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Today’s Tiny Lesson: Coffee to Water Ratio

Let's start at the very beginning.

by Ever Meister | June 16, 2021

Hello, coffee lover! We know brewing great coffee can seem really intimidating, and that the sheer number and complexity of brewing guides out there don’t help matters, so we’ve decided to help. Rather than think about coffee-brewing expertise as something you have to have right now, let’s look at it like a relay race: It’s much easier to run a marathon for the first time if you break it up into chunks.

There are lots of tiny things you can do to not only improve how you make coffee, but also how you taste it — and even how you buy it. All those tiny things add up to turning you into a confident coffee connoisseur, just like one mile at a time will eventually bring you across that finish line.

Luckily for all of us, the coffee journey is an ongoing one: There’s always more to discover, and new things being invented and explored every day! We hope to get you started in the right direction, though, and that’s why we welcome you to the first in a series of Little Coffee Lessons, simple and approachable regular exercises designed to take your brewing, tasting, and coffee expertise to the next level.

We’ll start by tackling one of the most fundamental — and yet also one of the most baffling — elements of brewing coffee: your basic recipe.

You know from reading about extraction science that coffee-to-water ratio is significant: Remember that coffee only has those two ingredients! You’ve probably also seen various recommendations for how much coffee to use, measured in all kinds of units: tablespoons, weight in grams whole bean, a 1 to 16 ratio, or the mysterious “scoop.” To add to the frustration, some brew guides call five fluid ounces a “cup,” while standard US measure states that a cup is eight ounces.

We’ve tried to make it simple for you to brew and compare coffees so that you can decide what is the optimal coffee-to-water ratio for you. Taking just about 30 minutes* to go through this exercise may very well open a whole new world of flavor for you, so why not spend a little time with us getting overcaffeinated? The only equipment you’ll need is whatever you usually use to make coffee, including the coffee itself.

What you’ll do is brew coffee three times: Once using the amount of coffee you usually use, followed by a batch that's a little less, and then one that’s a little more. By tasting these coffee brews in comparison to one another, you won’t only get to see which you prefer, but you may also start to better understand the concepts of over- and under-extraction.

Use this worksheet to help you through your taste-test, and share your results with us by tagging @tradecoffeeco on Instagram and Twitter.

Step-by-step instructions

  1. Brew one batch (or half-batch, if possible or preferable) of coffee as you normally do, but take notes on a sheet like the one provided below. Mark down the amounts of coffee and water in whatever unit you normally use to measure them, whether it’s tablespoons and cups, grams and ounces, or something else entirely. (Feel free to convert them if you want to be more precise.)
  2. Pour the finished brew into a carafe or mug and set aside to cool
  3. While the first batch is cooling, brew again — this time using five grams (roughly one tablespoon) less of whole-bean coffee. Use the same amount of water that you usually do. Remember to write down your recipe
  4. Repeat step two
  5. Brew one last time, using five grams (roughly one tablespoon) more than in step one and take those good notes, of course
  6. Taste!

Sample worksheet

Coffee Name Coffee Amount Water Amount Sour Notes? Bitter Notes? Sweet Notes? Other Tasting Notes
Example: Klatch Colombia Coffee for Peace 30 g 500 g none some a lot Honey-roasted nuts, stone fruit, caramel, lime
Brew #1
Brew #2
Brew #3

Takeaways

As you’re tasting the coffees, consider just a few things (nothing too serious):

  • Do any of the three brews taste more bitter than the others? You might notice a smoky or pungent taste up front and a long or lingering aftertaste.

  • Do any taste sour? Check for a puckering sensation in your mouth and a short aftertaste.

  • How about sweet, can you detect one that seems sweeter? It might also have a more balanced or nuanced flavor.

Sweetness is what we’re looking for here, because a well-extracted coffee should express enough of it to balance out the natural bitterness that can be exaggerated by over-extraction, as well as soften the cup enough to side-step under-extracted sourness.

Did you find that any of the batches tasted sweeter than what you normally brew with? You might want to adjust your recipe up or down to try to maximize that flavor: If it’s too close to call, try repeating the experiment with a smaller increment. Depending on the size of your overall batch, as few as three grams of coffee could make a big difference.

Good luck, have fun, and happy brewing!

*If your only brewing device is an auto-drip machine or a manual brewer that makes larger batches — a 10-cup electric drip machine or a six to 10 cup Chemex, for example — then we recommend spacing the exercises out over three days, one batch a day. You can still take notes, and you’ll probably still remember which one tastes the best if you make sure you brew over three consecutive days.