Despite the facts that it’s possible to buy “gourmet” coffee in almost any supermarket, and that there are cafes on almost every street corner in every city, it’s sadly true that it can still be difficult to find good coffee these days. Fortunately it’s getting easier all the time, and more and more people are getting interested in good coffee, either finding it at a good café, or making it at home. There are a lot of misconceptions and misinformation out there about, here’s some things to keep in mind if you want a great cup of coffee:
1. Most people have never had good coffee. Most of the coffee sold, served and consumed in the US is “commodity” coffee, grown for volume, not taste. And over 90% of the coffee is incredibly, incredibly stale. Virtually 100% of the coffee in the supermarket, and restaurants, most of the coffee in cafes is stale. Even “fancy” cafes like Starbucks or Pete’s are serving stale coffee.
2. Not only that, but most coffee is burnt to a crisp. This is because when you roast coffee dark, it stops tasting like coffee, and starts tasting like burnt carbohydrates, proteins and sugar. So, if you have a bunch of cheap commodity coffee and it’s going to sit in warehouses and on shelves going stale for months before it gets sold or served, might as well roast it dark so it will taste like something. But this is an incredibly generic and boring flavor, it’s the flavor of burnt toast, burnt caramel and roasted/burnt nuts. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it can be a nice compliment to the natural flavors of quality coffee, but if that’s the only thing you’re tasting in your coffee you’re missing out.
3. Good coffee is one of the most complex, interesting and diverse things you can taste. It goes through an incredible process to turn the seeds of a tropical fruit in to the roasted beans and then brewed coffee. There are a huge number of varieties of coffee plants that are usually grown at high altitude on mountains or volcanos. The cherries are picked by hand, and processed, fermented and washed to remove the fruit and then dried.
4. There’s so much more to roasting coffee than just light, medium or dark. The roast style has to be matched to the particular type and batch of coffee, there’s the starting temperature, and roast profile and different stages of the roast to bring out the best flavors in that coffee. Unless you want to spend years and years figuring it out, we really have to trust the roaster. They’re the ones who are visiting the plantations around the world, and picking the lots of coffee, then they have to figure out the right roast for that coffee. Two roasters can roast the same coffee, and they can both be “dark” roasts and they can taste very different. Generally though good roasters will roast lighter, so you can taste more of the coffee and less of the “roast.”
5. Don’t think that you can’t taste good coffee, or that you won’t appreciate it, or that you don’t have a refined palate. When someone is good at “tasting” coffee (or wine or cheese, etc.) it just means that they’re good at describing what they taste. They just have a lot of experience, and can recognize and name flavors they’ve tasted before. Coffee is incredibly complex, and it can be hard to describe the dozens of flavors that can show up in a cup, but that doesn’t mean you’re not tasting or enjoying them. Anyone can tell the difference between stale coffee and fresh coffee, anyone can tell the difference between $5/lb coffee and $15/lb coffee, and if given a few different coffees from different regions of the world anyone will be able to tell you which one they like best.
6. We have a distorted view of how much coffee should cost because the market is flooded with cheap, stale, burnt coffee that sells for $5-10/lb we think that’s normal. It’s not. Growing, picking, process, importing, roasting and brewing good coffee is a hard process, and it’s there’s lots of ways to screw it up. Paying $20/lb for good coffee is an incredible deal, that comes out at something like $1 a cup, and it represents dozens of people from all around the world, who are experts at what they do. The best coffees in the world are selling for $100-200/lb, which sounds (and is) expensive, but still comes out to $10 a cup. Think about a $10 glass of wine, for the same price you can get the best, most expensive, most exclusive cup of coffee in the world. Coffee so rare it’s only available a couple times a year at most, exists in very small quantities and is fought over at auction by people around the world.
The easiest metaphor to remember is that coffee is like bread. It’s something we all know, but that right now, in the US, most of us are buying the equivalent of stale wonder bread. And places like starbucks are selling fluffernutter sandwiches to cover up the stale burnt bread they’re making. But good coffee isn’t like the white bread sitting on the shelves at the supermarket, it’s a fresh loaf of sourdough right out of the oven at the corner bakery. And just like bread, it’s best fresh. Coffee is at its peak for a week or two at most. So, find a good local café serving the best coffee they can get their hands on, or go find a local roaster, or a roaster online and order some of the best coffee available anywhere, shipped right to your doorstep and start making the best coffee you’ve ever had.