Published: Jan 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.


Submit a Comment

30 Day Money Back Guarantee+
30 Day Money Back Guarantee

Signup for a personal BH Membership with a 30 day money back guarantee! Signup is risk-free and you can cancel your membership at any time!