The Science of Coffee: Three Pines Carves a Niche in the Local Scene

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Since its initial inception in August of 2015, boutique-coffee-shop owners Nick Price and Meg Frampton have devoted precision, meticulousness and consistency to their passion for coffee. Three Pines Coffee, the local shop they opened in downtown Salt Lake City in January of 2016, is heavily inspired by not only the aesthetics of the Pacific Northwest but also the area’s propensity for one-of-a-kind, precisely brewed coffee and espresso. As the only coffee shop in Salt Lake City to use a tool called a refractometer, Price and Frampton’s primary goal for Three Pines Coffee has been to bring science-minded brewing to Salt Lake City—while simultaneously creating a uniquely delicious, one-of-a-kind beverage.

“I learned everything I know about coffee from world-champion barista Mike Phillips,” says Price. “He took me under his wing and taught me everything from how to taste coffee to the science behind it to why you want it to be a certain strength and extraction.” Everything about Three Pines Coffee reflects this philosophy—but there are a few particular reasons as to why being so science-minded matters within the realm of coffee. “Everyone tastes things a little bit differently, and if—for example—you have a cold, or you’re not feeling well, you’re not going to taste the coffee properly. Using the tools we have, you can always get it to taste [its] best possible—without having to use your own palate.”

Yet, this isn’t the only reason for adhering so faithfully to science-minded brewing. Consistency is a huge incentive to adhering to this practice throughout the brewing process. “I have the ability to just come in and use the tools that we have to dial in the coffee to be exceptional,” says Price. The tools that Price speaks of—mainly, the refractometer—are ultimately at the root of this experience. The refractometer works by using a laser through a sample of coffee to refract the light back. This determines how many soluble particles are in the sample of the already brewed coffee.

The specifics of using a refractometer are numbers-based. “After you use the refractometer, it gives you the strength of the brew,” says Price. “Drip coffee is around 1.5 strength, which means that 1.5 percent of the coffee you brewed is actually coffee, and the rest is water. Coffee is so strong—it’s such an exciting flavor to our palates that even a tiny little bit of coffee makes a delicious drink.” If you’re curious about how espresso stacks up against brewed coffee, the refractometer reads the strength of espresso as being between 8 and 11 percent—a much more potent mix, although it’s still 90-percent water.

Price and Frampton use an app on their phones that performs the calculations for them (called Coffee Tools). “It shows you all of the parameters, the dose, how much water was used to brew it and how much coffee ended up in the pot,” says Price. “If you go over 23-percent extraction, the coffee gets bitter and drying. But if you go under 18 percent, it’s under-extracted and tastes sour, weak and a little salty.”

Three Pines Coffee has close ties to some of the most sought-after roasters in the Pacific Northwest, Heart Coffee Roasters, who treat their brews with just as much precision and calculation as Price and Frampton do. While touring as a band, Price and Frampton would stop off at Heart Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon, a habit that would eventually inspire them to replicate the brand model. “Heart Coffee Roasters was always our home away from home,” says Price. “We spent a lot of time there and got to know the coffee really well. We have an ongoing relationship with them, aside from just ordering coffee every week.”

In addition to carrying Heart Coffee Roasters products in the Three Pines store, Price also calls their quality control directer once a week to talk about roast profiles, what temperature they have their machines set at and their brewing parameters on the drip coffee. “I like to keep up on everything they’re doing so I can make sure that if they’re tailoring their roasts to do something specific, that we can also do that,” says Price. “That really represents how we want the end product to be. I want someone to come in from Heart Coffee Roasters and find a product that they’d really enjoy.”

For now, residents of Salt Lake City (and visitors to the city) can enjoy the precision of the coffee and espresso offered at Three Pines Coffee. They’re in the process of moving from their location on Gallivan Avenue to the store’s new headquarters, located at 165 S. Main St., which is scheduled to open sometime mid- to late December. Stop by to witness the refractometer in action—which looks similar to a science experiment—grab a “Beehive Baller” (a cold brew with chocolate and vanilla), or scoop up their freshly baked, divinely inspired pastries. Brewed to perfection, Three Pines takes coffee to a new scientific level—and you won’t be disappointed.

  • Matthew

    Refractometers are certainly neat but an espresso reding 8% reflected sugar crystals is pretty poor. I learned tools are very helpful but can also be misleading. Many sugars that are in coffee like complex poly saccharides do not refract in the same way that sucrose does.

    Given the high soluble pectin content of many cofees it clouds that one particular method of registering ‘quality’ by just just registering simple sugar content. Refractometers can give you a glimpse of the big picture but it isn’t a full one.

    Get a mass spectrometer!