What is Good Coffee? Part Two

Use enough coffee!

“Waiter, if this is coffee, bring me tea. If it’s tea, bring me coffee.” Serious coffee drinkers get the joke, we’ve all been subjected to weak coffee in restaurants. It’s not the worst, I would nominate late night long ago brewed convenience store Maxwell House for that honor, but it’s pretty bad.

This is fundamental. The basic thing here is that 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.

I’ve recently set up a small kitchen scale right next to my grinder, and have started weighing my grounds and water. When I start to get a feel for what’s what, I’ll share my experience here.

Perfect coffee

CupIs there any such thing? I’d say no. There are numerous ineffable coffee drinking experiences, of which you can have your share if you’re willing to observe certain fairly simple practices. Really good coffee isn’t some sort of unattainable goal, we are after all talking about a breakfast beverage here!

The fact that good coffee is almost nonexistent in practice has as much to do with volume and profit as it does with how hard it is to produce. The chief issues are due to the fact that coffee is actually a quintessentially local product, because once roasted it has such a short shelf life. In this case local means locally roasted, not grown, but the time between roasting and brewing is the critical point, when considering proximity. Processing and storage can greatly affect coffee’s quality, and improper handling in brewing can kill it just as surely, but most readily available “specialty” coffee dies on the grocer’s shelf.

Photo: Olga Pavlovsky on flickr, adapted. License: CC BY-2.0

Naturally Monsooned Bali, aged two days

Monsoon
Monsoon
Back with the NMB, after giving it a couple days to rest. Mostly what I notice is it’s still a very deep bass note coffee. It’s lost a bit of harshness, but it’s still a bitter cup with a predominant heavy body and mouthfeel.

I’m enjoying it, it’s sort of an essential taste, with no distractions from the very fundamental coffee tastes it possesses, but there’s so much more possible in a cup of coffee. I’ll have to keep some around to use in blends.

Photo: Kamaljith KV on flickr, adapted. License: CC BY-2.0.

Tonx Brasil/N. M. Bali Blend

50/50. The Bali I wrote about yesterday, the tonx is two month old (!!!!) fancy coffee, which got lost in the shuffle. No high notes in any of this. I think the most notable thing in this and yesterday cup was the heavy body and distinct bitterness in both. I suspect that this is mostly the Monsooned Bali, but I have enough of the tonx Brazilian to brew up a cup of it by itself. If I do I’ll let you know what it’s like.

First, a disclaimer. I’m no respecter of rules in general, and coffee culture is rife with rules—just waiting to be broken! Mostly I break coffee rules out of necessity or convenience. The main thing is, of course to achieve that morning fix!

There’s something I’ve found that’s rather wonderful about quality coffee, though. Even abused and misused in some fairly fundamental ways, high quality coffee can still be fun to drink! Certain things shouldn’t be messed with: weak coffee is weak coffee, no way around that. And most of the rest make a good deal of sense. It’s certainly possible to over or under-roast any coffee. The results may be interesting, but they are usually clearly not optimal. But cold coffee, and carefully reheated (you DO NOT want to boil it) coffee, even the next day, is better than bad coffee straight out of the pot!

Naturally Monsooned Bali

Monsooned coffees are kind of weird. The process is essentially one of exposing the processed beans to high humidity so that they gradually gain moisture, which causes them to swell and lose most of the high notes in their flavor. What results, if everything goes well, is a coffee with considerable body, and bitter, chocolatey flavors predominating.

These coffees are generally roasted fairly dark. There aren’t many aromatics to be lost and the darker roast accentuates the bitterness and chocolate. I find it refreshing as an occasional change from the sort of coffees I normally drink, and it also can work wonderfully as a blend with lighter, more floral coffees, or the wilder African coffees.

Sweet Maria’s says to let this one rest for three or four days. I’ll give it a try and report.

What is good coffee?

Good Coffee
Good Coffee
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.

Photo: Victor, at flickr. Adapted. License: CC-BY-2.0