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January 30, 2017 /
Stop Renouncing Refractometers

It’s 2016 and there’s still a lot of misinformation and anti-intellectualism surrounding refractometers for coffee. Here’s a couple phrases I’ve read recently, and my rebuttals. Apologies for the rant, but we should be collectively well past this.

“Higher extraction isn’t always more delicious. I’ve had plenty of espressos at lower extractions that are delicious”.

A delicious high extraction, and a delicious low extraction are not mutually exclusive.

Higher extractions and TDS aren’t an aim. They’re an effect.

It’s all to do with evenness of extraction. I’ve written thousands of words on this. Look here, here, here, and here if you want to learn about how an even extraction will improve things for you.

In short: with all other variables static (same dose, yield, time etc.), a more even extraction will result in a higher extraction yield.

So, the aim isn’t a higher extraction, it’s a more even extraction. And the easiest way to spot a more even extraction in a side-by-side test is an increased TDS and therefore extraction yield. Don’t confuse the two!

“Our goal in the Specialty Coffee industry is not to yield a higher TDS. Our job is to make amazing coffees for customers”.

This is almost the same thing, but I put it here to drive the point home. When hunting for evenness, TDS is a proxy for extraction so it’s really the same thing.

These three statements will serve well anyone looking to improve their coffee:

A more even extraction is a more delicious extraction.
A higher extraction that tastes great is a more even extraction.
A higher extraction is not necessarily a more delicious extraction.

It is shame to see lot of baristas being driven by numbers”.

This is just straight up anti-intellectualism.

It’s wondrous to see so many Baristas around the world embracing measurement and consistency! I remember my first WBC in Bogota, where half the competitors were using scales to measure their espressos and that was revelatory. Look where we are now!

Do you deride your accountant for being driven by numbers?
Would you prefer that the manufacturers of your seatbelt put down their testing instruments and had a good look instead? Do worldwide companies known for exceptional customer satisfaction reject their Net Promoter Score and rely on vibes?
Would you prefer your coffee farmer put down the moisture meter and just send you coffee she feels is amazing?

Being driven by numbers is admirable. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.

“We will not use Refractometers to dictate what we should serve our customers”.

The classic I-have-no-idea-what-this-thing-does argument; aka wilful ignorance aka tactical stupidity.

Facts do not cease to exist when you ignore them. Every coffee you make for your customers sits at a certain strength and level of extraction. Why not track it and learn?

Refractometers don’t dictate what you should serve, they just help you track and understand what you’re serving. If your coffees aren’t tasting great and a refractometer indicates your strength and extraction are lower than when it was previously delicious; is that the refractometer telling you to increase them? No. It’s telling you what’s different, and you’ve learnt why.

A refractometer is a quantitative tool. It doesn’t have sick days, palate fatigue, or bias. It also can’t tell you what’s delicious or otherwise.

Your tongue is a qualitative tool. It can detect thousands upon thousands of nuances and knows exactly what delicious is (sometimes). It has bad days, is wildly affected by your biases, and cannot be quantified.

Use just one, and you’re blind. Use them together, and you have the best of both worlds!

Sensory Lab has collectively saved hundreds of thousands of dollars through the use of refractometers in our roasters, cafe, and customer’s venues. We’ve improved roast consistency and solubility, inter-venue consistency, inter-barista consistency, equipment choice and servicing, and just straight up deliciousness of our coffees: all through the use of refractometers. You’d be a fool not to employ them wherever possible.

 

If you have enjoyed reading this and want to enjoy delicious coffee with the rest of the community – register for our monthly Superlatives coffee subscription. Or if you just want to keep up with every thing Barista Hustle – sign up to the Newsletter.

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Adi
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Adi

Nice article ?

Greg Scace
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Greg Scace

This is pretty much right on. Your taste buds should tell whether or not your coffee is amazing. Your refractometer and other tools give you the signposts that allow you to return to that amazing place.

espressoschool
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espressoschool

❤️

Scott Rao
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Scott Rao

This is why I love you

Federico Bolanos
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Federico Bolanos

Well said! I cannot agree more and thank you for posting this so more coffee enthusiasts become professionals. I have always been against baristas that hide behind the argument that making coffee is an art. Brewing coffee is not art…it is science. Only those that are too lazy or too dumb not to understand the chemistry involved in making coffee, say coffee brewing is art. Usually they are very inconsistent and never understand how and why they got the results in the cup they did (good or bad). Embrace science and the quality of your coffee will make huge leaps… Read more »

Shae Macnamara
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Shae Macnamara

People who are not using tools like these are only scared of change, the same as people who still write letters instead of sending an email. Yeah its romantic to send a letter as it is romantic to say you don’t want to embrace science, but your productivity is terrible! People use the tools that are available! They make your life easier. Remember, art and science can work together!

jonathonsciola
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jonathonsciola

Best read ever. In 50 years we will say to each other, “We were living in the days of Matt Perger”. Thank you someone in this world is paying attention. This was a blissful read. Again thank you.

Mr Tek
Guest
Mr Tek

And also… Higher extraction yield out of lemon still gives lemon juice.

Nick Jones
Guest
Nick Jones

Hey Matt, did you enjoy Moneyball?

Jay DeRose
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Jay DeRose

??This, was a great Rant, that many needed to hear. Thanks for coming through.

Jeff Verellen
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Jeff Verellen

Tds is the best indicator yet but it will always be a mistery what the extraction percentage really is.

