Monday, March 26, 2012

What Makes Good Coffee?

I'd be lying if I said that no one has ever asked me what makes coffee good. But I'd also be lying if I told you that X, Y, or Z is what makes it good.  In reality, there isn't one, two, three, or even a mix of variables that makes coffee particularly good.  In fact, I'm not even sure how to properly define good coffee.  To me, good is such a subjective thing. I don't think it's possible to say that one coffee is definitively better than another. So I don't. Instead of, "That coffee's really bad," I'll say something like, "I don't really care for Coffee Bean espresso very much." I try and take it a step further than that by saying something like, "I don't really care of Coffee Bean's espresso very much because I find it to be fairly one-note, not enough complexity for my taste." So now I'm telling you not only what I don't like, but why as well. This, I think is much more fair than saying that a coffee is bad because let's be honest, what tastes good to me might not taste good to you and vice versa.  Additionally, I've come to realize that I'm a fairly finicky and particular person, especially when it comes to coffee.  When I'm feeling like a specific kind of flavor, I really want to taste that in the cup.  Maybe that means choosing a coffee that's not technically graded as high as another because I want a particular flavor profile - so be it. It makes choosing a "favorite" coffee impossible. It's more like, "This is something I'm really liking today."
Now, they are certain characteristics in a coffee that can make it more attractive to me, and there are certain characteristics that professional coffee tasters, or "cuppers" look for in coffee. I think I'll devote an entire post to the art of cupping a bit down the line, but for now let's talk about a couple major characteristics.) First of all, without a doubt, cuppers and I are looking for sweetness.  I'm not talking about the sweetness you get by drowning your coffee in 45 packs of Splenda; I'm talking about natural sweetness. If you really taste your coffee and look past the "coffee taste" you'll find a wonderful sweetness in a nice cup. The second thing I tend to look for is complexity - what exactly can I taste in the cup? Is it the same flavor throughout, or is there a nice mix of flavors that I can pick out? The third and fourth characteristics are less about the actual taste of the coffee and more about the sensory experience of drinking it but you'd be stupid to think that it doesn't affect the taste.  They are mouthfeel and finish. Mouthfeel is kind of a weird word but means exactly what it sounds like - how does the coffee feel in your mouth? Is it thick and syrupy or thin and light? Believe it or not, this can drastically change a cup of coffee, especially because mouthfeel is one of the first characteristics that a drinker experiences. Finally, the finish. Again, just like it sounds, the finish refers to how the end of a sip feels and tastes. Is it different than the front and mid of the sip? Is it a succinct, clean finish or more of a lingering one that sticks with you for a while? Just as the mouthfeel is really important because it is the first thing that you experience in the cup, the finish is super important because it's your lasting impression of the coffee.  Reminder: these are examples of characteristics that I look for in a coffee. I'm not especially particular to a specific way that these characteristics manifest themselves. In my opinion, they are not a way to grade coffee on how good it is.  Rather, they are a tool for how I distinguish between coffees, and thus the ones that I like and the ones that I don't.  Can you pick out these characteristics in a cup of coffee?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

More About Coffee: Espresso

So for the last couple of weeks we've been drinking lattes and cappuccinos, and while there's always a time and a place for a good latte or cappuccino, I think it's time that we take a step back to expand our coffee expertise a bit further.  I wanted to take the next couple of posts to outline some different ways to prepare and drink coffee and what those differences mean to you.  In this first part of a multi-post series, I'm going to focus on the coffee plant and espresso.

First of all, what is coffee and where does it come from?  Coffee is a beverage than can be served both hot and cold that comes, essentially, from mixing coffee beans with water.  Coffee beans are actually the pit of cherries that grow on coffee trees.  Coffee is grown all over the world now, but it only grows naturally in Ethiopia - the so-called birth place of coffee.  Here's the process that most coffee beans will follow before they show up on the shelves for you to purchase:

  1. A farmer will grow and pick the cherries off the tree
  2. He might wash them and let the casings fall off so he's just left with the beans.
  3. The beans will dry and get packed for shipment to a buyer like Starbucks
  4. Starbucks will roast the beans so they develop the dark brown look we're used to seeing and they're ready to go.
  5. You or a coffee shop will  grind the beans depending on the kind of coffee product you want, prepare, and enjoy!


Now that we know how coffee gets to us, let's learn about one of the main ways that coffee is prepared - espresso. Most people don't make espresso at home simply because of the work that it requires, but you can find it at any self-respecting coffee shop.  I personally believe that home espresso, while it can be done, is more trouble than it's worth.  Espresso's such a finicky thing that it's near impossible to get really good espresso at home.  Quality espresso usually comes from commercial machines like this one on the right.  It may sound or look fancy, but espresso's nothing more than really concentrated coffee. Its origins actually date back to Italy where cafes started preparing "shots" of coffee for construction workers to get a quick fix of caffeine before going back to work.  Espresso is really interesting because you can drink it straight or mix with milk or chocolate to get a variety of beverages.  For example, using the same amount of espresso but varying amounts of milk can make the difference between a macchiato (3 oz.), cappuccino (5-6 oz.), and latte (8-12 oz.).  Add a pump or two of chocolate syrup and that latte becomes a mocha. Easy peasy.

Without a doubt, espresso is the most versatile of coffee drinks. That's probably one of the reasons why it's so popular.  Want to dive more into the world of espresso? No worries, we'll look into the proper way to taste and grade espresso in a later post.
How many of you have taken a shot of espresso before?