Dialing In Coffee by Taste

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Whether you’re checking quality control of a roast, brewing a pour-over for customers, or ensuring espresso shots pull correctly, identifying if a coffee is properly dialed-in is important. Dialing in allows us to unlock our coffee’s potential and present it at its highest quality by brewing an excellent cup that highlights all attributes of the roast.

What is dialing in?

When a coffee is properly dialed in, you can taste all of the elements that make it unique and delicious. Dialing in is a ritual. It’s the process of taking a coffee, new or old to you, and determining the proper brew parameters while aiming for consistency. A good jumping-off point may be starting with a recipe you consistently use, and simply brewing a new coffee with it. It helps to take note of when your brew ends, how fast or slow it’s draining, and flavor notes along the way. You can see my standard pour-over recipe on a recent post about brewing our Roasters Brew Box coffees.

As an example of this process, let’s say I just finished profiling the newly-arrived Guatemala Quetzal, Huehuetenango greens at the roaster. Based on my experience at the cupping table, I knew this coffee would be delicious in my morning brewer, a classic Hario V60. When this coffee is dialed-in, the brew is usually done around 2:45 with a medium-fine grind size. This brew time provides a balanced, clean body and bright sweetness. I can use these parameters to start dialing in the new Huehuetenango profile and make adjustments based on its behavior and flavor experience. Since I know what my goal is for flavor and body, I’ll know I’m dialed in when I achieve those notes in the cup.

Brew Parameters

For each recipe, we should have expectations set up for the brew. We don’t cook or bake without a recipe and the same goes for specialty coffee. Again, we’re taking note of how slowly or quickly the brew is draining in between pours, when your brew ends, and the resulting flavor notes. This will tell us if we’re using the right grind size, amount of coffee, or other variables of the recipe.

Some coffees are roasted to be used primarily on espresso or cold brew and might not work in all recipes. You may have to use a process of elimination and tweaking your brew parameters. What works for one coffee might not work for another, so it’s important to taste each brew and take notes.

Tasting While Dialing-In

When tasting, it can be difficult to differentiate between under- and over-extracted brews, but there are ways we can identify each. Often times, when we’re not dialed in it, our brew is one side or the other of the “ideal” extraction range. If our coffee is under-extracted it may taste sour or salty and have an unpleasantly heavy body. This would likely indicate that I need to make my grind-size coarser, or extend my brewing time. Over-extracted brews can become muted or drying, with a bitterness that’s like letting an aspirin sit on your tongue for too long before swallowing. To bring back clarity and balance in your cup, either tighten up your grind or end your brewing time earlier.

These notes will be helpful in determining your next steps. Brews that taste under-extracted often need a dose or grind size adjustment and the same goes for over-extracted brews. If your cup is lacking depth or body, you can try to change your pour structure to allow for more agitation, which may draw out more flavor and mouthfeel.

Ultimately, the changes you make while dialing in should be based on personal preference and your determined brew parameters. This step in our brewing process allows us to come back to a coffee and brew a consistently balanced cup. The process of dialing in is one of trial and error. Over time, you’ll develop patterns that have worked for you with past recipes and those will help you develop shortcuts to dial in the next coffee faster. Over time, you should be able to achieve the best cup of a specific coffee in only 2 or 3 brews. Experimenting and tasting along the way is all part of the fun.

Stay tuned for more deep dives into brew variables, extraction theory, and brew alongs.

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