What makes ‘good’ coffee?

When someone says they like “good coffee” I like to enquire further.

‘Good’ is a vague, safe word and when said with confidence you don’t tend to question it.

The extra inquiry yields differing results: Some don’t know, some like it “strong and bitter”, but few articulate well.

What rarely happens is someone asking me “what makes good coffee?”. I’d love it if they did, for if they did I’d tell them this:

Always judge a cafe by its cover

Little attention to design and aesthetic assumes the same attention to the coffee.

Rarely am I wrong with this assumption, but it’s not to be the rule. Attention to aesthetic is not an indicator of coffee quality (it’s just a pretty good start.)

Pro tip: always avoid a place that sells “Expresso”.

When inside the cafe the first place to look is the beans in the hopper (the coffee bean holder on top of a grinder), and while you’re at it how many grinders there are. If there is more than one grinder, it’s a good sign: it means they might have a separate blends for black and white coffee, or they may have specialty coffee offerings.

The colour of the beans inside that hopper will show you how well they are roasted.

  • If you see oil on a black bean it’s way too dark and you should make a hasty retreat. The coffee will taste of rubber, ash, tobacco. Not pleasant, even for smokers.
  • If you see dark brown, it’s going to work great in espresso, and it’ll more likely be better in a white coffee than a black one, but don’t let that put you off a black coffee.
  • If you see light brown coffee it’s been purposefully roasted this way. You can have confidence that your coffee will taste the way it’s supposed to taste, and it will most likely taste good black or white. The coffee will have the flavour inherent of the origin.

Dark roasted coffee is more bitter, which cuts through milk giving the illusion of flavour, and I dare say it’s what most of us think is ‘good’. Coffee roasted too light can taste grassy, earthy, astringent.

Pro tip: Home roasted coffee tends to be both too light and too dark – burnt on the outside, underdeveloped in the middle. Coffee roasters are ~$10,000 for a reason.

The quality of the barista

I can highlight the importance of this through an anecdote:

When I first met coffee guru Mario Fernandez in a Dunedin cafe, we went to order coffee. He asked the barista:

“Where is your coffee from?

Barista: I’m not sure, let me check…

Mario: Don’t worry, I’ll have tea.”

A passionate barista understands her coffee. Having understanding delivers excellence.

One must appreciate that your barista can’t taste the coffee they serve. Like a chef, they must send it out without knowing for sure what it tastes like. So, don’t ever be a jerk if your coffee doesn’t taste the way you expected.

Flavour notes

As I mentioned, ideally there will be a different blend for black and white coffee because you want different things in each.

Undesirable flavours in coffee can be a result of the coffee blend and roast, and/or the extraction of it. Specific notes could be:

  • Sourness, not to be mistaken for acidity. Sourness is a sign of underextraction; acidity can be pleasant especially in black coffee.
  • Notes of rubber, tobacco, ash. A sign of the coffee has been too dark roasted.
  • Notes of grassy-ness. A sign the coffee has been under roasted.
  • Bitterness, gentle bitterness is desirable but too bitter can be a sign of over-extraction or over-roasting.
  • Astringency, that is a dryness on the palate. Caused by over-extraction or poor quality coffee.
  • Unbalanced flavour, a little hard to determine. Caused by the blend.

Pro tip: People tend to perceive strong, harsh, obvious flavours as good. This should not be.

Desirable flavour notes in coffee could be: caramel, toffee, malt, red-fruits, chocolate, sweetness, citrus-y, bitterness (gentle), toastiness, raisin-y flavours etc.

There are many more positive flavour notes that can be found in coffee. Identifying these flavours is not necessarily required to enjoy the coffee but understanding that ‘good’ coffee can have a range of flavours broadens your scope.

Returning a coffee that is say ‘sweet and fruity’ is not a clever move. The coffee was most likely supposed to be sweet and fruity. I do concede however, that the barista should have explained with confidence that your coffee will be sweet and fruity and ideally explain the reasons why – the origin, or natural process etc- so that you could drool in anticipation.

Unfortunately this doesn’t happen as much as it should.

Protip: Flavour notes are not definite individual flavours, they are more contributors to a whole rounded flavour.

Strength

There is often confusion between strength and the perception of strength. Bitterness and dark roasty flavours are perceived as strong, and sweet, fruity flavours are perceived as weak. This is not the case, strength is different from extraction.

Strength is the amount of coffee solids that come from the extraction (i.e. the concentration). Extraction is what solids are coming out of the extraction (i.e. the flavours).

So if you like ‘strong coffee’ it’s more likely that you like dark roasted, or over-extracted coffee.

Strength can also be seen as the ratio of coffee to milk / water – but this you can specify i.e. a flat white in a tulip cup, or espresso with hot water on the side.

Pro tip: If you order a LARGE CUP-A-CHINO at Wild Bean you’re going to get more milk, not more coffee.

A Summary:

I have never returned a coffee. Partly because it’s hard to determine the fault – is it the extraction, or is it the beans? And partly because I always have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to get before getting to the counter. If i’m in a small town that sells “expresso” I know what I’m going to be getting… tea.

Pro tip: If it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck… It’s probably a duck.

I appreciate we don’t always drink coffee for the flavour, but being more specific about what makes good coffee helps alleviate the myths around it.

And it’s always nice to impress your friends with lines like this:

“This coffee’s a little astringent… I think it might be under-extracted.”

“I don’t want to buy that supermarket coffee, a dark roast means it will be bitter, and bitterness is an undesirable attribute.”

“I particularly like the notes of Dutch cocoa on the finish”.

Happy caffeination.

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