Tips for finding the Perfect Premium Coffee
There is coffee and THERE IS COFFEE! You likely know about the generic quality coffees you find at the supermarket, using the inferior Robusta beans. And, in contrast, there is the alternative: the coffee regularly termed Gourmet Coffee you buy direct from roasters around the country. Popular large volume roasters, like Starbucks as well as most of the the smaller roasters dispersed about town, essentially utilize this far better grade, high altitude, shade grown Arabica bean.
That being said, and broadly known by all nowadays, how can you siphon out the crème de la crème of gourmet coffee beans to purchase?
To begin with, let’s hone in specifically on taste. Nowadays, coffee has become a “drink of experts”…
evolved into an art of reflection! We’ve begun to savor our coffee…flavor identify and define the subtle hints and nuances, as well as the qualities that identify the bean’s continent of origin. You as a coffee drinker, can begin to explore and experience the undertones of your coffee’s region, but better yet, begin to revel in the independently specific flavors of the bean defined by the specific hill and farm where it’s grown.
Coffee Cupping: Defining Coffee by its “Underlying Flavors”
There are, nowadays, a limited number of coffee roasters that independently test their coffee beans for taste observations and aromas. These beans are graded and assessed just like fine wine. This activity is called Coffee Cupping or Coffee Tasting. Professionals known as Master Tasters are the assessors. The procedure involves deeply sniffing a cup of brewed coffee, then loudly slurping the coffee so it draws in air, spreads to the back of the tongue, and maximizes flavor.
These Master Tasters, much akin to wine tasters, then attempt to measure in detail, every aspect of the coffee’s taste. This assessment includes measurement of the body (the texture or mouth-feel, such as oiliness), acidity (a sharp and tangy feeling, like when biting into an orange), and balance (the innuendo and the harmony of flavors working together). Since coffee beans embody telltale flavors from their region or continent of their origin, cuppers may also attempt to predict where the coffee was grown.
There is an infinite range of vocabulary that is used to describe the tastes found in coffee. Descriptors range from the familiar (chocolaty, sweet, fruity, woody) to the conceptual (clean, vibrant, sturdy) to the wildly esoteric (summery, racy, gentlemanly).
Following are a few key characteristics as defined by Coffee Geek. (http://coffeegeek.com/guides/beginnercupping/tastenotes)
The brightness or sharpness of coffee: It is through the acidity that many of the most intriguing fruit and floral flavors are delivered, and is usually the most scrutinized characteristic of the coffee. Acidity can be intense or mild, round or edgy, elegant or wild, and everything in between. Usually the acidity is best evaluated once the coffee has cooled slightly to a warm/lukewarm temperature. Tasting a coffee from Sumatra next to one from Kenya is a good way to begin to understand acidity.
This is sometimes referred to as “mouthfeel”. The body is the sense of weight or heaviness that the coffee exerts in the mouth, and can be very difficult for beginning cuppers to identify. It is useful to think about the viscosity or thickness of the coffee, and concentrate on degree to which the coffee has a physical presence. Cupping a Sulawesi versus a Mexican coffee can illustrate the range of body quite clearly.
One of the most important elements in coffee, sweetness often separates the great from the good. Even the most intensely acidic coffees are lush and refreshing when there is enough sweetness to provide balance and ease the finish. Think of lemonade…starting with just water and lemon juice, one can add sugar until the level of sweetness achieves harmony with the tart citric flavor. It is the same with coffee, the sweetness is critical to allowing the other tastes to flourish and be appreciated.
While first impressions are powerful, it is often the last impression that has the most impact. With coffee the finish (or aftertaste) is of great importance to the overall quality of the tasting experience, as it will linger long after the coffee has been swallowed. Like a great story, a great cup of coffee needs a purposeful resolution. The ideal finish to me is one that is clean (free of distraction), sweet, and refreshing with enough endurance to carry the flavor for 10-15 seconds after swallowing. A champion finish will affirm with great clarity the principal flavor of the coffee, holding it aloft with grace and confidence like a singer carries the final note of a song and then trailing off into a serene silence.
Coffee Buying Caveat
Buying coffee simply by name instead of by taste from your favorite roaster (in other words buying the same Columbian Supreme from the same ”Joe’s Cuppa Joe Roaster”) definitely has its pitfall! According to Coffee Review, “Next year’s Clever-Name-Coffee Company’s house blend may be radically different from this year’s blend, despite bearing the same name and label. The particularly skillful coffee buyer or roaster who helped create the coffee you and I liked so much may have gotten hired elsewhere. Rain may have spoiled the crop of a key coffee in the blend. The exporter or importer of that key coffee may have gone out of business or gotten careless. And even if everyone (plus the weather) did exactly the same thing they (and it) did the year before, the retailer this time around may have spoiled everything by letting the coffee go stale before you got to it. Or you may have messed things up this year by keeping the coffee around too long, brewing it carelessly, or allowing a friend to pour hazelnut syrup into it.”
Your savvy coffee-buying alternative is to look for roasters who buy their beans in Micro-Lots- smaller (sometimes tiny) lots of subtly distinctive specialty coffees. According to Coffee Review, “These coffee buyers buy small quantities of coffee from a single crop and single place, often a single hillside, and are sold not on the basis of consistency or brand, but as an opportunity to experience the flavor associated with a unique moment in time and space and the dedication of a single farmer or group of farmers.”
Coffee Review: Coffee Ratings
And finally, look out for the very small community coffee roasters that will submit their coffees to be 3rd-party evaluated by Coffee Review and other competitions for independent analysis and rating. Coffee Review regularly conducts blind, expert cuppings of coffees and then reports the findings in the form of 100-point reviews to coffee buyers. These valuable Overall Ratings can provide you with a summary assessment of the reviewed coffees. They are based on a scale of 50 to 100.
Bottom line for a certain premium purchase: To find the coffee that will ascertain most flavor satisfaction, seek out beans that been independently reviewed and rated. This approach will, without a doubt offer you the advantage of being able to choose the flavor profile suits you best in a bean. What’s more, it gains you certainty in quality due to its superior rating. The higher the rating, the better the flavor. True premium coffees start from the upper 80’s. By finding a roaster that consistently rates within the 90’s will ultimately buy you the best java for your buck!