Posted by Matt Chitharanjan on
So what is good coffee? Is it like wine or a book – completely subjective, or are there actual parameters?
N | This is a great question, and one that we’re asked frequently. There’s no definitive answer here, since what each of us likes is subjective, but there are criteria that have been set which define good quality coffee. In this way, coffee tasting, or cupping as it’s better known, is a lot like wine tasting. Interesting side fact – the 800 known flavor compounds that constitute coffee are double those in wine, which actually makes coffee a more complex beverage than wine.
Here are the five main attributes on which the quality of coffee is judged.
Aroma | When we cup coffee, the first thing we do is smell the dry coffee grounds and then the wet coffee grounds. The smell of the coffee really adds to the uniqueness of each type of coffee. Our olfactory senses help us smell the more complex aromas in coffee that make them unique – like whether they’re fruity or floral or nutty, for example. This helps us pick up smells that go beyond the four basic ones of salty, sweet, sour and bitter.
Acidity | I feel that this attribute of coffee in India isn’t much appreciated. For those unfamiliar with the phrase, this doesn’t refer to how the coffee makes your digestive system feel, but, as with wine, the acidity of a coffee is about how bright it is. A good way of thinking of it is as the tangy after taste of coffee. Coffee without any acidity is considered flat, which is a negative attribute.
The darker roasted the coffee, the less acidity it has. Around the world, the trend now is to consume light roasted coffee so that the complexity of the acidity comes through. People usually associate acidity with a lemon taste, but acidity can actually be much more than that – just think of the different types of fruits or foods you’ve eaten with a distinctive tangy or bright taste that you’ve enjoyed – the acidity of, for example, a tamarind, is very different from that of a strawberry. It’s the same with acidity in coffees. India has a long way to go before it can move away from its love of dark roasts, but we hope that more people will start to experiment with different types of lighter roasts soon, and enjoy the complexity of the acidity of different types of coffees.
Body | This refers to the texture of the coffee. Is your coffee watery? Does it feel “heavier” because it has more body? The body of your coffee is affected by the oils that are extracted during the brewing process. Coffee that lacks body is watery and thin, which is a negative attribute.
Flavor | This attribute is the most subjective and challenging for a new coffee taster. It refers to the balance of the first three attributes. When the body, aroma and acidity are in balance and no single component overpowers the others, then that cup of coffee is said to be a clean cup of coffee.
Aftertaste | Adopted from the world of wine tasting, this phrase refers to the finish of the cup. Does the taste of coffee linger in your mouth or does it fade quickly?
We had a professional coffee cupper once tell us that it usually takes people five years to begin to master the taste of coffee. For the majority of coffee lovers out there who would like to begin to hone their coffee tasting skills but don’t want to spend a chunk of their lives doing only that, here’s some great advice from Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, UK’s 2012 Barista Championship Finalist and avid coffee blogger – “A great way to begin your tasting journey is to learn to identify stale versus fresh coffee. This demonstrates that although taste is highly subjective, there are indeed certain characteristics that most coffee drinkers would identify as desirable – freshness being a primary one.”
How does one know how strong coffee should be? Really, how much espresso is too much espresso?
We have customers writing in saying that they like their coffee “strong”. They’re surprised to hear that there’s no such thing as strong coffee per se, and that the strength of the coffee has to do with how it’s brewed. We shared this article from The Atlantic on how to make perfect coffee on our Facebook page, but the quote we featured bears repeating – ”the point is that strong coffee has almost nothing to do with bitterness, caffeine content, or the roast profile, and everything to do with the ratio of coffee to water in your cup.”
If you feel like your brew is coming out weaker than you’d like it to, add less water and more coffee grounds. It’s as easy as that. Experiment with the water and coffee ratios till you get what you like.
Also, most people associate “strong” coffee with dark roasted coffee because they say that they like the heavier caffeine kick. The irony of this is that when coffee is measured by volume, dark roasted coffees actually contain less caffeine than lighter roasted coffees.
What’s some good advice to follow before buying coffee?
Before you buy coffee, read the taste profile of the coffee very closely. Which are the light, medium and dark roasts on offer? Which ones are the more acidic or fruitier coffees? If you’re going to a roasterie, ask your roaster for a roast profile of his or her coffees, so that you can make an informed decision before you purchase anything. If you’re buying online, email your roaster and ask them roast related questions before you buy. Your roaster can help you make a decision based on your taste preferences.
Of course, our final piece of advice, as usual, is to know your roast date. All coffee goes stale two weeks after it’s roasted. Know when your coffee wasroasted and try to buy as much as you’ll consume for two weeks and then buy a fresh round of coffee again. That’s also a great way to start discerning freshly roasted coffee from stale coffee.