This article is the first in a five part series on brewing your perfect cup of coffee at home. Everyone has a different definition of great coffee based on personal tastes and preferences. In this series we provide information to help you understand coffee and brewing so you can enjoy learning and experimenting while you discover how to brew your personal best cup of coffee.
Coffee is coffee, right? That’s what I used to think. Most of the famous brand coffee we bought was pretty much the same except some were more charred than others. A few years ago we were introduced to specialty coffee. As my wife said, “that is really good, but it doesn’t taste like coffee”. We discovered that’s because we had never experienced great coffee done well. Great coffee brewed correctly was a whole new experience. What we had been calling coffee was boring, burnt, and stale by comparison. If you have not had an amazing coffee experience yet, I would like to introduce you a great cup of coffee. If you have experienced amazing coffee and want brew it yourself every day, then we hope to provide some background and approaches to help you create your own personal cup of amazing coffee. And yes, please try this at home.
Everyone has their own definition of “great cup of coffee” so this is a process of experimenting and discovering your personal “best”. In this series, we will explore the basic steps to a great cup of home-brewed coffee and discuss how you can personalized it to your taste. I sincerely hope you have fun with it and enjoy the journey.
We will start with the five basic steps to an amazing cup of home-brewed coffee:
- Selecting great coffee
- Selecting a brewing method
- Controlling the brewing cycle
- Personalizing and optimizing your brew
Here are five things you will need to get started:
- Great coffee
- A brewing device
- Water and a way to heat it (if not done by the brewing device)
- A timer, thermometer, and scale
- Coffee grinder
Selecting Great Coffee
Coffee is much more complex than I once thought. Like the grapes used for fine wines, the flavor profiles and characteristics of coffee beans are distinctive and influenced by the varietal, geography, soil, altitude, climate, and processing method. Coffees vary by harvest and change over time.
Over 90% of the coffee grown in the world is produced on very small family farms in developing areas. There are about 25 million farms averaging 2 acres in size. Coffee starts as a hand-grown and personally crafted product by people who take pride in their work and depend on it for their livelihood. Each lot of coffee has a personal story and distinctive flavor profile.
Most coffee sold in the world, including the famous brand names, is bought in bulk, blended into very large batches, roasted in high production facilities, packaged, put into mass distribution, and then sold months later. The goal for most coffee sold is consistency and “quality”. Quality is defined as “meet mass consumer expectations” (and do no harm). The uniqueness and character of the original coffee and the personal story is lost. Since the coffee is no longer special, it has less value and the family growers are paid less. Most of the money goes to the supply chain and lots of it goes to marketing for major brands.
Specialty Coffees Have a Story
Specialty Coffees have a story and most of them are very personal. They also have very distinctive and unique flavor profiles. We will cover flavor profiles and tasting in more depth in Part 4, but for now, think of it as the full aroma, flavor, body, and “feel” experience. The goal with mass-produced coffee is generally to produce a consistent flavor profile with good shelf-life matching a general audience that has been “trained” to think that is the best coffee flavor. The distinctive characteristics of the original coffees are lost in the mix. The fun part of selecting specialty coffees is that they are very distinctive and unique and most of them are fresh. You may like some better than others. Some you may like in the morning and some with a meal. Some you may like on a cold day with friends and others while reading a book on a summer morning. Some you may like hot and some you may like cold. Here are some things to look for when selecting good Specialty Coffee:
Tasting Notes: These summarize the primary flavors, body, and acidity unique to that lot. You will learn what you like and look for notes that describe your personal preferences.
Origin Notes: The origin includes the coffee varietal, where it was grown, who grew it, and who it was sourced from can tell you a lot about the characteristics of the coffee.
Process: The process is the method used to go from coffee “cherry” (the ripe fruit on the tree) to dried green coffee beans. The process provides a significant component to the flavor profile and knowing the process method will help you select for both flavor and the brewing method.
Roasting and date: The level of roast for that batch and the date it was roasted. The roasting level will change the flavor profile for various reasons and is not really about strength and “boldness” – which has more to do with how the coffee is brewed. The roasting date tells you where the coffee is in the life cycle and, like fine wine, the flavor profile may change over time. Roasted coffee cycles are much shorter than wine.
If you want to see examples of what specialty coffee information looks like, check out the current coffee selection at True Coffee Company Collections. Our coffees come with the complete story from the coffee itself to the community and growers it came from. You will want that information for several reasons. If you find a coffee you really like, you will know what to look for next time. Coffee is a seasonal agricultural product and each batch is in limited supply. So if you find a small batch coffee you like, chances are it won’t be available long. You will need the information to select similar coffees you like by their description.
Another reason the complete story is important is that, like fine wine and other agriculture-based products, different communities and regions produce coffees that have distinctive and characteristic profiles down to specific micro-climates and altitudes. You may also be interested to know that some countries, like Costa Rica, actually make it illegal to grow species of less desirable coffees, so the country of origin itself may provide a source of useful information. In this series we will help you identify the key characteristics to look for when selecting coffee for your personal taste.
