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January 30, 2017 /
Espresso Recipes: Strength

Image via Schill on Flickr.

Last week we talked about the importance of dose in understanding espresso recipes. This week, we talk about understanding ‘strength.’ Now, when people talk about coffee ‘strength’ they might be talking about one of three things

Intensity of flavour

  • Texture, weight or viscosity
  • Concentration of dissolved coffee flavour.

These three things are also regularly part of the same sentence, so to avoid confusion, here’s how I’m going to write about it:

When I use the words ‘strength’, ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ I’m talking about the concentration of dissolved coffee flavour, or Total Dissolved Solids (TDS).

When I use the word ‘intensity’ I’m talking about intensity of flavour.

When I use the words like ‘rich’, ‘watery’, ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ I’m talking about texture, weight and viscosity.

Strength

To communicate strength quickly and effectively, we refer to it as a percentage of the total brew. Most espressos will be somewhere between 7% and 12% strength which means they contain anywhere from 88 to 93% water. Drip/filter style coffees are typically between 1.2 and 1.8% coffee, which means they contain between 98.2% and 98.8% water.

“98.8% water?!” you ask? Well, yes. Water may be the main ingredient in coffee, but it’s certainly not the most obvious. Coffee is an incredibly intense flavoring agent. Very small variations in strength are easily identified by our palates. Changes of just 0.1% strength are detectable to anyone with observant taste buds. This means that espressos sitting at either end of the spectrum (7-12%) can produce experiences that are worlds apart.

Strength plays two major roles in your drinking experience. The first is in the intensity of flavor. The second is in the texture, weight and viscosity of the coffee.

Intensity

An espresso can be 10 times stronger than a drip/filter coffee. This almost guarantees an increase in perceived flavour intensity because there’s 10 times more flavour compounds hitting your tongue. Although it’s not just a simple increase like turning up the lights.

Strength also affects our perception of flavour. There is a very obvious reduction in our ability to identify a coffee’s flavours as its strength increases. There is also a rapid increase in the perceived intensity of a coffee’s flavours at higher strengths. Even though the coffee contains the same flavours, your palate will interpret them differently at varying strengths.

Weaker coffees aren’t necessarily watery or insipid. Sometimes, a lower strength can allow our palate to enjoy more subtle flavours that would be hidden by a higher strength. A lighter, more delicate espresso is less intense and sometimes much more drinkable than a strong one.

Stronger espresso brews will affect our ability to taste the coffee’s natural flavours. The best way to experience this is to make a short, strong espresso with a traditional darker ‘espresso’ roast, then dilute it to varying degrees with water. At the initial high strength, you might be fooled into thinking the roast isn’t so dark. Once diluted, you’ll easily taste flavours produced by the roasting process that were not as obvious before.

At a certain strength, no matter what the coffee is or how it was made, a coffee will become intensely bitter and unbearable. Unfortunately, our tongues just haven’t evolved for accurately tasting liquids at high concentrations. If you’re wondering whether the cause of a shot tasting bitter is strength, dilute a portion of the drink with water to check. If it goes away, strength was the culprit. If it stays, there’s another problem.

Texture, Weight and Viscosity

Tactile elements are some of the most important aspects to a good coffee. When tasting a coffee, everyone is expecting a certain level of texture, weight and body. These preferences vary greatly according to location and culture, but it’s fair to say that an espresso should generally be viscous and mouth filling to satisfy most tastes. A drip/filter coffee should also have reasonable heft and texture, lest it be classified as insipid water.

Here’s a spectrum of words I use to classify a coffee’s strength, in order from too weak to too strong. Some of them can be used to describe flavour intensity, but the words and their order displayed here are purely in regards to the texture, weight and body afforded by strength.

This list isn’t exhaustive, but should afford you a pretty broad range of words to describe the strength of any coffee you encounter.

The Perfect Strength

Like most subjective aspects of coffee, the perfect strength is hard to define. Everyone wants something different out of their beverage. For me, an ideal strength provides a fulfilling mouthfeel and viscosity but doesn’t detract from the flavours provided by your extraction. These are the ranges of strength I like to sit in.

For espresso, this means anywhere from 7.5-9.5%TDS. Strengths higher than this make my palate send considerable bitter signals to my brain. Anything lower and you’re entering the relatively undiscovered (but delicious) realm of 2-7% strength. Coffees in here are hard to define as either filter or espresso no matter how they’re brewed. If you’re serving an espresso that’s lower than 7%TDS it’d be best to set some expectations about texture and weight before a customer gets it.

For drip/filter, I prefer anywhere from 1.3-1.7% TDS. Any weaker than 1.3% just isn’t satisfying for me. It lacks heft and really leaves me wanting more flavour. Coffees around the 2% mark are also weirdly disappointing. I feel like there’s peaks and troughs of deliciousness as you move through coffee strengths and 2% is right in the middle of a trough. It’s too strong to be drip/filter and not strong enough to be a satisfying americano.

