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VST Refractometer: who's using it?
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emradguy
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emradguy
Joined: 31 Mar 2011
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Espresso: Duetto II; Twist v2
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Posted Thu Jan 23, 2014, 10:45pm
Subject: Re: VST Refractometer: who's using it
 

Well that was fun!

 
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Always remember the most important thing is what ends up in your cup!
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MWJB
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Grinder: Rocky, Lido, Porlex, Hario...
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Posted Fri Jan 24, 2014, 7:49am
Subject: Re: VST Refractometer: who's using it?
 

emradguy Said:

Hey Everyone,

I'm wondering how many of us use the VST Refractometer?  Personally, I don't, but I've been curious lately...and am starting to formulate some questions...

First off, does it improve your skills in coffee prep over time...ie, could one possibly learn to make better coffee drinks (any or all methods) through it's use?

Second, is it something those with experience using it would recommend for home enthusiasts or would you say it's better left for the pros?

Is the complexity of the program something that is rather intuitive and easily interfaced with on occasion, or does one typically need to be immersed in it to remember how to use it well.

Does it lend itself most useful to certain prep method over others, or is it equally useful for all prep methods.  For me, I'm mot interested in Espresso and Press (both Espro press and Aeropress) methods. I have not yet ventured into the realm of siphon brewing, and don't really have an interest in pourover/drip.

Are there other questions I should be asking about it?

Posted January 22, 2014 link

The interface is very user friendly...I'd say if you can afford it, it is worth it for the home enthusiast. It has been useful for any prep method I have tried (not espresso though, just brewed - but now wishing I'd bought the Esp/coffee version). For both Espro press & Aeropress you'll need to use the syringe filters (Matt Perger noted in his "how to" video that these can be flushed & reused). French/Espro press once dialled in to a preference shouldn't need lots of measurement as you can taste before you pour (this is how I brew, I test every now & then for a sanity check/confirmation). Aeropress...there's so many methods, recipes & brew ratios, a refractometer is very useful.

If you're not inclined to measure doses & water (beverage weights for drip & espresso), then it's probably not for you.

I would perhaps answer you question with another question? How do you brew in your Espro press & why...pretend I have never made a pot before and give me your simple prep? I'll bet it consists of a dose of coffee, a ratio of that to water and a nominal brew time? These things are all mechanisms to steer you to a good extraction when you don't have access to actual measurements (determined by folk who took measurements)...but only when they all dovetail - a 17:1 brew ratio can give a range of yields, as can a 5 minute steep, the refractometer confirms whether these things are doing what was intended. For instance if you want a 5:00 brew you just need a clock, but your clock can't verify your yield. I am sure you can brew coffee to your taste & that it is good coffee, but coffee can be "nice" over a wide range of yields, way beyond the ideal box, how do you know if it is getting in the preferred range especially when some brewers are prone to significant under extraction? You may find that the "character" that some brew methods impart to coffee may not simply be down to the materials, but also down to the fact that it consistently skews your yield?

Once you have found a region of your own preference, the refractometer & software help you hit that range more consistently.
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emradguy
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emradguy
Joined: 31 Mar 2011
Posts: 3,218
Location: Houston
Expertise: I live coffee

Espresso: Duetto II; Twist v2
Grinder: M Major, Macap M4, Pharos,...
Drip: Espro presses; Aeropress
Roaster: H-B "List of Favorites"
Posted Fri Jan 24, 2014, 9:40am
Subject: Re: VST Refractometer: who's using it?
 

MWJB Said:

The interface is very user friendly...I'd say if you can afford it, it is worth it for the home enthusiast. It has been useful for any prep method I have tried (not espresso though, just brewed - but now wishing I'd bought the Esp/coffee version). For both Espro press & Aeropress you'll need to use the syringe filters (Matt Perger noted in his "how to" video that these can be flushed & reused). French/Espro press once dialled in to a preference shouldn't need lots of measurement as you can taste before you pour (this is how I brew, I test every now & then for a sanity check/confirmation). Aeropress...there's so many methods, recipes & brew ratios, a refractometer is very useful.

If you're not inclined to measure doses & water (beverage weights for drip & espresso), then it's probably not for you.

