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?

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