Your Journey to the Perfect Cup
Chapter 1 – Understand what you are looking for.
To understand what you are looking for in a coffee requires a quest that may take a pleasurable while. This tutorial frames the conversation’s starting point. As in any sport, adventure, or journey, one needs to know the basic rules of the road. A person needs to get their bearings. How am I going to go about this? should be the first question you ask yourself. So should it be with your quest for that perfect cup of coffee.
This tutorial is written from the artisan coffee roaster’s perspective, but it is not written for the artisan coffee roaster. It is written and designed for the consumer, for the person who loves coffee but is baffled by the existence of too many choices and not enough understanding of how to navigate among them to make an intelligent and informed coffee choice.
Here I lay out the ground rules, rules that are universally accepted by trade professionals but have not been transferred to the very people we are creating for, i.e., the people who love coffee.
It is an observable truth that when you go to purchase specialty coffee, more often than not you are faced with dozens of choices, in bulk bins or in packages. Artisan roasters have developed hundreds of wonderful coffee blends, and single origins and fancy names abound. But how to pick the right one for your individual taste preference is left to chance, even with all the fancy packaging information. Language needs interpretation. Words need definition. A seeker needs to be able to recognize the destination when reached!
To help you on your journey to your perfect cup, I created a simple taste preference matrix. Yes, it is crude, but it is cut from the stone of 40 years of coffee roasting experience. It accomplishes a primary and essential mission: to get you as close to your journey’s end as possible from the onset. As well as to arm you with the information you will need to complete your journey in search of the perfect cup.
“There is a certain predictable, expected pleasure in making a discovery that comes at the end of a long and ordered journey, especially when that discovery is the goal of the trek itself. Discoveries made by accident, with no jaunt planned, or purpose in mind, also generate their own unique pleasures, reserved for those rare occasions when contingent sequences include us in their wanderings.”
From: How We Believe, by Michael Shermer.
Chapter 2 – Know your taste buds.
It is not surprising that your taste buds are uniquely arrayed in such a way that enables and enhances the appreciation of fine coffee and its amazing versatility in the hands of the master craftsmen (and craftswomen) who populate the artisan coffee trade. Taste buds are sensors looking for what they specialized in. Sweetness receptors at the tip of your tongue, spice and acidity at the lower sides of your tongue, and sours further back. You will perceive lighter roasts more forward on your palate, and darker roasts further back. But what is important here is to know that everyone is different, and there is no one best coffee. The best coffee is the one that brings your unique and individual array of taste buds the most pleasure.
Chapter 3 – What’s in it for you?
There is nothing radical revealed herein. The rules of the game that follow are generally accepted industry standards, crafted into a language for consumers, for the people who crave the greatness we artisan roasters try to achieve by manipulating time, temperature, and energy input to bring out the magic within the coffee bean.
I like to think of this app as a serious tool for the not-so-serious (because you do have a life), coffee lover. From this tutorial, you will have the key to how blends are created, and where the flavors are hidden. You will become fluent in the language of coffee and thus be able to talk coffee in a way that will make you happy.
Follow the concepts and you will not be intimidated by the overwhelming redundancy of choices in your supermarket coffee aisle or in your favorite coffee house. You will see these coffees for what they are, and you will quickly be able to know the real choices you have before you.
And when you want to talk coffee with someone, you will have learned how to think about coffee the way artisan roasters do, thus building a bridge between producer and consumer. A common language will emerge. You will learn just how easy it is to enjoy the journey (to find your perfect cup) when you know where you are going, and that the direction you are heading in, is actually getting you closer to your destination with each purchase.
Every journey begins with a first step, which metaphorically is the starting line. It is good to know before the journey begins, that you have started from the right spot. That is exactly what your first outcome will give you. The perfect beginning point. Some say the journey is more important than the destination, and in the search for the perfect cup, that is certainly a good philosophy to hold dear, but it becomes even more joyous when we know for sure that we are traveling on the right path, and in the right direction. It is only then that we can relax and enjoy the ride.
Nine Basic Principles
|Green||Cinnamon||Milk chocolate brown||Dark brown with red tones||Dark brown slight oil||Dark brown shiny||Black no oil Burned!|
|Roasting temps*||386° F||410° F||425° F||435° F||450° F||> 455° F|
* Temperatures are approximate but their relationship to each other is real . Colors are effected by various kinds of illumination but their relative shades are easily discerned.
I roast coffee from start to finish in eleven minutes . When the beans come out of the roaster they are as hot as their final temperature (color). Cooling takes place outside most roasting machines. That might take another 2-3 minutes to get the beans to room temperature. It’s a craft and although there are parameters we adhere to, there are many ways to reach the roast color we are attempting to achieve. By altering the heat input the roastmaster alters and frames the temperature over time values. The roasted bean color is determined by the final temperature of the bean. not by how long the bean was roasted.
The lighter the roast
The lighter the roast, the brighter, sweeter, more forward on the palate, and more nuanced. The flavors reflect the caramelizing of sugars, the coffee’s terroir, and its quality.
The darker the roast
The darker the roast, the less the coffee flavor reflects terroir, nuance, and bright lively notes. Darker roasted bean flavors are experienced further back on the palate and emphisize the burnt notes produced by the carbonizing effects of high heat on vegetable matter.
