Buying Coffee Equipment Part 2: Buying Coffee
Buying Coffee Equipment Part 2: The Coffee
The broad level picture of fresh, quality coffee is important is touched up on in “The 4m's of coffee”
Let’s dive into the dynamics of purchasing “good” or “quality” coffee. Chances are, you already have some sort of brewing method (besides a Keurig) in your house, using that method with truly fresh and good coffee (versus typical grocery store type coffee) might take you as far on this journey as you need to go. Without diving too deep in the dynamics of the agriculture and science of the plant and fruit itself, I’m going to provide some basic information so you can have a better idea of what to look for next time you go to purchase some beans.
First, the coffee must be fresh, no matter where it’s from or how it’s roasted. If you do not know when it was roasted, don’t buy it. The roasted coffee will typically be best for use between 5 and 15 days after the roast date. At the extremes you probably have more like 3-18 or so days, depending on the bean, but using beans at their peak is always going to be best. Have you ever noticed how some bags of coffee are all puffed up, or that most bags have a valve on them? This is because coffee off-gasses carbon dioxide after roasting. The valve is there to let the CO2 out so the bag doesn’t explode. Coffee needs a few days of “rest” after roasting to let some of that CO2 off. That CO2 is also what creates crema in espresso, or the “bloom” in brewing. If you wait too long after the roast date, the coffee has lost too much CO2 and it has dried out as its oils have evaporated.
Speaking of oils, the slick sheen on those super dark French roast beans; that’s not a good thing. This is why non-coffee lovers think of coffee as tasting like an ashtray or bitter and burnt. The longer a coffee is roasted the more it cracks open and its internal oils seep out providing that overly-roasty (burnt) flavor. In the case of your 24oz Skinny Vanilla Latte at the Green Lady’s place, that’s so you can at least taste a hint of “coffee” though all the milk, syrups, and whipped cream. A quality coffee that is roasted properly can taste like anything from blueberries or banana runts candy to baker’s chocolate and bread pudding. Coffee actually has more flavors and complexity on the palate than wine! When roasted and prepared correctly it shouldn’t be bitter or burnt. Some coffees will have light floral and tea like qualities, while some will be more chocolates, caramels, and toffees. This will be dictated by the coffee that is used – as in where it was sourced, and how it was processed and roasted.
Different coffee growing regions around the world will exhibit different characteristics specific to that region. How the coffee is processed (picked, pulped, and dried) can also influence this but you might have a very fruity coffee like many that come out of the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia or a smooth and creamy nutty flavor like a Huila, Columbian can exhibit. This is why most coffees are actually blends, a roaster can fine tune the flavor by adding different “ingredients” by using coffee from multiple regions. Blends also tend to be more consistent since you can tweak them based on availability and make them more of a constant staple. They are also typically easier to work with and more forgiving since they are more balanced in flavor. When a coffee is from a single region, or better yet from a single farm or lot, that’s where you get the term “Single Origin” or SO from. The idea behind an SO coffee is that you will only taste the characteristics of the coffee from that region or farm. Because of this, many SO’s tend to be roasted lighter as to try and bring out the subtleties of flavor distinct of that origin. So, “espresso” is not actually a bean or even a roast level, despite what the Green Mermaid or the grocery store brands have led you to believe. It’s a brewing method and a brewing method only. (Almost) any coffee can be prepared as espresso, but how it’s roasted can favor different brewing methods.
How long (or how hot etc.) a coffee is roasted will greatly affect the flavors the coffee receives from its growing region (and processing method). In general, the longer a coffee is roasted the more sugars you’re going to get in the cup; think caramels, chocolates, butterscotch, toffee, nutty, etc. The lighter a coffee is roasted, the more subtle and light flavors you may get; citrus, floral, berries, etc. Where it gets tricky is that a coffee can be roasted too dark, masking any acidity or fruits it may have, or too light making it too acidic, sour, or “bright”. How the coffee is prepared can also influence this flavor spectrum with factors such as how much the coffee is extracted, for how long, and at what temperature. As you can see, this is a moving target of variables. The good news is that there is no right or wrong, it’s what tastes best TO YOU. I will hopefully provide you with the information needed to adjust what coffee you use or how you prepare it to make it taste best TO YOU.
So, we know we need fresh coffee from a roaster that knows what they’re doing as far as how it’s roasted and how it’s blended, if applicable, where do we get that? The good news is that specialty or quality coffee is booming right now, and there are probably already a few places local to you. If you’re new to specialty coffee, I recommend starting with a blend, preferably from a roaster that is local to you or has a café that you can access. This is because it keeps one of the variables consistent by using the same coffee for a while at first, and blends are generally more consistent and readily available. And I recommend local so you can go taste how that roaster intends the coffee to taste. That way, you can find a coffee you really like, and use that as a baseline to try and replicate at home. Once you feel like you have the hang of it, start exploring different roasters, origins, and see what’s out there. Follow me on the blog to see #WhatsCTPulling, for a running log of what I’m drinking.