Most consulting jobs I’m called in for require that I set up the coffee practice – from bean to machine to extraction to training. It wasn’t till my latest assignment that I realised that, more often than not, I act as the final (and sole) determinant of the final product. At best, my customer – usually the owner of a restaurant looking to round out their offering – is equipped to judge the coffee as acceptable or good but I have never worked with someone who could discuss the nuances of coffee with me.
What this means is that I’m, more often than not, busy with the mechanics of coffee and seldom have the chance to discuss what the destination should look like; what elusive ideal we are chasing when we demand the best beans, the best machines and the best people?
And, I’ve realized, I have managed to make the same mistake in this column. We’ve discussed French Presses and Aeropresses and Cold Brews but I haven’t addressed the one question this is all designed to answer. What’s worse, I haven’t even raised the question yet. That changes right now.
“It’s the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did.” – Trinity, The Matrix (1999)
My last consulting assignment was unusual, though. How? Simple. My client asked me The Question directly.
He had the coffee. He wanted to know how it stacked up against the competition.
“What is good coffee? What are we looking for when we judge coffee?”
Well, there isn’t one simple answer. But there are two guiding principles:
- There is no one ideal so, to each his own
- Before you go breaking the rules you have to know the rules
So, what are the rules? There is, actually, just one rule – Make the coffee shine. Spare no effort to highlight the best things about the coffee. For instance, there are more than a thousand chemical compounds in a roasted bean of coffee and they all contribute to the characteristics of the final cup. Not all get equally extracted, though. Polar compounds are more water-soluble than non-polar ones so they are over-represented in a brewed cup. Knowing the effect each of these has on the final brew can help us design a process to selectively highlight the characteristics we want to showcase. The finest nuances of coffee involve elaborate chemistry but, for most of us – including for the experts – we can substitute most of that with trial and error. A lot of trial and error, unfortunately.
First things first. There are several variables that determine the outcome for a brewed coffee. The bean, the grind and the brewing method are the main ones. We need to control two variables at a time to be able to run our “experiments” like real scientists. So, fix a grind size (or get pre-ground coffee) and use the pourover method ( minus the ice) or the Aeropress method as standard. We can even use espresso shots as the base, though I would recommend diluting to a “lungo” or “americano” with hot water. We can change the grind size for our next set of experiments, if needed.
Professionally, coffee is evaluated through a process called “cupping” that involves ceramic cups, silver spoons and pouring hot water on to the grounds directly in the cup. The grounds float to the top and create a crust that is broken with the spoon and warm coffee is slurped (yes, slurped) from just below the lips into the mouth and evaluated.
We won’t “cup”. Cupping works when freshly-roasted and ground coffees needs to be evaluated with respect to each other or when a new coffee is judged to create profile notes; all high-falutin exercises that we won’t involve ourselves with. Nonetheless, we will apply the same metrics that cuppers do to evaluate our coffees. Here’s how.
Aroma – How the coffee smells; to me this is 90% of the coffee experience. Unfortunately coffee never tastes as nice as it smells and the reason is that the aroma comes from the most volatile compounds in the coffee which escape as gases almost immediately. It is important to put words to the various aromas you get because it helps create a mental vocabulary for the smells. First, identify the intensity of the aroma. Descriptions could include “delicate”, “moderate”, “strong”, “rich”, “fragrant” or “complex”. Then, start deciphering the individual components of the bouquet. This will be hard at the beginning, but as with most things, it will get easier with practice. While there is a set of words commonly used (fruity, floral, straw, citrus) feel free to create your own associations. I tend to use a lot of colour names, for instance. The only rule is that you take copious notes so that you can build consistency and expand your vocabulary.
Acidity – This refers, not to the pH of the coffee, but to its “sharpness” and palate-cleansing ability. Coffees low on acidity tend to taste flat, a medium acidity adds life to the coffee and inordinate levels of acidity makes the coffee “sharp” and unpleasant. Acidity levels are correlated with how quickly the taste disappears from the mouth.
Body – This describes the weight of the coffee. Does it pass through the mouth like water or does it linger, like syrup? Full-bodied coffees tend to coat your mouth.
Flavour – Flavour represents the sum total of how the coffee is perceived once inside the mouth. Surprisingly, tase – what we experience on the tongue, is a miniscule part of this. Our tongues are able to perceive just the four major tastes – Sweet, Salty, Sour and Bitter – and all other perceptions of flavour are the result of the aroma receptors in the nose which are accessed via retronasal olfaction. As you take in the coffee slurp so that air gets mixed with the liquid. This releases the volatile compounds and, as they travel to the nose from the back of the mouth you get a richer sense of the bouquet the coffee has to offer. This process is very similar to how wine gets evaluated and, as with wine, practice makes perfect. The vocabulary for flavour encompasses that of aroma and adds its own words like “bold”, “subtle” and more.
If your go-to method for making coffee is the espresso you have one more metric to consider.
Crema – The layer of micro-foam on top of the espresso shot is called the crema. It is the result of the oils in the coffee being extracted by the high-pressure steam of an espresso machine. A nice crema is honey-coloured but may have flecks of Orange or Red. A lighter crema usually indicates an under-extracted shot. The thickness of the crema will depend on the cup used but, given that as standard, Robusta beans tend to produce more crema than Arabica. Since the crema is oils emulsified with air it tends to spoil (go rancid) very quickly and it is imperative the espresso be drunk as soon as it is prepared or the bitter notes of rancid oil will start to dominate.
Variables that influence each of these factors include the species of bean – Arabica or Robusta, the roast and grind of coffee, and the method of preparation. Those are all points for another column, though. Get started on your tastings, take lots of notes and get lots of practice. Hit me back with updates on your progress. All the best!