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Tiptoeing Toward Scales

Weighing your options for precision in the kitchen

The first time I saw someone weighing their water to brew a cup of coffee, I thought they were insane. Serious coffee nerds will often cross the line into overcomplicating their morning cup and the sight of a gram scale next to an aeropress makes brewing look more like advanced chemistry or a drug deal. Is this really necessary?

No. But it turns out, appearances aside, adding a scale to your brewing regimen can actually make the process much simpler in addition to delivering precision.

Know your dose

Scoops, measuring spoons, eyeballing, or guesstimation are often good enough to get the job done, but for a reliable and repeatable cup, weight is a better measure than volume. One person's "heaping tablespoon" is another person's "8.2 grams". A scoop of coffee can vary in density depending on the bean size, variety, and how it was roasted. Weight works well to normalize a brew recipe regardless of your choice of coffees.

Ratios

One of the kitchen tricks of serious and experienced cooks is that most recipes can really be boiled down to ratios. Different flour to liquid ratios give you different batters or breads. Sauces, custards, and any number of common concoctions follow easy equations that can be expressed in weights. Ratios allow cooks to move beyond blindly following a recipe and start improvising, or more easily expand a dish to serve more people.

In coffee, ratios of ground beans to water tend to be about the same regardless of brew method (espresso being, as always, an exception). The well-endorsed industry standard ratio is about 1 part coffee to 18 parts water but many strong brew aficionados will go as strong as 1 part coffee to 13 parts water. I personally use a ratio of 1:16 as a starting point in most of my at-home brewing.

Water and the magic of metric

At this point some of you may be thinking that this doesn't sound terribly simple. But the metric system blesses us with the fact that water is one of its founding benchmarks. Thus 1 milliliter of water is also 1 gram, 1 liter a kilogram. A gram scale turns out to give us an easy read on volume.

Method

For manual brew methods, the scale becomes the stage. After weighing out your bean dose and grinding, you can set up the whole show on top of the scale, zero it out, and pour the water till you hit your goal. For my usual bachelor morning inverted aeropress I dose 15 grams of coffee and weigh in 240 grams of water, letting my scale and a timer do all the heavy lifting. It’s such a part of my routine that I can nearly brew a perfect cup while sleepwalking.

For users of Chemex, French press, V60, or any other manual device, the scale quickly goes from feeling like a scientific intrusion to becoming a comfortable crutch. Precision gets effortless. Fine tuning comes into focus. Better and better brews abound.

Math is hard

The last thing anyone wants to do before that first cup of coffee is a math story problem. Fortunately the internet provides many resources to spare us from thinking. I keep a ratio calculator in my bookmarks bar for quickly figuring out how a 1:16 coffee-to-water ratio translates to a half liter Chemex or a 350ml Hario V60.

Let’s go shopping

In recent years, accurate gram scales have become very affordable. A good scale for kitchen coffee use should ideally give you resolution down to a half gram or better, support weights up to 2 kilos, be durable, and not be overly aggressive with its auto shutoff function. Here are three that have been well battle tested by coffee geeks.

The cheap and portable

American Weigh Scales AMW-SC-2KG Digital Pocket Scale

This little guy measures less than 5” square, is as light as a smartphone, and is well known to many travelling coffee pros. For such an inexpensive device, they seem to handle a lot of abuse. If you choose this as a daily use scale, we’d suggest grabbing some rechargeable AAA batteries along with it.

The Goldilocks

Jennings CJ4000 4000g x 0.5g Digital Scale

This scale seems “just right” on all the specs and has proven popular for coffee shop use. It might not win every beauty contest, but it offers an AC power adapter, 4 kilogram capacity, fast, responsive measurements, and is hard to beat on price.

The serious cook

Bonavita Electronic Scale

From the same company that makes one our favorite drip coffee machines comes a well-built scale that has an integrated timer – perfect for manual coffee brewing. Though pricier than its peers, this scale does look more at home in a kitchen than many other models that seem like they came from a lab. If you plan to make measuring and ratios a regular part of your kitchen stadium, this might be the upgrade for you.


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By Tony Konecny

Tonx Cofounder and Bean Fiend

Published May. 21, 2014

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