As always, experimentation is king. I think learning about and experimenting with strength as an independent variable is absolutely crucial for all baristas.

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Robin Aguilar
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Robin Aguilar

When measuring TDS, shouldn’t water type/composition be an equally important factor to consider? I’m thinking hard vs soft water, different types of filtration, regionally varying water sources… Would it be possible for a coffee to taste excellent to you at 1.7% or 1.3% in Australia and at a higher/lower strength in the US? For example, in the Coffee Brewing Handbook the acceptable range is 1.15%-1.35%. I think this is important to consider when making declarative statements about acceptable/palatable ranges of strength for coffee brewing. I also understand the importance of measuring degrees of strength based on different coffee doses, but… Read more »

Matt Perger
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Matt Perger

Pretty much everything I’ve written thus far is applicable without a refractometer. I would head straight to the 80:20 rule -> https://baristahustle.com/8020-method/

All 2001
Guest
All 2001

The link is dead

Kyle
Guest
Kyle

taste. using your variables you need to lock down your dose, find your grind size and beverage weight.. then while keeping your dose the same you alter grind and beverage weight.. I try to only change one variable at a time unless I’m 100% sure that two need to change. from there you can taste wether you need to increase or decrease extraction. as Matt said in the post a 0.1% difference can register on the palate. trust yourself and experiment. P.S. there are some instances in the middle of a busy period where I find dropping my dose and… Read more »

Melvin Chiew
Guest
Melvin Chiew

lets say if i have a batch of coffee and i do not have a VST kit. wht should i do to determine the recipe for that particular batch of beans?

Raivis Vaitekuns
Guest
Raivis Vaitekuns

Hi Matt!
You mention mystical word “body” of the drink couple times in the post. I’ve seen some people work with filter baskets with larger holes, letting more of fines to migrate to the cup, kind of giving the espresso more of ‘body’. On the other hand, I believe, good body is something we get with well balanced taste in the preferred (high enough) strength/intensity. Can you please give your thoughts about the body of the drink, how it’s achieved?

CLPettigrew
Guest
CLPettigrew

Grind maybe?

Sergio Ortiz
Guest
Sergio Ortiz

Hi Matt, great post.

In practical terms, if you want to alter the strength of a cup, without changing its extraction, what can you do? modify the dose?

Thank you.

Juraj Roháč
Guest
Juraj Roháč

It’s possible to measure extraction without refraktometer? Thanks

Sergio Ortiz
Guest
Sergio Ortiz

I believe changing the particle size would actually change the extraction, since it changes the ease the water extracts compounds from the coffee particles.
I was thinking diluting is an option, but my question was more like, if you have a cup and you would like to see how the flavor changes if you make it stronger -in TDS terms-.

Matt Perger
Guest
Matt Perger

Body is interesting, and indeed mystical! The more undissolved solids you have, the higher your body can be relative to strength. That said, some coffee contains more things like (I assume) fats/lipids that will give the impression of greater body. It’s something I’ve heard described numerous ways.

Sergio Ortiz
Guest
Sergio Ortiz

Hey Joe,
thanks for the message.
Yes, I recall that post, saying that you make a change in the dose just if you want to do more or less coffee.
You’re right, maybe it’ll be covered on upcoming entries.

Dominique Peterkin
Guest
Dominique Peterkin

Thank you for another clarifying post. Please indicate how the above-mentioned TDS range values are known: are they taken from another’s data or have these been measured using gravimetry (or other method)?

Joe
Guest
Joe

Hi Sergio, The first post in this series – he’s linked to it in the first sentence – outlines that you shouldn’t change dose. I can’t recall but it may also have some information that directly helps your question. I’ll read it again as well, because I clearly can’t recall well enough to offer any other helpful information 🙂 but my guess is you change the yield to affect the strength without changing the dose and that it’ll be covered in the next posts?

Espresso Recipes: Measuring Yield - Matt Perger
Guest
Espresso Recipes: Measuring Yield - Matt Perger

[…] Strength, the 2nd step to every good espresso recipe is yield. Yield is the amount of espresso in the cup […]

Robin Aguilar
Guest
Robin Aguilar

Lol. Thanks Matt!

Matt Perger
Guest
Matt Perger

It’s pretty negligible compared to the coffee. Water in Melbourne is 0.03% TDS or, in technical terms, a bees dick. 🙂

Matt Perger
Guest
Matt Perger

The only weapon you have here is your tongue. Mighty useful, but not quite as objective.

Matt Perger
Guest
Matt Perger

Thanks Sergio!

This one’s tough. In espresso they’re strongly linked together.
For a stronger espresso you can grind finer and pull a slightly shorter shot. If you’re not already at maximum fineness (aka choking) this will work ok.
For a weaker espresso, you can grind a bit coarser and pull a slightly longer shot.

Both of these will keep the extraction closer to the first shot than any other method I can think of.