I would perhaps answer you question with another question? How do you brew in your Espro press & why...pretend I have never made a pot before and give me your simple prep? I'll bet it consists of a dose of coffee, a ratio of that to water and a nominal brew time? These things are all mechanisms to steer you to a good extraction when you don't have access to actual measurements (determined by folk who took measurements)...but only when they all dovetail - a 17:1 brew ratio can give a range of yields, as can a 5 minute steep, the refractometer confirms whether these things are doing what was intended. For instance if you want a 5:00 brew you just need a clock, but your clock can't verify your yield. I am sure you can brew coffee to your taste & that it is good coffee, but coffee can be "nice" over a wide range of yields, way beyond the ideal box, how do you know if it is getting in the preferred range especially when some brewers are prone to significant under extraction? You may find that the "character" that some brew methods impart to coffee may not simply be down to the materials, but also down to the fact that it consistently skews your yield?

Once you have found a region of your own preference, the refractometer & software help you hit that range more consistently.

Posted January 24, 2014 link

UGH! damn telephone...I just lost my entire reply $#%&(! @&#&I*!!! #$^*#%^!!!!

Ok, so I'll start over...

Thanks for the thoughful reply! It's perhaps the best argument I've seen for getting one. As far as affording it...welll, I'm about to pull the trigger on an espresso grinder upgrade. I'm getting a Major from CCS (before the month ends, because that's when my discount expires). However, maybe after I save up another chunk o' change the Refractometer will be in my sights?

Below is my Espro press method. Before I begin, let me add a few details about my setup and some general method comments. I use a Lido grinder set at 2 1/2. I have a 0.1g scale. I use a Pyrex pitcher for measuring (more like guesstimating, given the inaccuracy and unachievable precision of these things). I have access to a microwave, which I use for heating water.  The water source is a tower Sparklett's dispenser that preheats to 175F. I use the Contigo cover to cover the press throughout most of the brewing process.  I don't measure any output in any way. I time with the stopwatch feature of my iphone or my chronograph.

Method:
  1. obtain 300ml water to preheat the press, and also preheat my ceramic Contigo desk mug
  2. weight out 25g beans, place in Lido hopper
  3. return press water to pitcher and heat in microwave for 1 min (exactly 200F using a frothing thermometer)
  4. grind beans while water is heating, and place them in the press
  5. cover grounds and let bloom for 0:20
  6. rewet all grounds while pouring remainder of 300ml into press
  7. gently swirl press at 1:30 to rewet all grounds
  8. replace cover with filter/plunger assembly
  9. plunge at 4:00, then pour immediately, doing the Randy Glass double pump (as described in his review) to retrieve as much coffee as possible.

One more bit of information that would perhaps help me decide. I have a vague understandiong of exactly how to use the device (what steps are done). I couldn't find it on thier website, but perhaps I didn't look in the right place.  I found a lot of advertising about how great it is, but...do they have instructions there I could read, or a manual?  If so, it was either blocked by work IT people or I missed it.


...and I'm still interested in hearing something about the device and software from andys (rather than just comments about forum behavior), since he was a beta tester (and the only one I know of).

 
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MWJB
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Joined: 1 Jun 2013
Posts: 190
Location: UK
Expertise: I like coffee

Grinder: Rocky, Lido, Porlex, Hario...
Drip: Not enough room to list...
Posted Fri Jan 24, 2014, 11:08am
Subject: Re: VST Refractometer: who's using it?
 

emradguy Said:

Below is my Espro press method. Before I begin, let me add a few details about my setup and some general method comments. I use a Lido grinder set at 2 1/2. I have a 0.1g scale. I use a Pyrex pitcher for measuring (more like guesstimating, given the inaccuracy and unachievable precision of these things). I have access to a microwave, which I use for heating water.  The water source is a tower Sparklett's dispenser that preheats to 175F. I use the Contigo cover to cover the press throughout most of the brewing process.  I don't measure any output in any way. I time with the stopwatch feature of my iphone or my chronograph.

