I was into good coffee before I was into good food, since I was drinking it every day of my life, and I figured I might as well make it the best it could be. (Though I was discouraged by Balzac's warning: "When you have reached the point of consuming this kind of coffee, then become exhausted and decide that you really must have more, even though you make it of the finest ingredients and take it perfectly fresh, you will fall into horrible sweats, suffer feebleness of the nerves, and undergo episodes of severe drowsiness.") Nevertheless, from a grinder to a French press to roasting my own, I’ve run the gamut of obsession, doing all that's possible to close the gap between the beans and my taste buds. Is there really that much to a good cup of coffee? I remember reading somewhere, though I’m not able to confirm if it’s actually true, that the flavor profile of a cup of coffee is many times more complex than a glass of red wine. True or false, coffee as a drink is certainly worthy of intense investigation; when we saw that Joe the Art of Coffee was holding a “Single-Origin Coffee Tasting,” we quickly signed up. And we learned how to use snobbish terms like “nose” and “bouquet overtones" to describe this everyman's drink. The idea was to learn the different qualities that beans tend to exhibit from various regions of the world. It’s not that coffee from a single origin necessarily makes a better cup, it’s actually often quite the opposite. While coffees from Africa, for example, tend to be characterized by fruity and floral notes, you don’t want a cup that’s overly fruity or floral; it wouldn’t be right. Blending is when it really gets interesting. All in all it was a really enlightening experience. What follows are some of the more interesting things we learned about brewing and storage, as well as some further descriptions of the various regions, so the next time you see coffee from Ethiopia on the shelf, for example, you’ll know more what to expect.
Coffee from the Americas is characterized by balance. This might mean that the flavor doesn’t linger for a long time in your mouth, which would be a characteristic of body. The bean we sampled, from Guatemala, had the slightest hint of char and a tangy flavor.
Beans from Asian regions tend to have better body, which our knowledgeable teacher described as, “the weight is has in your mouth.” Body doesn’t necessarily come from how long the bean is roasted, much of that is intrinsic to the bean. Asian coffees can tend to be more “earthy” and have low acidity, often having chocolate tones. It will stand up to milk or cream well.
African beans are fruity and floral. They tend to have a light body and a bright flavor. We sampled an Ethiopian from the Yirgacheffe region, which had a soft body and a lemon-peely flavor. Coffees don’t always, of course, obey their region’s general characteristics. A Kenyan bean we tried, the “Kenyan AA” was wonderfully rich and had plentiful body, which at the same time carried overtones of berries and chocolate.
Coffee’s biggest enemies are air and light and moisture. So shops and grocers who store the beans out in the open in canvas sacks, while making an aesthetically pleasing display, are doing the coffee’s taste no favors. In fact they're accelerating its inevitable trip towards becoming stale.
The first sign of coffee becoming stale is bitterness. Freshly roasted coffee is not bitter.
Once you grind the beans, they’re pretty much stale in 15 or 20 minutes.
A medium roast is usually the best moment to taste all the beans’ characteristics. This is also called “Full City Roast” A lighter roast is called “City Roast”, darker is “Vienna Roast” followed by “French Roast” and finally “Italian Roast”. This has nothing to do with where the beans are from, it’s the style of roasting traditional to the area. Vienna, French and Italian are after the “second crack” in the roasting process, when the oils inside the bean pop out and it looks dark and shiny.
Use your tap water for brewing: bottled purified water lacks the necessary minerals for great tasting coffee. However, make sure it’s decent tap water. Running it through a filter is fine. If it tastes good at room temperature, it’s good for coffee.
Don’t leave coffee on the burner of your coffee maker. If you’re not going to drink it right away, put it into a carafe or thermos. Leaving it on the burner cooks it and really takes away from the flavor. Same goes for the microwave.
Don’t store coffee in the fridge or freezer; for one it compromises the essential flavor oils in the beans, plus it will absorb other odors that are hanging around in the fridge. Just buy enough for a week or two at most, and store it an airtight container if possible, in the cupboard to avoid light.
The board-certified ratio of coffee to water is 2 tablespoons per 6 oz. (how the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) defines a cup).
Remember Brillat-Savarin as quoted by Balzac: "Coffee sets the blood in motion and stimulates the muscles; it accelerates the digestive processes, chases away sleep, and gives us the capacity to engage a little longer in the exercise of our intellects." Go forth and drink great coffee.