Any coffee bean can be roasted to any color
Roasted bean color is the single most important flavor determinant in coffee, dominating all other factors. It is the chemistry of the application of heat that makes this irrefutable. There are over 1600 naturally occurring chemical compounds in a green coffee bean. It is one of natures most complex and interesting products. During roasting many of these compounds combine forming other compounds. Eventually, your cup of coffee might have 800 compounds that will be brewed into your water, There is more to this , but we’re talking on a subject that is too dense for this conversation , and you don’t need more then this to round out your idea of what is going on inside that coffee roaster. It is somewhere between Alchemy and Magic.
All countries that produce and export coffee produce many different qualities or grades. An example of grade would be, in the case of Colombia’s Coffee , Supremo beans are 17/18 screen size and Excelso is 15/16 screen size. Appearance and bean size have a relationship to the quality of a coffees flavor, but better appearance is no guarantee of better flavor. That is why we cup coffees before we buy. Then we rate coffees based on six core qualities:
The industry rates quality on a 1-100 scale:
- Below 60 Unfit to drink
- 60 – 69 Poor commercial quality
- 70 – 79 Commercial
- 80 – 89 Excellent specialty coffee
- 90 – 95 Outstanding specialty coffee
- 95 – 100 World Class
The Point: Do not count on country of origin designations to determine quality. Just because it says Kona or Costa Rica does not mean the coffee is excellent.
The Odds: How to Beat Them
In general, higher quality coffee beans are used in light and medium roasts. At these lighter roast colors the complex flavors are at their greatest clarity. The nuanced flavors the growing region produces are clear and defined, though quite delicate. Poorer quality coffees have their woody, ashy, tobacco-y and sour flavors exposed at lighter roast levels. Roasters are smart enough to save their cheaper coffees for the darker roasts which highlight the carbony flavor characteristics of high heat and mask the off flavors. You have a better chance to be purchasing quality the lighter the roast color. You have increased your odds, but not to 100%
Certifications and Quality
Certified Fair Trade and Organic coffees tend to taste better for many reasons although this is a recent phenomena. Purchasing coffees with certifications improves the odds that you are getting coffees that were given more attention. These coffees are produced by growers and the artisan roasters who paid more attention to what they were buying. The added benefit is that you know you are helping coffee producing communities protect their environment and enjoy a greater degree of social and economic justice.
The only certifications I think you can rely on for quality are Fair Trade and Organic certifications. There are other certifications like Rainforest Alliance, Utz, and Smithsonian, but without the Fair Trade/Organic certifications, I would not count on them for an indication of quality. Their focus lies elsewhere. (This is a personal opinion, which many may disagree with. My bias leans toward mass movements.)
Freshness is more important than brand
Brands mean something but they don’t always mean quality. Freshness is more important than brand. Supermarket private label brands are always suspect. When you have the choice, choose a local independent coffee roaster’s coffee. A local roasting company will be more concerned with reputation than some far off company that does not have a personal stake in your community or home town. For artisan roasters, freshness is close to godliness. It is the holy grail, the shepherd of quality and reputation.
In a supermarket setting with multiple bulk coffee bins, eighty percent of the coffees are sold from 20% of the bins. So when you have 20 bins to choose from, four bins will be 80% major sellers and sixteen bins will split the remaining 20%. The fast movers are fresher than the slow movers. This makes purchasing from bulk bins a crap shoot unless you know something about your store’s weekly sales volumes and which coffees are the fast movers. Odds are you don’t know.
Light brown beans that look dry are not necessarily less fresh then the dark oily beans . Both have about 20 % coffee oil by weight. The difference being that under the very high heat that creates the darker roasts, the oils vaporize during roasting and squeeze out of the inner part of the bean and congeal on the outside of the bean giving it the oily appearance. In the lighter roasts, that oil is still in the interior of the bean. One consequence of this is that dark roasts with oily surfaces will stale faster then lighter (dryer looking) beans.
Buy the Freshest Coffee
Use the known facts:
- Staling results from oxygen combining with the oils in the bean. Coffee is about 19% oil by weight.
- To retard staling, store coffee in the refrigerator.
- Light and Medium Roasts are dense and take longer to go stale.
- Dark roasts are less dense and absorb oxygen and heat faster. The oils are more exposed on the bean’s surface and oxidize more rapidly. Dark roasts stale more quickly then light roasts.
- If you purchase prepackaged coffee, unless it is from your local roaster, make sure the package has a one way freshness valve or a roast date within the 14 day window.
- Coffee will stale in 10-14 days when exposed to air at room temperature.
The storage rules:
- Reduce exposure to light, heat, and moisture.
- In the refrigerator, store in air-tight containers so the aromas of the food don’t get absorbed by the coffee.
- Don’t buy more than you will consume in one week.
- Unless you are getting a major 30 % plus discount ! Then store in the freezer.
Enjoy the Learning Process
There is a lesson in every cup.
( Hello there Cardinals! )
You may discover you have many perfect cups. Mood, attitude, place and circumstance may make your destination a moving target.
Here’s some thoughts:
- Your taste buds are fresh in the morning and recognize nuance easily – a light roasts will surprise you in the A.M. After many hours awake, taste buds become a bit tired by late afternoon. A Vienna Roast at afternoon break time will sparkle on your palate.
- With delicate foods and desserts – Light & Medium Roasts shine
- With strong Spicy Flavored foods – Darker Roasts will shine through and cleanse your palate.
- Lemon bars will enhance a dark roast coffee’s flavor.
- Light roasts will enhance the lemon bar’s taste.
- Light Roasts are complimentary, they marry into mocha
- Dark Roasts are counterpoint, they erase the chocolate and compete for attention.
If you are an average coffee drinker you will consume 2,000-3,000 gallons of coffee in your lifetime. That’s about 50 bathtubs . Drink well my friend