Refractometer Worth it?

Beginner and pro baristas share tips and tricks for making espresso.
Ken5
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#1: Post by Ken5 »

Refractometer Questions...

I just read on a website that refractometer ands the pc/Mac software is very expensive. Stated that the refractometer and software would cost $800.00.

Read that it can test if coffee is over or under extracted, what else is it good for if just making straight espressos? If a shot has thicker mouthfeel would that affect the reading?

Is there a brand that works best for espresso?

Thanks!

Ken

Pressino

#2: Post by Pressino »

Others will surely chime in, but IMO refractometers are useful to measure, in an objective way, the amount of dissolved coffee in the brew after extraction. Just how much that correlates with a good (or bad) tasting cup of coffee is debatable, though it certainly can be correlated with bad results due to under- or over-extracted coffee. There have been a lot of published reports (on websites like this and elsewhere) about how coffee quality changes with changes in refractive index (what refractometers actually measure) though different scales based on sugar content (Brix) etc. are used...most often for coffee TDS (total dissolved solids...as a %) is used.

I have used refractometers (both optical with direct and digital read-outs) and found them useful especially for espresso, where they did help me mainly to confirm under-extraction and correct that.

Some refractometers are very expensive, the VST being the most expensive consumer coffee model, and the main advantage is its higher resolution and accuracy (to two decimal places in the read out). I suppose that can make a difference if extreme precision tweaking of measured TDS really amounts to significant differences in taste...but as I said that is arguable.

The good news is that in the TDS range of espresso (as opposed to V60 or other less concentrated brews) you really don't need as much resolution to check your extraction. :)

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RapidCoffee
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#3: Post by RapidCoffee »

A coffee refractometer makes sense for extensive testing/experimentation, or monitoring consistency in a commercial setting. But for home use? I'm going to be a contrarian and say no, it's not worth it. I have used refractometers, and can honestly say that they have never improved my coffee/espresso. They are nontrivial to use properly, and turn the espresso experience into something of a lab experiment. Spending that $800 on good coffee (or upgrading your espresso gear) would be a far wiser investment.
John

baldheadracing
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#4: Post by baldheadracing »

I use mine (Atago) almost exclusively for trouble-shooting pourover coffee.
- bigger flat burr makes always better grinding result than smaller one - H. Lee

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Jeff
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#5: Post by Jeff »

For espresso, unless your machine is repeatable enough that you can arguably relate changes in EY to changes in technique or gear, it is hard to justify. Unless your an Olympic-class something-or-another, I can't see someone getting to the point with a manual lever or manual flow-management valve that the shot-to-shot variance there is small enough to make a refractometer "valuable" for many home users.

I don't find that a refractometer helps me dial in any faster or better.

For coffee with higher ratios than espresso, you end up needing a higher-precision device as the TDS gets multiplied by around 15-20, rather than 1.5 to 3 or so, to get to EY. While a cheap one might be amusing for espresso, I don't think they have anywhere near the accuracy needed for "regular" coffee.

A refractometer, syringes or a centrifuge, and all the time associated with it is, in my opinion, one of those "if you have to ask ..." things.

Pressino

#6: Post by Pressino »

I concur with all the previous responses [including my own :)] that for most of us who just want to enjoy coffee at home, spending a lot of money on a refractometer doesn't make a great deal of sense. But I do think, especially in the espresso range of coffee making, spending a few bucks for one of those inexpensive handheld optical direct read Brix refractometers can be fun and educational, and even help you diagnose or at least identify under-extracted shots. $800 for a VST or even $400 for an Atago ?? Spend it on a better grinder or just more good coffee... :D

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Peppersass
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#7: Post by Peppersass »

I agree with a lot of what's been said here, but not everything.

I think the answer depends on the role coffee plays in your life, repeatability of your equipment/technique, your budget, your coffee preferences, your level of "lab" skill, your ability to interpret the results and your personality type. These things vary a lot from person to person.

My experience has been that a refractometer can help with learning to dial in, learning how to maintain consistency, evaluating equipment (especially grinders), perfecting preparation technique, learning how to taste, evaluating roasts (if you're a home roaster) and troubleshooting equipment. Some people here are good enough tasters that they can do most or all of those things by taste. Others are not so good at that.

I don't use my refractometer every day because I pull espresso almost exclusively, and over 12+ years of learning I can do most of the tasks above by taste, except for evaluating grinders, deep analysis of my home roasts and troubleshooting equipment, which I don't do every day. But early on the refractometer helped me to better understand how to dial in and the effects of changing the various espresso parameters.

I do use my refractometer whenever I make pourover or vac-pot because I do that much less frequently (like 200:1) and I'm not anywhere near as skilled with those brew techniques. As others have said, tiny variations in extraction yield make big differences in the taste of brewed coffee, so a very accurate refractometer is needed.

If I owned a cafe, or any coffee-related business for that matter, I would definitely buy a refractometer, and I would get the most accurate refractometer available. The ROI for training, design evaluation, production QA, troubleshooting, etc. would be well worth the cost. And it's tax-deductible. :D

Ken5 (original poster)
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#8: Post by Ken5 (original poster) »

Thanks everyone!

I think I will put off getting one for now. Perhaps in the future.

Ken