Not a day goes by without a customer asking “how much coffee should I use?” at the Stumptown Annex. This inquiry usually leads to more questions. Which brew method will be used? How many cups of coffee are you making, and what size are those cups? These are all valid questions which we’ll discuss at length in other articles. At the Annex, more than any other drink, we typically hand brew an eight ounce cup of pour over coffee. With this as a reference point, we normally give our response to the original question in a measure of weight: say, 21 grams. Most customers usually roll their eyes and want a unit of measure that coincides with a number of scoops. This gets a bit tricky. The mass of something, what we commonly call weight, is far more accurate than most ways we measure volume. You are already measuring your coffee so you might as well do it in way that is accurate, consistent and easy. Then again, this is America! We don’t use scales, and we already have seven sets of measuring spoons strung about our kitchen drawers.
If you’re going to do something you might as well do it correctly, right? Well, things are usually more complicated and there are other factors to consider. First, I will go out on a limb and state, the vast majority of Americans measure things in the kitchen volumetrically. We tend to be familiar with terms like cups, tablespoons and teaspoons. So, on Monday morning while Fido, your little ones, or even you are doing the pee dance and you are desperate for a cup of the brown stuff to snap you into the reality of your day, you resort to what is familiar: the tablespoon. Three heaping scoops, some hot water and a pour later you are sipping on a sour cup tasting nothing like yesterday’s brew. At this point, you’ve tossed Fido out the door, narrowly avoided a wet footy-pajama incident and are now desperately scrambling for the loo; awake, but gastronomically unsatisfied with the morning’s brew. If you have experienced anything similar to this, especially your cup tasting different from day to day, then you may want to become more familiar with terms like grams, tare and weight.
Not all coffee beans are created equal. There are many varietals that come in different shapes and sizes. One bean may be small and dense, while others are large and porous. Any combination of these characteristics may be found in different coffees. To illustrate some differences from one bean to the next, I measured the rough volume of one pound of Stumptown French Roast and compared it to the volume of one pound of the Ethiopia Duromina. I filled a standard Stumptown bag with a pound each of the coffees and measured the length, width and height with my trusty ruler. The French Roast occupied about 200 more cubic centimeters. The bag was four centimeters taller. In this case, the Ethiopia Duromina beans are noticeably smaller in size and probably denser. This means when you scoop out your beans in the morning you may be using different amounts of coffee per cup which affects the taste of your coffee. A single gram above or below the ideal will result in a sour or bitter cup. When mornings can be full of any number of tribulations, it would be nice to have a decent cup of coffee from day to day! This can easily be achieved with the addition of a scale to your kitchen.
There is no guessing with a scale. If you pour your beans into a cup sitting atop a zeroed-out scale and it reads 21 grams, then you have exactly that much coffee. Recently, I tested my skills with a tablespoon measure. I figured decades of experience in the kitchen would mean I would be pretty accurate with my scooping, but this was not the case. I, very scientifically, weighed three heaping scoops of whole beans. My method was to dig deep into the bag with the tablespoon, and give it a small gentle side-to-side shuffle to avoid any kamikaze beans from pelting the table when moving from bag to scale. With the French Roast, five of the measures weighed anywhere from 16.9 to 19.8 grams. The Ethiopia Duromina measurements ranged from 23.8 to 25.8 grams. This was a bit alarming. I was not able to hit the target weight of 21 grams. With these numbers, I should expect five cups of coffee which all taste different and none that taste great. Generally speaking, I could expect some of these cups to be watery, sour and grassy tasting, while others would be muddled, bitter and dirty tasting. Measuring coffee by volume with a scoop is not accurate or consistent.
If you have taken the time to purchase nice beans at a local specialty coffee roaster, then you are likely paying a pretty penny for a lovingly cultivated and crafted product. It shows you care about the products you consume and, I would wager, you know and enjoy the taste of a well brewed cup of coffee. However, every time you fumble around for the tablespoon in the morning, you are gambling on the quality of your brew and the odds are you will end up with a poor tasting cup of coffee.
Asking how much coffee one should use for a cup is a valid, somewhat complex and common question. We can continue to make guesstimations with volume, or get a scale and make it a simple accurate step in your brewing process. You are already performing the act of measuring your coffee for brewing. For many, it might entail a face squishing, tongue out, one-eyed guess (my general facade when getting just the right heaping scoop of beans). Or, you could pour some beans into a cup sitting atop a scale and stop pouring at the desired weight. In the latter case, you start your morning ritual with a better chance of achieving a great tasting cup every day. But wait there’s more! Scales are great for baking, which tends to need accuracy when measuring and assembling the ingredients. Unlike cooking, baking is a fairly scientific dance of precisely mixed dry and wet components, in conjunction with carefully measured alkalis and acids. Any slight deviations in measurements can mean the outcome of a sunken loaf, or exploding muffin mess all over the bottom of your oven. Moreover, if you have little ones, at some point they will come home with an assignment that requires the use of a scale. For ten dollars and up you can obtain a device that will start you on the path to a consistently great cup of coffee, the best muffins on the block all year round and, without a doubt, an honors student apprenticing with Stephen Hawking.