Method:
obtain 300ml water to preheat the press, and also preheat my ceramic Contigo desk mug
weight out 25g beans, place in Lido hopper
return press water to pitcher and heat in microwave for 1 min (exactly 200F using a frothing thermometer)
grind beans while water is heating, and place them in the press
cover grounds and let bloom for 0:20
rewet all grounds while pouring remainder of 300ml into press
gently swirl press at 1:30 to rewet all grounds
replace cover with filter/plunger assembly
plunge at 4:00, then pour immediately, doing the Randy Glass double pump (as described in his review) to retrieve as much coffee as possible.

One more bit of information that would perhaps help me decide. I have a vague understandiong of exactly how to use the device (what steps are done). I couldn't find it on thier website, but perhaps I didn't look in the right place.  I found a lot of advertising about how great it is, but...do they have instructions there I could read, or a manual?  If so, it was either blocked by work IT people or I missed it.


...and I'm still interested in hearing something about the device and software from andys (rather than just comments about forum behavior), since he was a beta tester (and the only one I know of).

Posted January 24, 2014 link

The first thing I notice from your method is you have a brew ratio, start temp & steep for a commonly recommended time...these are a protocol. The brewing control chart was established to convey a protocol that would, hopefully, achieve a brew that landed in ideal box, determined by measurement results, but meant for everyday people to brew with at home. Look at the refractometer as simply a means to check your result....if you check your brews, you will know where on the map you are...there's no need to change anything if you like being there, but you have a mechanism by which to explore other regions and compare. You use a very high ratio of grinds to water, if you are not hitting the designed TDS (which is way outside the SCAA, SCAE & NCA ideal ranges, not that this is "wrong", just an observation for perspective), then you are underextracting your brews. If I were to play devil's advocate, I'd ask are you using that much coffee to bolster up the body of an underextracted brew? Having said that, I am aware my own preference is a lower brew ratio and higher yield than many other folk like...but I can only convey that in a meaningful way, to others, because of the refractometer & software.

I hope AndyS chimes in, it was this last point that Andy raised with me and clinched the deal on my purchase. That being, there are many measurements and factors we can take/adhere to, we can like Susan, make our own in-house analysis...but if our protocols and measurement tools aren't common, then we can't be sure that we are talking about a meaningfully similar result. There are several methods to establish a ball-park yield, dehydration (with good protocol) is the benchmark, but a look at any forum discussion will show differences protocol, these methods may make sense to us in our own environment, but are they "a number" or "the number"? And if your method is accurate, how can you verify that? When I say I have a 22% immersion yield & quote my brew ratio, I know that this will conform to other VST users, wherever they are. That is the difference between the VST and the previous info in brewing manuals, the previous info hopefully got you in a 4% wide box - the VST is precision tool to get you a reading within fractions of a %. It's not simply an old algebraic formula given a funky make over, as some like to suggest. VST have substantially added to the previous works in this area, to give accurate readings in real time (no baking), with a few drops of coffee (hydrometers, TDS meters require significantly more coffee).

You need to note brew water weight (brewing with the press on scales is best), note coffee dose weight. Brew, when you decant the brew give it a good stir, draw 4-5ml of coffee into a syringe, fit a filter and express that coffee into a vessel to cool for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile clean the refractometer well, drop a small amount of distilled/DI water into the instrument's well, after 20 seconds zero the refractometer to calibrate. Clean the well, add a few drops of the filtered coffee, wait 20seconds & take reading. Enter that reading into the software and it will plot your brew relative to a target (either software default, or a target of your own choosing). Then you can adjust grind & ratios accordingly...It sounds a faff, but while a press is brewing you have plenty of time to get a clean shot glass, syringe, filter & clean dropper to transfer the sample. Once you have identified a new region of interest, you can largely go by taste after that (French press/steeps especially - mine are never more than 0.02%TDS, or +/-0.5%Yield out when brewed by ideal taste, then checked by refractometer) & just check if you feel something is out of whack, or you have a coffee that is more suited to a different yield/a yield that exhibits a flavour you particularly like. It's value really comes into it's own on percolation methods (drip/espresso).