Good specialty coffees will have this information, so if the coffee you are looking at doesn’t, then consider looking for other sources. Don’t feel intimidated if the terms and process methods listed are unfamiliar to you. Most of the specialized coffee terms are actually pretty simple and they not essential to making a great cup of coffee. You can learn more as you go. Learning about coffee can be a fun part of getting to know the coffees you enjoy. We try to help by providing information and articles on coffee and the coffee world. When you find coffees that you really like, just make notes of those things and look for similar coffees.
Completing the Loop from Source to Cup and Back
You might also want to know who your coffee came from and how it was sourced for other reasons. Part of the True Coffee story is that we got into this business, in part, to help the growers and their communities. Not only do the growers get a fair price for their product, we donate a generous portion of our profits to assist the communities where coffee is grown. If you are interested, take a look at our partner organizations that do things like provide schools in rural Kenya, help children with disabilities in Costa Rica, lead poverty elimination programs in Africa and India, and educate and counsel refugee children from around the world. You can enjoy great coffee and help make a difference in people’s lives at the same time.
Selecting Coffees and Roasting Levels
If you are new to specialty coffee, I suggest trying different coffees from different regions. Select coffees with different varietals and processing methods. Try various roasting levels and compare them starting with lighter roasts and then comparing them to medium and darker roasts. Make notes so that when you find something you like, you will know what to look for next time.
I also recommend you just focus on discovering what you like and try to forget what you think about coffee or what someone else has told you is good coffee. I know this may sound strange, and difficult, but most mass-produced coffee is just ok. We have just been convinced that is what good coffee is supposed to taste like. We try to make it better by loading it up with other ingredients like hot milk and sugar and perhaps a bit of cinnamon. Not that it is bad, it’s just that coffee can be so much better. Think of specialty coffee done in small batches as a different category of beverage. We are not looking for good, we are in search of amazing.
Most mass produced coffee is roasted dark to extend the shelf-life and add “character” to the blends. Specialty coffees are distinctive and have natural character so they are usually roasted light to medium to preserve and highlight the more subtle but important characteristics of flavors such as floral and fruity notes that may disappear in darker roast levels and to provide a more “refined” and balanced acidity. If you like more dark chocolate and deep nutty flavors with more acidity, try a medium to medium-dark roast. We recommend you select a roasting level based on the flavor profile you like and not based on “strength and boldness” which has much more to do with the brewing method than the roasting level.
If you think good coffee is supposed to be very dark and oily, then I encourage you to try some less dark and not so oily coffee that is brewed well for comparison. Then you can decide what you like best. We have been told and “trained” by many coffee providers that dark and oily is “bold and flavorful” because frankly that is much easier to do, make consistent, and survive a long time on the shelf than fully flavorful, balanced, and fresh. Unless you are after Turkish coffee or a southern Italian style espresso, you might find you like the more moderate roasts of a good small-lot coffee with a full flavor profile, balanced acidity, and a pleasant body more to your liking. You don’t need black and oily for a good espresso either. One of my favorite espressos is a deeper roast but it is neither black nor oily. It has some exceptional chocolate, orange, and Amaretto flavors, a pleasant sweetness, a full body and refined acidity without the sour acid notes and bitterness you get from over-roasting.
You might be interested to know that the oil on heavily roasted coffee does not mean it is more “moist” or fresh. Black does not make it “bolder”. The oil on the bean surface is actually due to extremely high temperatures causing the oils to be extracted during roasting rather than during brewing. Black just means it was scorched. This is also an indication that many of the aromatic compounds that give coffee a full profile of aromas and flavors, including subtle floral and fruit notes, will have been burned beyond recognition. We will explore flavor profiles and tasting in more depth in Part 4.
When roasting our coffees, we select a roast level that optimizes the distinctive flavor profile of the specific coffee and the intended use. For example, you may find that the more exotic African coffees from Ethiopia and Kenya with floral and fruit profiles and moderate acidity tend to be roasted on the light end of the spectrum to highlight those more subtle characteristics. Other coffees, like some South and Central American coffees, may be roasted a bit darker to bring out chocolatey and nutty flavors. The decision may also be based on whether this will be an Americana sipping coffee or an espresso used in a latte. Sometimes the same coffee can produce more than one exceptional profile. For example, we cupped and sourced a Costa Rican coffee for its exceptional flavor profile and roasted it on the light side of medium. It is a very drinkable and flavorful coffee. Almost on a whim one week, we roasted a small batch of the same coffee for espresso and it produced an amazing espresso with a very different flavor profile. That espresso roast also made it into the regular lineup. That doesn’t always happen and most of the time coffees and roasting are matched to a specific optimal level.
What we think of as “strength” and “boldness” of coffee has much more to do with the brewing method and “dosing” than the roast level of the coffee. If you like strong and bold then what you are probably looking for in an amazing cup of coffee is better extraction rather than more charring. In part 2 of this series we take an in-depth look at the methods and factors that affect the brewing of your perfect cup of coffee.
Summary: Try different specialty coffees at different roasting levels and decide what you like best. Make notes. You might find you like them all, but for different reasons and uses.