Sometimes a coffee will cup great but thin, getting the right strenght might mean updosing and “underextracting” the reverse is also possible ofcourse.

dhb
Guest
dhb

I never get the idea of using a refractometer, until that revealing moment when Colin Harmon shared his use at 3FE and providing the bigger picture. Than all of a sudden it makes sense. Measure, log the results into a database, and view them over a period of time. Look at the extractions of a specific Barista, look at the specific extractions made from a certain Coffee. This will give me the opportunity to identify specific actions to be taken. Retrain Staff, Going back to the roaster, set points of maintenance.

David Baillie
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David Baillie

Thanks Matt. Well thought through and argued. ☺

Patrick Montelongo
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Patrick Montelongo

“Refractometers don’t dictate what you should serve, they just help you track and understand what you’re serving.” – this quote sums up this read for me. Great stuff.

Michael A
Guest
Michael A

I know coffee can make people appear arrogant and agro at
times, but it’s our job to pull that in when the heat is on. You make some
valid points, however I wonder why you felt you needed to take down our only
World Barista champion in such a public and aggressive fashion, just to
champion your way of doing things? You champion intellectualism – how about
being a gentleman?

Ground Control
Guest
Ground Control

Fully agree with Matt that refractometers are an incredibly powerful numerical feedback tool. I also like the emphasis on the importance of tasting to get a better qualitative sense of what’s being extracted. Unfortunately, with higher extractions, we tend to see a larger concentration of chlorogenic compounds, which degrades into compounds that lead to bitterness in the cup. One of the nice things we’ve found experimenting with different brewing methods, primarily Ground Control, is that for many coffees, you can increase extraction nearly linearly while still keeping undesirable flavors out. The brewing method used has a tremendous influence on what… Read more »

Ed Bourgeois
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Ed Bourgeois

Roast profiles and the use of RoR needs to be considered in similar mindset while also incorporated with brew data.

Michael A
Guest
Michael A

Sure. But without wanting to labour the point, and in the interests of truth and even some kind of intellectualism: You did write this article quoting him. You have either directly quoted or paraphrased him throughout. Which is why I’ve taken some offence at the way you’ve expressed yourself. You may not have used caps, but the message was clear. If I’d written the source quotes you’ve used to launch your rant – I’d have been offended. Take that however you will. I’ve been the grateful recipient of your wisdom in the past – however it felt like this one… Read more »

Matt Perger
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Matt Perger

Your comment about Sasa is largely irrelevant. Anti-intellectualism is a poisonous, backward attitude – I will aggressively fight it, publicly, as long as I need to, no matter who spouts it. If I wrote this article quoting him and directing my criticism at him, it would be completely unfair and -to counter- ungentlemanly. Sasa isn’t the only person who has said these things. I’ve been fighting these phrases and ideas for years. He’s no different, and doesn’t deserve to be singled out. You assume privacy is a better medium for debate. It isn’t. When criticism like this is provided behind… Read more »

Emily Oak
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Emily Oak

Paul Bassett was actually our first World Barista Champion, in 2003.

Matt Perger
Guest
Matt Perger

I get the feeling you *want* this to be a personal attack. Perhaps it would feed some personal need for drama? You need to separate the concept of a personal attack from an ideological attack.

John
Guest
John

I’m not a barista. I am, however, an analytical chemist. Measuring things is what I do. I’m amateur enough in coffee that I have never used a refractometer or measured TDI. I’m comforted in reading this, because I see the same thing happening across multiple areas in engineering and science as well – by people who should know better. I wouldn’t necessarily expect a barista to understand the difference, because I see it all the time among people for whom their life focus is on measurement and consistent production of things. It’s simply outside the focus of the barista’s universe… Read more »

Matt Perger
Guest
Matt Perger

Hey thanks Marcus Indeed it is a rant. I went in with that attitude from the first sentence. I’m totally cool with people who don’t get it. It’s the people who don’t want to get it that frustrate me. Doubly so when they drag others down with them. Triply so when they should know better or do so for personal gain. I also understand that fighting ideas can look like a personal attack (they’re the ones who hold those ideas after all!). If I wanted a personal attack, I’d make it personal. But that gets us nowhere. None of these… Read more »

Marcus_Bunker
Guest
Marcus_Bunker

I think a lot of people still don’t understand it all. Like, they just don’t actually understand the maths, the concepts etc. Some people understand some of it and then think they understand all of it. I still regularly come across people who think: – higher ext% is always better (but they have no concept of optimum extraction or even extraction) – people who think grinders are hard limited to a maximum ext% possible (they aren’t, just pull a 400g shot instead of 40g and the ext% will be well higher…or they think EK is the only grinder that can… Read more »

Sder Swib
Guest
Sder Swib

bang on, spot on, bullseye,
after this I’m going to start looking at my speedo so I can stop getting speeding fines as well
Thanks Matt, always a good read

Jose Kizner
Guest
Jose Kizner

Hi Matt,

What do you think about VST coffee tool (app)?
I still can’t afford for a VST refractometer..

Below it’s what it promises..

“Fully functional with or without a coffee refractometer”
(http://store.vstapps.com/collections/vst-coffee-espresso-software/products/vst-coffeetools-for-android)

I don’t know if you already have make any comparison, but, if everything is evenness, since the distribution, and all the other steps,this app can provide a reliable information?

Tks

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