A Guide to Coffee
I’m pretty confident in calling myself a coffee connoisseur, though not is a coffee snob and the distinction between these two is crucial to my personal journey through coffee trails and errors that follows. Coffee snobs will drink only one type of coffee, one region of beans, one style of roasting, or even order from only one coffeehouse: the right coffeehouse.
I am both a full-blown caffeine addict and a man on a budget. When offered the perfect, slow filtered Ethiopian Arabica cup, I will accept with exceeding joy. When I need something in a large enough quantity to fill my pot every morning at home, I don’t hesitate to pick up the grocery store brand, $2.99-a-can dirt. The taste and nutrition value of my dark sludge are no match for my wallet. No matter what you drink, don’t sell yourself or your cup short. Here are some notes to keep in mind for sampling, judging, and understanding the murky waters of the dark cup:
Drink YOUR Coffee
A common adage among the upper-echelon of coffee drinkers is that the only way to truly taste and understand coffee is to drink it black. Coffee is not to be diluted with milk or sweetened with sugar. I wish these people luck on first dates.
I personally do in fact drink my coffee black and for me it is the best way to really taste the brew. But I do not believe it is the universal best way to drink coffee. When trying to decipher even the finest points of a particular blend’s aroma, strength, and flavor you have take your headspace and comfort level into account as much as the preparation and presentation of the cup.
If black coffee is too bitter for your personal taste, you won’t be able to taste anything but the bitterness and that will become your one and only criteria for a good cup. Bitterness is important but if it’s all you can focus on you’ll be missing all the other factors that separate types of coffee, the sweetness of Arabica beans versus the earthiness of Robusta’s for example. Make your cup the way that will allow you the best chance of enjoying it and let the coffee prove itself to you, don’t try and prove yourself to the coffee.
Smell is Half the Battle
You can learn an enormous amount about what kind of coffee you’re drinking, where it comes from, and even how it was grown just from the smell alone. Most coffee sniffers divide coffee aromas into three important categories:
– “Enzymatic” smells are the smells left over from the growing process and the fruit that the coffee bean is extracted from. Beans from Latin America are known for a fruitier scent while Ethiopian blends are commonly associated with a tangy, lemongrass aroma. Picking up a hint of tomato or tartness? Good bet Kenya was the birthplace of your bean
– “Sugar browning” smells are the chemical byproducts of roasting. The strange term borrowed from the chemical reaction that turns your white bread into dark toast or clean sugarcane into dark caramel. These smells will be the level and nature of the sweetness in your coffee; toasted nuts, barley, even cocoa hints are produced by sugar browning.
– “Dry distillation” smells are also byproducts of the roasting process, but these are the physical or environmental smells that creep in. These smells will be those most commonly associated with coffee, the burnt or bitterness it seems to give off.
There’s no correct balance or level of any of these smells but knowing what it is you’re smelling and why can help you differentiate between those cups that you just can’t quite put your finger on what it is you like or hate about it and stop you from making the same mistake twice.
Coffee Addiction vs. Enjoyment
The official term for the moment a novice coffee drinker becomes baptized into the church of specialty coffee—yes there is an official term—is the “God-Shot Moment.” Euphoria, mystery, and thirst for knowledge about the drink as strong as your need for an actual sip are all common symptoms that you’re having a God-Shot Moment. But this is a one-time deal though many think the best coffee for them is the one that gives them this feeling over and over.
If you find yourself feeling euphoric and relieved by your first sip day in and day out, you may or may not have found a great coffee, but you’ve definitely found a caffeine addiction. Too often, people get hooked on a particular blend before they’ve even had a chance to question what, if anything, they like about it. If you find yourself on vacation or even just in a rush one morning with no time to make your own brew, you may find yourself with nowhere to turn to know what’s going to do the trick for you and what’s going to leave a bitter or burnt taste in your mouth. Make sure you are caffeinated enough before trying a new kind of coffee (though not so much so that you get the shakes after a few sips) to be able to go for the taste, not the fix.
Bearing these three points in mind will help you begin your journey to research and learn about the kinds of coffee you can encounter at all ends of the price spectrum and what each of them says about your tastes as a fine connoisseur of common gold.