 17, 2014, 6:46pm
Subject: Re: What I learned on Twitter yesterday about refractometers & bright coffee
 

boar_d_laze Said:

I've never read an intelligible answer to How does it help you make your coffee better? from a non-professional; just non-specific and/or self-contradictory gobbledygook....    

I'm hoping for an answer along the lines of "if you measure A, X is happening; you need to do Y to a Z extent; and without Extractmojo A, X, Y and/or Z would be undetectable, unknowable, unresolvable or at least non-obvious.

Posted April 16, 2014 link

I hear you, Rich. I feel the same way. Why is it so hard for those who are convinced of the utility of a refractometer to communicate how it helps? I read MWJB's last post and couldn't really see why all of those things, save communicating the numbers, couldn't be accomplished by tasting. It's not that I don't believe him, I just don't see it. Do I need to buy a refractometer myself in order to understand?

How about a specific real world example?


Here's what Scott Rao writes in "Espresso Extraction: Measurement and Mastery":

For example, if a barista pulls a shot and does not like the flavor, he my try
using a finer grind. If he decides he liked the first shot better, he will then revert
to using a coarser grind. However, it's possible the barista should have made the
grind even finer to optimize the coffee's flavor. How could that be? Let's say the
first shot was 17.0% extraction. Espresso is typically sour and unremarkable at
17.0%. The shot with the finer grind may have been 17.7% and perhaps
marginally worse-tasting than the first shot. Had the barista made the grind finer
again to create an 18.5% extraction, he would have noticed an increase in
ripeness and caramels and a decrease in sourness. Such nonlinear changes in
quality are the norm in coffee extraction. Therefore, a barista who is guided by
taste may "dial in" a shot by fiddling with various parameters, but it's nearly
impossible for him to know whether he has settled on the best possible set of
parameters.


Does that scenario resonate with any of you?

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MarkPrince
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Posted Thu Apr 17, 2014, 7:29pm
Subject: Re: What I learned on Twitter yesterday about refractometers & bright coffee
 

Espresso is typically sour and unremarkable at 17.0%.

See, right there, Rao loses me. I've had super balanced shots that I measured at 17.0%, and I've had bitter shots at 17.0% back when I was using the extract mojo calculations more regularly (and really started to not like the "proscribed target range" the EM comes with). To be fair, I've had lots of sour and overly acidic coffees at 17% in espresso extractions too.

This is why statements like that... I just don't have respect for.

Mark

 
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jonr
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Posted Thu Apr 17, 2014, 7:59pm
Subject: Re: What I learned on Twitter yesterday about refractometers & bright coffee
 

I agree that searching for "optimal" with a large set of interacting variables is extremely hard.  If, based on past tasting, I find that for optimal coffee, measurement X 1) relates to taste and 2) always falls within a certain range and 3) is convenient to measure, then using it may save me some time by reducing the space that I have to search.

Temperature is an example.  While I will try different temperatures, I don't waste time searching outside of certain limits.  And I'm happy to use a thermometer to help me do that.  One can argue about what their range is exactly, but it has very little to do with the concept.

On the other hand, if I start blindly thinking that 93C is the one and only right temperature, then I'm unlikely to get to optimal.  And people will disagree with me.
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gera
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Posted Thu Apr 17, 2014, 10:21pm
Subject: Re: What I learned on Twitter yesterday about refractometers & bright coffee
 

In all topics involving the use of a refractometer there is always one issue that seems to come up.
No one seems to dispute the fact that a refractometer can measure extraction, and most people agree (as far as I can tell), that using a refractometer can help identify the effect of certain variables on the extraction, if you want a higher extraction use more water, grind finer, use sharp burrs est...

But so what...

That is what I find most people argue about. So what is you know extraction. Does it translate to better taste? does taste actually correlates to extraction levels across all coffees, all situations all roasts? NO!
But it does give an objective locator as to where you are on the extraction path, and that is helpful.

The coffee I work with in my cafe, for example, tastes great at 19%+ extraction, it is rich, sweet, with lots of chocolate and caramel flavors, but due to limiting equipment it is almost impossible to extract above 19%, it would simply not go that far, and it does not taste very good at 17%-19% extraction. But that's ok because I like it best at around 16% extraction where the espresso is syrupy, fruity and sweet with a good balance and tamed acidity. The extraction levels of the coffee correlate very closely to taste (with MY coffee), it doesn't always taste the same at 16% but almost always taste better there than at 17%,18% or 15% extraction.

Now here are the tricky parts, the espresso tastes very similar at 17% and 15% extraction, it is overly sour, aggressive and sharp with low sweetness. It taste very bitter and roasty at 17.5%-18% extraction, and then it taste bitter/sweet and flat at 18%-19% before those flavors balance out.
My coffee is ALWAYS under extracted, but it could taste sour or bitter or roasty or flat depending on my extraction level. Without a refractometer it could be hard FOR ME to tell if the sour shot is because I am under extracting (15%), or over extracting (17%) relative to my preferred extraction (and taste profile) at 16%.

I use VST22 with 22g, output 28g-30g (1.3-1.4 ratio), in 30-35 sec. I use 83mm flat burr grinder and a commercial E61, HX machine with 3-5sec pre-infusion and aim for 16% extraction and now everyone else can go and duplicate my shots. You might not get 16% and need to do some adjustments, but that's ok because you have a starting point to go by. You might not like 16% extraction with my coffee but that's also cool, just find what you like and go with that.

The points I am making are:
1) yes you can correlate taste to extraction, but it does take a lot of time, hundreds of shots, a pen and paper and some patience.
2) It can be hard to dial shots by taste alone (for a humble barista like me at list), not all under extracted shots taste sour, not all over extracted shots taste bitter or flat or roasty (I wouldn't know what they taste like because technically I have never been able to over extract a shot, I once got close with a 4.5:1 ratio shot (22g in to 95g out) which rated at 21% extraction and didn't taste half bad).
3) Not all of us like the same things but it is much easier to know what other people might like when they give a the numbers rather than talk about subjective concepts like "blonding", sour/acidic/roasty/flat taste sensations. You know my numbers, now make up your own minds if it tastes good or not to you

Gera
(sorry it went longer than I thought)
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jpender
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Posted Fri Apr 18, 2014, 8:18am
Subject: Re: What I learned on Twitter yesterday about refractometers & bright coffee
 

MarkPrince Said:

See, right there, Rao loses me. I've had super balanced shots that I measured at 17.0%, and I've had bitter shots at 17.0% back when I was using the extract mojo calculations more regularly (and really started to not like the "proscribed target range" the EM comes with). To be fair, I've had lots of sour and overly acidic coffees at 17% in espresso extractions too.

Posted April 17, 2014 link

Rao said "typically", not always.

Hold your nose if you have to and look past this first part. Does the rest of it (the aspect of a non-linear taste change to adjustments in grind) fit with your experience?
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jpender
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Posted Fri Apr 18, 2014, 8:25am
Subject: Re: What I learned on Twitter yesterday about refractometers & bright coffee
 

Gera, that was the best explanation I've read.

But what about in terms of a person at home, pulling shots or brewing coffee from different sources, either roasted at home or purchased from different roasters? How portable is the extraction to taste correlation from one coffee to the next, or even as a given coffee ages? It would seem difficult to explore the extraction space so fully if it might require hundreds of shots each time when a 12oz bag of coffee contains far less than this. Do you think the VST would be less useful in that environment as opposed to the one you work in?
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