Prior to getting the software, I did a lot of work over many months, unravelling the mysteries of extraction (theoretically for the most part), I can say with that in mind, I have massive respect for what Vince Fedele has actually achieved. I don't think that many people truly recognise what he has done, or what the purpose of the package truly is. Before I was fully aware, I saw alot of misinformation and cack-handed readings/results, I had reservations similar to those expressed by others on another forum...like any tool, you have to know how to use it. It is simple & quick to use, as long as you follow reasonable protocol...no harder than actually brewing the coffee itself for most of us here.

Sorry, if that's overly long, or sounds like a sales pitch...it's not, like I said, it's a hell of an achievement, but that is only really apparent when you fully understand what is involved. It's not easy to grasp from the sidelines (not a swipe at anyone's intelligence, just a realistic observation).
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emradguy
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emradguy
Joined: 31 Mar 2011
Posts: 3,218
Location: Houston
Expertise: I live coffee

Espresso: Duetto II; Twist v2
Grinder: M Major, Macap M4, Pharos,...
Drip: Espro presses; Aeropress
Roaster: H-B "List of Favorites"
Posted Fri Jan 24, 2014, 11:40am
Subject: Re: VST Refractometer: who's using it?
 

yet another great reply.  Thanks again very much!  I'm getting a lot of insight into the tool - exactly what I was really looking for in this thread...and no, I don't see one bit of it as a sales pitch, so no need for the disclaimer :)

I arrived at my ratio partly through trial and error and partly through reading the practices of others (in particular one CG member who is, perhaps controversially, not longer visible on this board) .  Most of my Espro press experience has been with Ethiopian Yirg, that I've purchased from Red Bird. Although I've also done some of the expensive Panamas from Klatch, their Kau'a Typica, and the Guatemala Bella Carmona Red Bird had a few months ago.  So sticking mostly with my Yirg experience...I began with a slightly lower dose of 22g.  I found it rather low in body and mouthfeel, and even slightly watery in flavor, yet it was otherwise fantastic, even from the first sip, in all other respects. Perhaps I simply needed to increase my steep time? However, I didn't go that route. Rather, I just went up significantly in dose and found that while the factors I mention above improved, the results were too aggressive for my palate (yes, I tweaked grind setting and time quite a few times - one at a time - in each phase, trying to maintain sour/bitter balance at each dose), so i backed off a little...a couple of times.  I kept a log of my method, noting times, grind setting, dose and sparse tasting notes (if you can call them that).  Eventually, I settled on the 25g dose as a relative balance to what I was trying to achieve.  I guess in short, I'd have to answer yes, I must be boosting to compensate for underextraction.

I certainly don't see myself drying grounds and weighing them post brew, not even on rare occasion (it sounds too much like revisiting my college chemistry quantitative analysis I course).  In fact, if this were a requirement to get useful results, it would be a definite deal breaker for me.  However, I could see myself grabbing a small aliquot with a syringe and injecting it into a port of some sort to get a reading, and then entering the data in an iPad program. I'm kind of intrigued by this.

 
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andys
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andys
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Posted Sun Jan 26, 2014, 8:07am
Subject: Re: VST Refractometer: who's using it?
 

emradguy Said:

I'm wondering how many of us use the VST Refractometer?  Personally, I don't, but I've been curious lately...and am starting to formulate some questions...

First off, does it improve your skills in coffee prep over time...ie, could one possibly learn to make better coffee drinks (any or all methods) through it's use?

Second, is it something those with experience using it would recommend for home enthusiasts or would you say it's better left for the pros?

Is the complexity of the program something that is rather intuitive and easily interfaced with on occasion, or does one typically need to be immersed in it to remember how to use it well.

Posted January 22, 2014 link

Hi emradguy:

Sorry for the delayed response; I don't post on forums as much as I used to.

I feel that proper use of the VST system has great potential to improve your coffee. I drink espresso almost exclusively, so below are a few quick espresso examples from my experience:

  1. Sometimes it may lead you to make big changes in your brew parameters when you're pretty far off but for various reasons you just don't realize it.
  2. It can help you test numerous small changes in protocol that may not make a tasteable difference individually, but can add up to significant differences when combined (eg, flat vs curved tamper, tamper diameter, filter basket type, WDT, dosing technique, preinfusion, etc).
  3. It can help you share ideas and results with other folks in a more reproducible way.
  4. It can help you diagnose inconsistent batches of roasted coffee, bad filter baskets, dull burrs, damaged grinders, etc.
  5. It can help you dial in a new coffee or piece of equipment more quickly.

