Exploring Coffee’s “Magic Ratio”

By , November 4, 2014

Join me in the Zeiger “Homestead” Institute for Coffee Research laboratories, where important testing is underway . . . .

I’ve read recently in a couple of different sources that there is a “magic ratio” for perfect coffee. It seems to be:

16 ounces of coffee contains 5 tablespoons of coffee and 16 ounces of water.

Okay, if you enjoy coffee, as I do (see Sacred Coffee: Elevating the Habitual to the Mindful) you see the problems immediately.

What constitutes a tablespoon (or any other measurement) of coffee? I’m a whole bean grinder. My current coffee practice relies on measuring whole beans, not ground. Specifically, I use 2 tablespoons of whole beans per cup of coffee. This has always worked for me; I’ve never measured how much ground coffee this produces. Until now . . . .

It appears that at my level of grind (fine, rather than coarse) a tablespoon of whole beans produces 1 1/4 tablespoons of ground. My normal 2 scoops gives me half of the “magic ratio,” assuming the ratio requires ground coffee measurement.

I have to assume that this magic ratio works no matter how one makes coffee. But, these measurements may prove somewhat problematic for my preferred method.

I use an italian espresso maker. It’s designated as a 6 cup, which has to mean 6 of those tiny little espresso cups the Italians use. As I use it, it makes a single cup of coffee, in my favorite, somewhat oversized coffee mug (see Coffee Yin-Yang).

We’ve codified the amount of water I need for coffee. This allows us to pour and set aside the amount of water I need, so that the water may be used for other purposes without waiting until I’m ready to make coffee (we filter all our drinking water, so we can only use a set amount of water without waiting for more to filter).

Just how much water I use, for the purpose of experimentation, gets tricky. We recently discovered that the measuring cylinder we use may be more decorative than utilitarian, as its measurements don’t necessarily agree with each other, let alone other measuring cups. Using this cylinder’s version of 450 ml of water fills my coffee maker’s reservoir to just below the point where the basket would flood with water when it’s inserted.

This inaccurate measurement hardly matters in normal usage, but it gets critical if I hope to achieve this “magic” ratio. As near as I can tell, the water I usually use falls somewhere under 16 ounces.

Without more careful measurement, things get fuzzy. I tried adding an additional scoop of whole beans, giving me a total ground of 3 3/4 tablespoons.

Putting that into the basket of my espresso maker proved tricky. The instructions that came with the pot warn against overfilling the basket, hinting that it may explode. I’m not too worried about that. My brother’s mother-in-law lives in Italy. He’s described her partner’s coffee making process, which includes jamming his espresso maker’s basket full of coffee, smashing it with a special tool to a polished puck, then adding more! I’ve never heard of any espresso maker explosion casualties in Italy (and, is this not exactly the sort of story our media would jump on, if it existed?). Safety concerns aside, trying to cram a magic ratio’s worth of grounds in to my basket proved extremely wasteful and messy.

As for the flavor, it tasted stronger than my usual, but not noticeably better.

All this begs the question: who came up with this “magic ratio,” and who really uses it? Do I notice a difference between the “weak” coffee I’m apparently making at home, and coffee I purchase elsewhere? I do not. Or, more accurately, if I do, I notice that those other cups of coffee are weaker than my own, not stronger. If I’m failing to achieve the “magic ratio,” so is almost everyone else making coffee out there!

This leads me to consider: Even if am making my coffee too weak, why is that a problem? I’m using less of an expensive commodity than the Magic Ratio calls for, but who cares? I already make coffee too strong for most people—coffee-drinking friends and family commonly water down what I make for them, or simply refuse to drink it.

Besides which, further Internet searching led me to another “Magic Ratio” that aligns far closer to my normal formula for making coffee:

1 to 2 tablespoons of ground coffee, for every 6 ounces of water.

I’m sure I read this somewhere, and that led me to my method of making coffee. I think I’m better off sticking to my own method, and forgoing any “magic.”

This can’t by my final thoughts on this. This overlong essay will no doubt lead to others in the future . . . .

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