Coffee for many is just a way to wake up: a bitter pill to be swallowed once or twice daily to keep you from dozing off, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Rather than be simply bad medicine, coffee can be an exotic taste from halfway around the world and all it takes is a little bit more effort. And you don’t even have to have a mustache or an English degree to make great coffee. I know it looks that way, but if you just believe in yourself and choose the right beans, you can make a tasty morning cup for less than that Americano you buy on the way to work.
Finding the right shop
It may sound strange or superficial, but these days a shop’s trendiness is a good measurement of its quality. There are plenty of exceptions, but coffee has changed a lot over the years from a continuously boiled sludge to the fussed over ambrosia it is today. A good coffee shop 10 years ago doesn’t necessarily hold itself to today’s standards of freshness and roasting. Like it or not, the hipster aesthetic often comes with some great coffee. Also, look for a coffee shop that takes pride in their beans. Often this means they are featured prominently in their display, probably more so than their pastries and definitely more than any sugar syrup coffee hybrids.
Keep it fresh
The very first thing you should find on your bag is the roasted date. While coffee doesn’t expire in the same way as milk or love,, it loses its more subtle flavors over time. You’re looking for a date within about a week of the date of purchase. Coffee keeps its’ freshness for about two weeks after it’s roasted but could hold onto that freshness longer if properly stored. If your shop sprung for bags with little valves on them, take your time because you’ve got a bit longer. That sweet little valve lets out CO2 while keeping everything else in and it was invented specifically for coffee. However, if drinking coffee isn’t a chore, you will probably finish the bag before it starts to lose its luster.
Choosing a roast
Lighter roasts tend to have more pronounced delicate tea-like flavors like jasmine, black tea and citrus. Light roasts are also the easiest to mess up when brewing since any bitter or sour off-flavors created by improper brewing can overpower their natural flavor.
Medium roasts often have stronger flavors like clove or peach as well as some lighter notes. They are often more complex and can give you different flavors depending on their brew method as stronger flavors tend to overpower weaker ones. Additionally they are more forgiving in brewing than lighter roasts and tend to have a good balance between acidity and flavor.
Dark roasts solve the problem of consistency in the most ham-fisted way possible: burn everything.
There are variations on burnt such as French Roast or All City roast, but be assured they are all burnt. Most of the flavor you can taste in a dark roast is from the roast itself. In fact, it doesn’t matter as much where the beans came from since much of differences in acidity and flavor notes will be lost on your tongue, which is swimming in burnt flavor. If dark roasts are your thing, you like toasty nutty chocolate and caramel flavors of coffee that puts hair on your chest. On a related note you should take things to the next level and start drinking straight espresso if you don’t already. You can thank me later..
In terms of caffeine content, all roasts are essentially equal. However, if you are measuring by volume with a scoop or measuring spoon, a lighter roast will have more caffeine since it has not expanded as much from roasting as dark roasted coffee.
If you’ve had any experience looking at bags of coffee, you might have noticed all the extra information such as washed, natural processed, or pulped natural. To understand what it means we’ll have to take a look at the coffee bean as it is picked. As a coffee cherry, coffee is very much like a grape with two large pits. The second layer of the coffee cherry is the mucilage. As its name suggests, the mucilage is a thin slimy layer that coats the green beans. The innermost layer is the green beans which is what becomes coffee. To roast the green beans, everything else must be removed and the beans must be dried out. However, the order of this process affects the flavor.
Washed coffee: The outer skin is removed and then the coffee cherries sit in water until the
mucilage ferments. Then, the green beans are washed clean and dried outside. Coffee that is washed is lighter and has a nice clean taste.
Natural processed coffee: Coffee cherries are picked and then left to dry with the skin and mucilage intact. Then the green bean is removed to be roasted. Since no one can see the shape of the green bean through the cherry, they aren’t sorted by size until after they are processed. Consequently they are often less-consistent in shape than other coffees, but drying with the cherry on gives it a wonderful berry flavor and a lower acidity. If you’ve never had natural-processed coffee, buy a cup of natural-processed Ethiopia Yirgacheffee. You can taste the coffee cherry.
Pulped natural coffee: The skin is removed and the beans are left to dry with mucilage on. The mucilage is then removed after the beans have dried. Since they are better sorted, pulped natural coffee is more consistent than natural-processed coffees.
If you are lucky enough you might see a little bit more information on your coffee bag along with a very big price tag. Here are a couple of special coffees you might see at high-end shops.
Geisha: A different variety of coffee plant from Ethiopia that is often grown in Panama. It is widely hailed as the cream of the crop because of its distinctive tea-like flavor which is similar to Ethiopia Yirgacheffee. If you’re curious, Namusairo in Gwanghamun has a more affordable cup of Panama Geisha for 10,000 won.
Peaberry: Normally coffee cherries have two green beans, but these magnificent abominations have only one. The result is a bag of super-dense and flavorful beans that are an excellent brew.
Cup of Excellence: The green beans were roasted and sent to an international competition where they were certified to be delicious. They were then sold as green beans in an international auction so buy cup of excellence from a roaster you already know to be quality.
The goal in roasting coffee is to have every bean roasted the same. Since beans are sorted by density, their shape and size can vary. This doesn’t matter up to a point, but misshapen beans can create burns when they are roasting. Look at your beans when you use them to decide if your shop’s hipster posturing was a lie. If all of the beans in your bag are the same color and around the same size with no burns, you can rest easy.
You can find more of Jay’s coffee writing at his blog: thecoffeechaser.com