A refractometer/software package is expensive for home use, but so are a lot of other coffee gadgets. Resale value of the refractometer is good if you decide it's not for you (as long as you are careful with it). Of course, "proper use" means that you must be meticulous with some simple protocols, otherwise your results will not be accurate.

[disclosure: I was a beta tester for VST, so I received much of my VST stuff for free]

 
-AndyS
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emradguy
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emradguy
Joined: 31 Mar 2011
Posts: 3,218
Location: Houston
Expertise: I live coffee

Espresso: Duetto II; Twist v2
Grinder: M Major, Macap M4, Pharos,...
Drip: Espro presses; Aeropress
Roaster: H-B "List of Favorites"
Posted Mon Jan 27, 2014, 7:44am
Subject: Re: VST Refractometer: who's using it?
 

Andy,

Thank you for your thoughful reply.  I really appreciate you taking the time to respond.  It's partly because you were a beta tester that I really wanted to hear your thoughts, and partly because I know you are one of the more experienced, knowledgeable and meticulous guys out there.

I don't see the cost as prohibitive.  We spend more than that on other tools to make the best coffee we can...for instance, the nearly 1k I'm about to drop on a Major, or the 2k+ I spent on my Duetto.

I too drink espresso almost exclusively.  The only real exceptions being at work, where I don't have a grinder I'm willing to use for espresso.  I do have a Lido, but I've found that I don't have the time or patience to dial in the grind for my Twist with it.  When my Major arrives, one of my Macaps is coming to work for that purpose...then I'll see how much use my Espro presses get.  Other than that, I use an Aeropress when I travel...with the Lido.

I think I developed the skills and understanding to be able to rapidly learn to use the Refractomer in my undergrad, where I majored in Cellular/Molecular Biology and minored in General Chemistry.  I spent plenty of time in the lab, and in fact, had the highest lab grade in Quantitative Analysis - predominately due to being meticulous. The most limiting things for me with using the Refractometer would be time involvement and nuisance factor - at leat that's what I would anticipate.

Thanks again for your input!

 
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jwoodyu
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jwoodyu
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Grinder: Mazzer Major
Posted Mon Jan 27, 2014, 3:12pm
Subject: Re: VST Refractometer: who's using it?
 

Great thread Ron, looking forward to your thoughts once you have tested one especially since we will soon have the same setup with the Duetto II and Major. Have you plumbed it in, yet? Sorry you knew i was going to ask ;)

 
Yes i have a reason for leaving SCG off my list, yes it is my opinion, yes it is subjective as opinions are by definition, no don't start a flame war because you disagree.
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emradguy
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emradguy
Joined: 31 Mar 2011
Posts: 3,218
Location: Houston
Expertise: I live coffee

Espresso: Duetto II; Twist v2
Grinder: M Major, Macap M4, Pharos,...
Drip: Espro presses; Aeropress
Roaster: H-B "List of Favorites"
Posted Mon Jan 27, 2014, 8:19pm
Subject: Re: VST Refractometer: who's using it?
 

I just ordered my Major today...but I'm so excited about it, that I had to edit my profile already! Plumbing is really, truly on it's way this Spring.  My wife and I are doing the paperwork to refinance our home, supposed to "close" end of February. We're taking a chunk of cash out in the process to do a couple remodels we wanted when we bought the house back in 2010 (it was a spec home) including new kitchen island granite and a sink there, as well as plumbing the coffee bar. I'm really stoked because I was otherwise looking at water supply only, or a pseudo-cart setup - one of the reasons I've been procrastinating. I think it's pretty unlikely that I'll get any extra money to play with in the deal though.

Anyhow, back on topic...I have a whole 50 cents in my coffee geek kitty towards the Refractometer...now that what I'd saved up went towards the Major. So, it's going to be a while. I guess I could have saved another $100 by not buying the steam wand steam cleaning attachment - but it seemed like such a cool and useful toy!

 
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