When people talk about coffee, there’s often confusion between extraction and strength. Long story short: Extraction refers to the delicious flavors that brewing pulls from ground coffee beans. (As you’ll recall from our previous exercise, good extraction means neither over- nor under-extracting.) Strength refers to water. How strongly have we diluted those flavors in our final cup? A great shot of espresso and a great cup of coffee might contain the same amount of extracted coffee flavor—but very different amounts of water.
As it turns out, coffee flavor is very potent: Well-made drip coffee is more than 98 percent water—which means that your water has to taste good, but that’s another story for another day. Instead, today we’ll focus on nailing the right ratio of coffee flavor to water in your morning mug, which is a lot trickier than it might seem.
- Whatever you usually use to brew coffee—e.g., a French press, a Chemex, Mr. Coffee, etc. (A paper-filter method is best for this exercise, but it will really work with anything.)
- Ground coffee
-A way to measure your ground coffee. (If you normally use a scoop or a tablespoon, that’s fine; but scales are preferred for accuracy.)
Without changing anything but the amount of coffee you use, you’re going to brew three batches of joe.
First, the normal batch: Use a typical ratio of 2 tablespoons (14 grams) of coffee for every cup (8 ounces) of water in your brewer. Then, brew a second batch, but up the coffee ante by doubling the amount of coffee (4 tablespoons) but keeping the water constant. In the final batch, use half the amount of grounds: 1 tablespoon per cup. Let the cups of brewed coffee cool to roughly room temperature, then taste and compare.
Whereas a sour/bitter flavor is a clear indicator of extraction woes, you can tell how your strength is by seeing how much or how little flavor is present in general. If you’ve wound up with a papery or grassy taste—sort of like chewing on a pencil—then you’ve probably got too weak a brew. If your coffee tastes instead like you’ve licked the bottom of an old ashtray, well, you might have gone a little too strong.
Strength and extraction, sad as it is, aren’t mutually exclusive: You can over-extract your coffee (remember that bitter flavor?) and still end up with a weak cup if you add too much water to dilute it. Similarly, you can under-extract your coffee but sludge through an incredibly concentrated cup if you don’t add enough water.
How’s a person to find the right balance?! Great question, thanks for asking! Just remember that coffee with the right balance of strength and extraction should always have sweetness present in the cup, and of course, the best way to test for that is to taste comparatively (as above), and adjust your recipe accordingly.