Basically, if coffee tastes good to you and satisfies you, it’s good, I suppose. But there’s a vast distance between OK good and REALLY good, and a large part of it depends on a few very simple practices which I’ll list and discuss in this and the next few posts:
Use enough coffee!
This is fundamental. The basic thing here is it’s much easier to use too little coffee than to use too much. Unless you’re quite sure your coffee is strong enough, try adding a scoop more to your ground coffee and see what it’s like. Actually try adding an extra scoop anyway. My own experience of this is there’s a fairly clear point at which the resulting brew is no longer weak, then a fairly extended range where your coffee is strong enough, and finally a point at which it becomes, to some palates at least, too strong. Tastes will certainly differ, but most people seem to agree on the lesser quality of weak coffee. I find restaurant coffee is generally on the weak side. With high quality, expensive, coffee not using enough coffee is just a waste.
Make sure it’s fresh!
Fresh roasted. Ideally from two days after roasting to ten to fourteen days. Coffee can be used immediately after roasting, but many coffees improve, sometimes markedly, by being allowed to rest for a couple of days before being ground and brewed. After two weeks a good coffee will still be good, just not so good as it is in the first and second weeks. Best to drink it up. Storage in a closed container like a glass canning jar or the plastic bag with the one way valve that it may have come in will extend the life of fresh coffee, but the best strategy is to drink it up. That’s presumably why you bought it!
Unless you see it being roasted or the bag is marked with the roast date, it’s probably safe to assume your “new” bag of coffee is at a minimum anywhere from several days to several weeks old.
One way to tell if coffee is fresh is to note whether the grounds foam when the brewing water is added to them. Roasted coffee outgasses carbon dioxide fairly vigorously for the first three days after roasting and then at a diminished rate over the next week or so. If your wetted grounds are distinctly foamy, you can be sure your coffee beans are fresh. If they don’t foam the coffee may still be fresh, and with experience you’ll be able to taste the difference, but in any case you will have lost a significant portion of the fairly short fresh window. This doesn’t mean good coffee that’s two weeks old is totally undrinkable. I drink it if that’s what’s around. But if I have plenty of fresh coffee, which is usually the case, three week old coffee will often get tossed.
When you’re ready to brew your coffee, and not before, grind it. Then brew it immediately! Ground coffee rapidly loses the volatile aromatic compounds making up the top notes of a coffee’s flavor. If you’ve never had freshly ground and brewed coffee, you don’t know what you’re missing. This is why I, along with many serious roasters, would never sell ground coffee. Ground coffee is almost synonymous with stale coffee. It’s easy to prove this to yourself. Grind some coffee. Grind more of the same an hour later. Brew them immediately after the second batch is ground. Compare.