When preparing coffee, my motto is “be as precise as possible but don’t go overboard.” However, I also say that the dosage of coffee has a decisive influence on the result.
As with tampers, it’s strange, then, that I haven’t yet written a guide to coffee and espresso scales or how to dose coffee correctly. Well, until now, that is.
Aside from tampers, you’ll see what I consider to be the best digital scale in all my YouTube videos — yet I never go into any detail about it.
That’s why it’s high time for me to introduce you to this precision tool in more detail. I’ll discuss:
- The differences between an ordinary kitchen scale and a coffee scale.
- The various models.
- The importance of why dosing coffee with a spoon or coffee scoop is budget-friendly but not a good idea.
What’s the Difference Between a Kitchen Scale and a Barista Scale?
There are good reasons why the much-hyped Acaia Lunar Scale costs around $325, while you can get a simple digital kitchen scale from Target or at Best Buy for under $20.
Even if you don’t opt for the Rolls-Royce of scales (and my personal favorite for everyday use), an entry-level model like the CoastLine Digital Pro coffee scale still costs just under $20. Let’s take a brief look at three coffee scales for comparison:
|Category||Taylor Kitchen Scale ||CoastLine Digital Pro||Acaia Lunar
|Maximum weight (grams)||4,989||3,000||2,000
|Minimum weight (grams)||1||1||0.1
|Accuracy (grams)||N/A||+/- 0.01||+/- 0.05
|Timer function||No||No||Yes (with stopwatch)
|Power supply||2 x AAA batteries||2 x AAA batteries||Battery pack
|Extras||N/A||N/A||Bluetooth 4.0, USB, app
The table clearly illustrates the most important function of a coffee scale: to specify the required amount of coffee for each preparation method as well as for the calibration of different machines. This should come down to the smallest grain.
That’s why the reaction time of a real coffee scale is incomparably shorter. If you pour coffee grounds from a kitchen model into your pour-over filter or portafilter, you will have dosed too much long before the scale has caught up.
On top of that, the best coffee scales not only measure weight but also time. You need this extra function when determining the optimal extraction time for a portafilter espresso.
Is so much accuracy really necessary? Do I need a $325 coffee scale with a timer? Does it have to be from a brand like Brewista or JoeFrex? If not, how much should I spend?
What’s the Best Coffee Scale for Each Preparation Method?
Hint: your preferred preparation method is a good indication of which will be the best coffee scale for you. Not only because of the level of accuracy you’ll need but also because of the equipment you’ll use.
That’s true whether you’re considering any of the following:
- The famous size 02 porcelain Hario V60 Dripper, which weighs around 500 grams (17.6 ounces).
- A similar model from Airmoon, which weighs around 420 grams (14.8 ounces).
- The 800-milliliter (27-fluid ounce) Hario V60 Glass Coffee Server pot, which weighs around 400 grams (14 ounces).
While ground coffee doesn’t weigh that much, even for large portions, we obviously have to factor in the water or the finished coffee. If we assume a liter of water = 1 kilogram (35 ounces), it would be very tight for models like the Acaia Lunar to provide an accurate measurement.
Another popular product, the Hario V60 Drip Scale, only has a maximum weighing capacity of 2,000 grams (70.5 ounces). The same applies to the Brewista Smart Scale II. However, CoastLine gives you 1,000 grams (35.2 ounces) more freedom in choosing your coffee ingredients — and allegedly, in the amount of coffee you can prepare. On the other hand, the Zassenhaus Barista tops out at 500 grams (17.6 ounces) — which makes it practically useless for a pour-over fanatic’s kitchen.
The Load Capacity Factor
It’s clear that achieving ultra-precision means you’ll have to sacrifice on load capacity. Still, this fits nicely into the self-image of the specialty coffee scene, where no one prepares the best microlots by the liter. Everything in small portions, please! That means no French press by the liter, either!
Apart from that, 0.1 grams hardly makes a difference in a pour-over ratio of about 32 grams (1.12 ounces) of coffee to 500 milliliters (16.9 fluid ounces) of water. For an espresso with a brew ratio of around 7 grams (0.24 ounces) of coffee to 25 milliliters (0.84 fluid ounces) of water, things look completely different.
