Many who are new to the world of Specialty coffee are often confused as to why they are not getting the coffee flavours they want or what they were told they can get. Did you know that choosing the right bean is as important as the right equipment and training to the formula of great coffee? It is true, coffee is a matter of taste, but there are some guidelines to follow if you want to produce the best flavours from your newly purchased maker.
1. Roasting Date
Coffee doesn't have an expiration date.
It is an extremely perishable food product, it's changing its chemistry as a reaction to oxygen, moisture and heat. In this process it ages and goes stale. Coffee allows us to extract aromatic oils, sugars and soluble from it only when its fresh. You are best to consume your beans no later than 3 weeks from roasting date. Most supermarket coffee would not have roasting date on its bag as sometime it has been roasted weeks before the coffee is bagged, shipped and landing on the shelf. This is the most impotent criteria in your decision making. In fact no matter the brand, the type of coffee or the shape of the bag, if the coffee has been roasted over 3 weeks ago, it's unlikely for you to enjoy much flavours at all. It can be stale, flat, woody, astringent, starchy and even muddy, lacking the complexity, vibrancy or balance expected in fresh coffee. And if you make espresso, it may not also produce that desirable thick golden honey crema we like on top.
2. Arabica Vs. Robusta
You may have heard about Arabica and Robusta. There are over 100 coffee species, however the two main ones that are widely produced and sold are: Coffee Arabica and Coffea Canephora (also known as Coffea Robusta). Arabica consists of 70% of total world production. It usually grows in high altitude, presents a delicate cup and is much more prone to diseases. Robusta on the other hand, is a harder bean, resistant to pests, grows in low altitude, has more caffeine than Arabica, presents a bigger body, thicket crema and lack on the complexity and refinement Arabica has. With modern technology, some Robusta growers are starting to produce higher quality Robusta but it's still quite limited, not as refined and is used mainly in blends rather than on its own.
3. Altitude, Climate, Topography and Processing
You may or you may not. If you drink your coffee with milk, any coffee attributes are likely to be washed away. But if you are an espresso or black coffee lover, your palate might be more sensitive and picking up the differences.
Growing conditions as well as processing methods have massive impact on cup quality.
Ideal growing conditions are high altitude, shade, natural mist and cloud cover. Arabica is grown over 1,000m acl. The Rainforest leafs provide a mulch as well as protection from wind and add sweetness to the coffee. Cherries must be picked when they're just ripe and juicy. If they’re green, coffee will be thin and sour, if they’re too ripe, it may already begin to ferment.
Coffee is processed in different methods that provide different qualities again:
- Naturally processed coffee, has the cherries laid on drying beds with full air flow to dry. Sugars and flavors concentrated in the fruits imparting heavy body and intense yet refined taste.
- With washed coffee, cherries are firstly pulped, then fermented in water for 3-5 days. That process enhances the acidity and floral aromatics of the coffee.
If you are a lover of heavy body coffee and like the sweetness in the cup, you may like Naturally processed beans, But if you like fruity intricacies, refined flavours and strong aromatics, washed coffee might become your favourite.
4. Single Origin or a Blend?
Single Origin is a bean that comes from one single estate. It has its own distinctive flavour and may not be over complex or balanced.
A blend is a mix of several single origins and has a more complex profile the roaster has designed to achieve certain sensory expedience. Blends are usually heavier, and cut better with milk.
A coffee with good mouth-feel for example, can use great aroma from a different bean, and an long aftertaste from a third bean. Coffee aficionados love tasting single origin coffees for the nuances in those coffees, but if you like big flavour balanced coffee and you have it with milk, you may appreciate the mouth-feel, aroma, aftertaste, good crema, acidity and smoothness, without the bitterness.
Blends can be blended post or prior to roasting. Some believe that blending pre-roasting can achieve a unique coming-together of flavours that cannot be achieved by roasting individual origins then blending. Beans that have been blended before roasting have similar colour.
Others believe that you can only maximise the flavour of each origin when you post blend, as different size of beans, with different hardness or moisture content will need different time in the roasting chamber. Beans in a post blend will usually have different colours.
5. Roast Level
The degree to which coffee beans are roasted is one of the most important factors that determine the taste of the coffee in the cup. The most common roast level in the coffee industry nowadays is medium roast, or "full city" about 230-240 degree celcius
Here are some interesting facts on roast level:
- As coffee roasts gets darker, it loses the original flavors of the beans and take on more flavor from the roasting process
- The body of the coffee gets heavier, until the second crack, where the body starts thinning again
- Lighter roasts have more acidity than darker roasts
- Light roasted beans are dry, while darker roasts develop oil on the bean surface
- Caffeine level decreases as the roast gets darker
- Light roasts have a toasted grain taste and pronounced acidity. The origin flavors of the bean are retained to a greater extent than in darker roasted coffees
6. Bean for a Maker
Not only that light roast will be better for filter coffee and medium roast for espresso, but other differences in the coffee will make one bean suitable more for a specific maker than others. There are ofcourse exceptions to the rule, but from our experience working with home consumers for the past 10 years, here are some observations on coffee best suitable for the different coffee makers in the market:
1. Plunger? Medium to dark roast, medium to heavy body, simple blend like the Mousse or Single Origin like Brazil
2. Stove top? medium to dark roast, medium to heavy body, blends like Sweet Maria or Single Origin like the Colombian
3. Paper filter or Cold Brew? Light Roast, fruity and aromatic coffee - mainly washed, Single Origins like the Ethiopian Sidamo Kilenso or Medium Roast Ethiopian Limmu
4. Espresso machines - Espresso: any medium roast from the heavier naturally processed to lighter more aromatic beans. From earthy, tobacco or spicy notes like the Monsoon Malabar to the vibrant, winy and fruity notes in the Ethiopia Limmu. It all goes, whatever makes your palate sing!
5. Espresso machines - Latte: medium roast, rich blends like the Signature House Blend, the Benito blend, or the Mousse blend if you like it on the milder side
Nothing is set in stone with coffee. You can start your journey with these recommendations and then take your own direction as you're mapping out the different coffees, getting some insights into what you like and what you don't.