Espresso Recipes: Understanding Yield - Matt Perger
Guest
Espresso Recipes: Understanding Yield - Matt Perger

[…] of it. It get’s a little complex so I strongly recommend reading my previous posts on Extraction, Strength and Dose before […]

Matt Perger
Guest
Matt Perger

It’s relevant, but negligible.

Espresso Recipes: Measuring Yield | Opn.Coffee
Guest
Espresso Recipes: Measuring Yield | Opn.Coffee

[…] Strength, the 2nd step to every good espresso recipe is yield. Yield is the amount of espresso in the cup […]

Chris Gates
Guest
Chris Gates

Hi Matt
So taking the rough estimation of TDS= 11-(Y/D) in the Cowuclator post a 40/20 recipe with my current bean will give me a 9% strength and to my palate a bitterness bordering on unpalatable. If I go to a 32/20 recipe with no other changes other than the natural reduced brew time (~25sec) the outcome would be 9.4% ie TDS has gone up but bitterness is down to palatable. Any clues as to whats going on there? Am I right in thinking TDS should be reduced primarily pulling the bitters down?

VST:WTF Part 1 - Matt Perger
Guest
VST:WTF Part 1 - Matt Perger

[…] Reminder: when talking about Strength and TDS, I’m referring to the proportion of the beverage that’s made up of dissolved coffee flavour; NOT the perceived intensity. eg. My espresso is 10%TDS but my filter coffee is 1.5%TDS. (For more on strength read this post.) […]

Basic steps in calibrating a grinder for espresso | Quaffee
Guest
Basic steps in calibrating a grinder for espresso | Quaffee

[…] This is a basic guide and it does not cover the various tweaks you can make to extract more or less. It does not cover the solubility percentage or ideal end dose. You can read more about this on the Barista hustle blog. You can read more here: baristahustle.com/espresso-recipes-time/; >/espresso-recipes-understanding-yield/; /analyzing-espresso-recipes-strength/. […]

Luke Inouchi
Guest
Luke Inouchi

Hi Matt!

Your exploration of the 2% to 7% range, this is what you served in one of the WBC events as your signature drink? A filter like extraction from an espreso machine?

Yang Jerng Hwa
Guest
Yang Jerng Hwa

Well there was this one time, the espresso was very good only in very tiny concentrations – something like 18g in and 10g out. So it was pulled over a little bit of water in the demitasse. The only thing missing then was “strength”.

writefish
Guest
writefish

A formula I found on one of the blogs is to multiply brix times 0.85 to give TDS.

Troy Gardner
Guest
Troy Gardner

what are these in brix?

What is a good cup of coffee? – Not Your Parents' Coffee
Guest
What is a good cup of coffee? – Not Your Parents' Coffee

[…] range of 7.5-9.5% https://baristahustle.com/analyzing-espresso-recipes-strength/ and more on coffee […]

Troy Gardner
Guest
Troy Gardner

that’s not very accurate in my testing :

brix color when backlit tds high ph
0.7 clear yellow 448 6
0.7 clear yellow 5.86
0.7 clear daisy yellow 169 5.55
0.7 cloudy clear golden yellow 161 5.47
0.8 golden yellow 262 5.15
1.2 deeper golden yellow 576 4.92
1.4 deeper golden yellow 693 4.88
1.8 light orange yellow 1100 4.72
2.8 light orange yellow 2010 4.65
4 light orange yellow 1380 4.61
5.2 light orange yellow 2510 4.55
7.8 orange yellow 3740 4.53
10.6 redish orange 5130 4.45
13.6 redish brown bit of orange 5130 4.39
16.4 redish brown 5130 4.35
17 ruby red orange brown 6440 4.35
5.4 orange red 2450 4.55
7 red orange 3360 4.52
7.8 redish brown 5230 4.24
5.4 redish brown 5230 4.23
9.4 ruby red 5230 4.22
12.2 deep ruby red 6440 4.31
14.4 deep ruby red 6440 4.36

VST:WTF Part 1 - Barista Hustle
Guest
VST:WTF Part 1 - Barista Hustle

[…] Reminder: when talking about Strength and TDS, I’m referring to the proportion of the beverage that’s made up of dissolved coffee flavour; NOT the perceived intensity. eg. My espresso is 10%TDS but my filter coffee is 1.5%TDS. (For more on strength read this post.) […]

Troy Gardner
Guest
Troy Gardner

in testing against many coffees it varies enough on bean type ( e.g. peaberry vs combian) , and roast level, to be a rather ballpark at best metric.

writefish
Guest
writefish

If memory serves, the 0.85% conversion was from Andy Schecter on one of the coffee blogs.

Basic steps in calibrating a grinder for espresso – Quaffee
Guest
Basic steps in calibrating a grinder for espresso – Quaffee

[…] This is a basic guide and it does not cover the various tweaks you can make to extract more or less. It does not cover the solubility percentage or ideal end dose. You can read more about this on the Barista hustle blog. You can read more here: baristahustle.com/espresso-recipes-time/; >/espresso-recipes-understanding-yield/; /analyzing-espresso-recipes-strength/. […]

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