Tiptoeing Toward Scales
Weighing your options for coffee precision in the kitchen
The first time I saw someone weighing water to brew a cup of coffee, I thought they were mental. Serious coffee nerds (and I count myself as one) often cross the line into overcomplicating their morning cup. The sight of a gram scale next to an aeropress looks like advanced chemistry or an illicit drug deal. Is all this really necessary?
No. But it turns out, appearances aside, adding a gram scale to your brewing regimen can actually make the whole process easier. It also brings a lot of consistency and precision. While nothing is as crucial to kitchen coffee bliss as buying great fresh roasted beans and having a decent grinder, a scale can have a pretty big impact.
Let’s make the case for bringing in this tool to your morning routine.
Knowing 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 better to normalize a brew recipe regardless of your choice of coffees.
One of the tricks of the trade of bakers and serious chefs 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 tried and true ratios that can be expressed in weights. Ratios allow cooks to move beyond the recipe and start improvising, or more easily scale up a dish to serve more people.
Fortunately, brewing coffee isn’t terribly complicated.
In coffee making, ratios of ground beans to water are roughly the same regardless of brew method (espresso being a notable exception). We like a ratio of around 1 part coffee to 16 or 17 parts water by weight as a starting point. Many strong brew aficionados will go as hefty as 1 part coffee to 13 parts water.
Some coffees will be more finicky about needing a precise ratio while others will be more forgiving. If your regular roaster requires you to thread a needle to get a decent tasting cup from their selections, we suggest looking for roasters who know how to paint a bigger bullseye (you can try our beans out for free).
Water and the magic of metric
Some of you may be thinking this doesn’t sound terribly simple. But the metric system blesses us with the fact that water is one of its foundational benchmarks. Thus 1 milliliter of water is also 1 gram, 1 liter a kilogram. A gram scale turns out to give us a clear and easy read on volume!
For manual brew methods, let the scale become the stage for the whole process. After weighing out your bean dose and grinding, you can set up the whole show on top of the scale — brewing device, filter, receptacle, freshly ground coffee, all of it — zero it out, and the scale is now showing you a live read on water volume as you pour.
For my usual single cup morning brew (in a dainty Kalita Wave 155 drip brewer) I dose 15 grams of the best coffee to 255 grams (or milliliters) of right-off-the-boil water, letting my scale and a timer do all the thinking while my brain stays half asleep. Rather than adding complexity, the scale and timer actually make things simpler, letting me nail near perfect cups consistently in spite of my meager morning mindfulness.
For users of manual brew devices, the scale quickly graduates from feeling like a scientific intrusion. Precision becomes effortless. Fine tuning comes into sharper focus and you can begin to more easily explore the small adjustments that give you a better cup.
Math is hard
The last thing anyone wants before that first cup is a math story problem, but this one isn’t hard. If you’re shooting for a 1:17 ratio simple multiply your coffee dose by 17 and get your desired water volume — for example 30g coffee X 17 = 510g water.
For those of us who are still bad at math even when there’s a calculator in our pocket, the internet provides resources to spare us the extra thinking. I keep this handy coffee brewing ratio calculator in my bookmarks for quickly figuring out how a 1:16 coffee-to-water ratio translates to a 700ml Chemex or a random 500ml french press.
Let’s go shopping
In recent years, technological advances and booming markets in both home cooking and legal and illicit drugs have led to a rich array of affordable and accurate gram scales.
A good scale for kitchen coffee use should ideally give you resolution down to a half gram or better, support weights up to at least 2 kilos (for letting you load up all your brew gear), be durable, and not be overly aggressive with its auto shutoff function. Here are three that have been well battle tested by coffee geeks and home cooks.
The cheap and portable
KitchenTour Coffee Scale. Easy to read, inexpensive, and looks pretty nice. There are many coffee friendly scales in this price range with similar styles that you can comb through the reviews of. This one from KitchenTour checks a lot of boxes for it’s low price.
Jennings CJ4000 Digital Scale. This scale seems “just right” on all the specs and has proven popular for busy coffee shop use. It might not win every beauty contest, but it offers an AC power adapter (though it gets remarkably good battery life), 4 kilogram capacity, fast, responsive measurements, and is hard to beat on price.
The serious coffee nerd
The Acaia Pearl. Perhaps you need a scale that recharges via USB, talks to a smartphone app, and has the look and feel of an Apple product? Acaia makes products that look nice on your counter. And as someone who happily (but sheepishly) owns a 00 Bluetooth enabled coffee “Smart Mug”, I wont judge you for splurging on the extra tech.
As always, you’ll get more mileage out of all your gear and effort when starting with the best coffee. Our easy pay-as-you-go coffee subscription will spoil you with some of the very best coffees you’ll ever drink. Try it out today!