On top of that, the extraction time on a portafilter machine plays an important role, even if professionals pay less attention to the benchmark 25 seconds. For them, what’s more important is that the requisite 25 milliliters (0.84 fluid ounces) arrives in the cup — and that it weighs around 25 grams (0.88 ounces).
Just as the crema and flow rate are crucial calibration tools, the scale’s time measurement function is valuable in helping to assess the extraction as a whole.
So, in this case, what matters is that the scale shows you the ideal result upon completion — not just when the automatic cycle concludes.
The Reaction Time Factor
Now this doesn’t mean that you’ll be less precise with scales other than the $300 Bluetooth thing. However, a model such as the aforementioned $55 Hario coffee scale is much too sluggish in its response time to be effective for espresso preparation.
For a pour-over, imprecision — as long as it remains manageable — isn’t a huge problem. Instead, I see it more as an incentive to be calmer, more consistent and slower when infusing.
The Size Factor
When preparing espresso, you’ll do well with a fixed scale like the Brewista Smart Scale II, paying around $90.
The Smart Scale II also highlights another important detail: you must be able to place an espresso scale directly under the spout. Not to mention, for all other methods, a coffee scale should be large enough to cope with the footprint of the largest Chemex, French press, etc.
The factors of footprint, response time and accuracy are so closely intertwined in many coffee scales that they qualify for their own course. So, if you’re unsure, it always helps to look at your equipment and grab a ruler!
The “Smart” Factor?
What I love about my Acaia Lunar or the less-expensive Acaia Pearl is not just its precision. Though I also think being able to pair the device with your smartphone via Bluetooth is awesome.
None of that is necessary, though. Manually, it all works, too. Still, as a diehard app-head, I really enjoy using the smart functions. Or at least I’m happy they’re available.
Do I Need an Espresso Scale for a Super-Automatic Espresso Machine?
If we assume that a super-automatic espresso machine can at least approximate espresso, it seems reasonable to wonder whether we shouldn’t also rely on a scale for calibration.
Although I never really mention it in my automatic coffee machine reviews, my Acaia coffee scale always comes into play. Sure, super-automatic machines are compromise devices, but there’s plenty of potential for optimization.
When I talk about decreasing the volume of coffee, using a finer grind and increasing the dose, it’s worth checking out how that affects the resulting cup quality.
Even with a super-automatic machine’s limited setting options — especially in terms of minimum fill volume — the parameters defining dosage, extraction time and amount of coffee in the cup don’t change. The easiest and safest way to check these factors is with a coffee scale.
Still, even when you’re spending over $4,000 on a high-quality super-automatic machine like the Jura Z8, you don’t have to use an expensive scale.
I find entry-level models like the Coffee Gator coffee scale or even the CoastLine coffee scale to be perfectly fine, too. The old kitchen scale still doesn’t bring anything to the table, though.
Using a Coffee Scale With an Entry-Level Portafilter Machine: Do I Really Need One?
By the same token, what I’ve just said also applies to entry-level portafilter machines. After all, you always use a grinder, which you first have to dial in perfectly with the portafilter. A scale is the fastest way to reach your goal, even if you only use an entry-level portafilter such as the DeLonghi EC 685.
The next step up, price-wise, toward a “real” espresso machine with a portafilter is the Solis Barista Gran Gusto (not available in the United States). It’s astonishingly accurate — especially when it comes to mapping incorrect preparation parameters. Yes, it’s worth being very meticulous here.
The takeaway is clear: even when using a beginner espresso machine, the more responsive the scale, the better. We don’t plan out the preparation process from the cup but start with the grinder.
That said, without a clear idea of what 6 – 8 grams (0.2 – 0.28 ounces) of ground coffee looks like in the espresso machine’s filter basket, you have no business making espresso!
However, since not even the “reasonable” grinders in the entry-level segment come with timers or scales, you’ll need an external tool to be able to fulfill this basic requirement for espresso preparation.
