A step too far or a long way to travel?

Feb 15, 2016

A visit to one of our customers this morning reminded me of an article I’ve read recently with regards to espresso and the use of scales. This morning’s espresso was served from a machine which had been carefully dialled-in (I watched the barista do this), and my actual espresso was weighed. As it turns out, if a customer orders an espresso in this particular coffee shop, then scales are used over the pre-set buttons on the machine.

For those not used to, or aware of, the concept of using scales when preparing an espresso, I can recommend reading the above article and I also offer a brief explanation here:

Weight is a more accurate method of gauging an espresso than volume. There is a relationship between the weight of the dry grounds and the weight of the resulting espresso. This morning the barista weighed out 18g of coffee, and by placing scales on the drip tray, pulled a 36g espresso in 30 seconds. This 1:2 ratio is called an espresso normale.

We’ve been using scales when setting up espresso machines pretty much since we opened our doors in 2011 and, when we visit customers, a set of scales will always be a key piece of equipment we take with us. The ‘recipe’ gives us a common language and is often useful when trying to diagnose issues. It is also useful if a member of staff does not actually drink coffee[1], giving them a way of determining the quality of the coffee they are serving.

The use of scales has now become an integral part of our coffee brewing and we couldn’t really imagine not utilising them. All the espresso machines at the Roastery have a couple of scales next to them and when we brew coffee by other methods, scales allow us a degree of consistency. If it’s time for a coffee press then out come the scales. We use a ratio of 75g per litre of water each time, altering the grind setting to enable us to achieve the best extraction.  For filter coffee we use a ratio of 60g of coffee to 1 litre of water and again adjust the grind setting to determine the extraction.  It might not come as a surprise to know that we’ve been using scales when brewing coffee at home since at least 2009.

For some this may seem a step too far but in a commercial environment, the ability to provide customers with a consistent experience, particularly in respect of quality, is going to be a key factor in determining success. Encouraging our customers to dial-in their espresso machines each morning, using a set of scales every time, helps them work towards this consistency of experience, and it enables them to develop a better understanding of the coffee they serve[2]. The gain in popularity of scales has spurned a new generation of equipment: there are now espresso machines with scales built into their drip trays and it is now possible to buy scales which are specifically designed to measure espresso.

If we accept that the use of scales is not only a positive step forward, but also a necessary one, then I would suggest that much of our industry has a long way to travel. It is rare that we take on a new customer who knows about dialling-in, recipes and the use of scales, despite having sold coffee for many years. In fact their initial feelings can often be ones of scepticism – why has making an espresso become complicated all of a sudden? This scepticism soon disappears as they start to understand the benefits, particularly if they have large numbers of staff. Locally at least, only a small minority of establishments are going to adequate lengths to ensure they are serving their coffee in the best way possible. This makes training customers exciting and rewarding. My espresso this morning was testament to that: we’ve never dicussed making every espresso by weight with this particular customer; it is a decision they arrived at themselves in an attempt to provide their customers with a consistently high quality coffee drinking experience. It’s fair to say this particular customer appreciated their efforts.

  1. There are a surprising number of people working espresso machines who don’t actually drink coffee themselves!  ↩
  2. Using scales, and understanding the concept of a recipe, is only the first stage for our customers. Once they’ve fully understood this notion, we take their learning on a little further and start looking at some of the concepts behind the recipe: extraction and dissolved solids.  ↩