So, if something is wrong in the filter basket, the error will present itself throughout the entire preparation process. Of course, you can also determine the parameters by eye through trial and error, but this costs time, coffee beans and patience. Plus, as soon as you change the roast, the fun starts all over again.
Quality-wise, the scale should be superior to the CoastLine or Coffee Gator, which means you’ll end up paying more. After all, you’re going to need more precision and a faster response time.
The logic is similar to the grinder: even when using the cheapest portafilter machine, it’s worth having a halfway decent espresso grinder and a proper coffee scale; otherwise, the entire setup doesn’t make sense.
It might seem weird if your espresso grinder costs over $550 (Eureka Mignon), the coffee scale costs just over $300 (Acaia) and a $150 DeLonghi portafilter machine was standing next to them.
Yet, this combination achieves results a thousand times better than if you take a $20 kitchen scale, grind the coffee with a $50 GEFU Lorenzo coffee grinder and then prepare the whole thing in a $775 Rancilio Silvia. You’re going to get crap results, even though the Rancilio is a downright fantastic espresso machine.
Which Scale Is Best for Pour-Over and Chemex?
A brew station without a coffee scale is incomplete — even though you can achieve good pour-over coffee without one. You’ll make brewing a lot easier if you accurately weigh the amount of coffee you need, use the timer to control the blooming phase and then keep a close eye on the rest of the brewing process.
As I mentioned, I don’t have a problem with sluggishness here, and I don’t see what there is against the CoastLine coffee scale or similarly priced models. As long as it’s not a kitchen scale (OK, I guess that would be in a pinch), you’ll be fine with any model.
Just pay attention to the total measurable weight and factor in the equipment. You’ll also want to make sure the jug is completely on the scale and within the measurement-sensitive range.
Coffee Dosing Without Scales: When Is a Spoon Good Enough?
So, how much ground coffee do you need per cup? Under the reign of the traditional coffee maker, the answer has always been a heaping tablespoon per cup, plus one for the machine.
Whenever I employ this method in my coffee maker reviews, I’m amazed that it actually works because I have no idea how much coffee to spoon into the filter. Still, a coffee scale to go with a Melitta machine? Why bother?
For this test, I went through the trouble of weighing the coffee. One heaping tablespoon — in this case, using a fairly finely ground Sidamo as the omni roast — equals 5 grams (0.17 ounces).
I mention bean type, roast and grind because they all have an impact on weight. However, I only had a narrow spoon on hand and had no idea how “heaping” a tablespoon should be.
According to the commonly accepted brew ratio for filter coffee, about 7 grams (0.24 ounces) of coffee to 100 milliliters (3.38 fluid ounces) of water is a perfect starting point. So, the idea of adding an extra spoonful for the machine seems designed to absorb inaccuracies.
Why does this method work so well in a drip coffee maker? Because it’s so beautifully imprecise by nature! Also because the typical coffee for a drip maker is an imprecise blend with imprecise roasting.
There are huge margins of error in this diffuse preparation chain, but the result is drinkable coffee.
So, if I were to pour the delicate Sidamo into an old Melitta machine according to these eye-measurement specifications, it would only end up being half as delicate in the cup — and I would notice!
Would it be the same if I used a coffee scoop? It depends.
A coffee scoop is one of those deep-mouth portion spoons that come with every can of coffee and many bags of beans. If you fill the coffee spoon to the brim and level the surface, you should get 7 – 8 grams (0.24 – 0.28 ounces) of ground coffee.
Under the same conditions — quite finely ground Sidamo, and with no idea of how firmly to level it off — the contents of my coffee scoop weighed 6.5 grams (0.22 ounces).
With a coffee machine, I can tolerate a 0.5-gram deviation — that’s where the tablespoon and coffee scoop belong. However, this manageable deviation should ensure that I don’t experience any problems with the Sidamo in the drip coffee machine.
Nevertheless, the delicate, fresh aroma structure of the Ethiopian isn’t complete. Omni roast or not. The imprecision of the coffee machine, combined with a distorted sense of proportion, robs even the most versatile coffee of much of its character.
Do you have any questions about coffee dosing or using scales? If so, feel free to leave a comment!