If you ask any random group of people, “what is ‘good coffee’?,” you’re going to get extremely varied answer each time. Not just because there are so many varieties, origins, ways of farming, harvesting, roasting, and of course brewing and serving coffee, but simply because—like anything in life—what constitutes “good coffee” is really all about perception and a person’s individual preferences.
I still know quite a few people that remain very firmly and proudly planted in a “best part of waking up” first-wave devotion, and that to them is good coffee; to which I say without any judgement whatsoever: drink what you like and what makes you happy.
If, however, you find yourself even somewhat like me: the nerdy type who lives and breathes coffee like a religion, then you may be a bit more interested in taking a deeper dive into the details about what makes “good coffee” good.
Quality is absolutely number one when it comes to coffee. The highest level of quality is categorized as specialty coffee. Specialty coffees are distinctive because they are grown in ideal climates around the world with varying types of soil compositions and have little to no defects, which result in unique flavors and special characteristics. (RELATED: 22 Unique Coffee flavors)
Specialty coffee beans are graded, similarly to wine, using a 100 point scale that was developed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). Any coffee bean that is rated at 80 and above on this scale is considered specialty. Here at Cafe Virtuoso, we very strictly adhere to SCAA standards and take it a step further by not even looking to purchase coffee beans unless they have a minimum score of 84, in addition to being certified organic.
If good coffee and quality are important to you, it’s worth asking your favorite roaster/cafe what is their minimum quality specification when sourcing the coffee they serve.
As you probably are already very aware, coffee is extremely complex and also very delicate. If even just one miniscule teeny-tiny little thing goes wrong in any part of the process of getting the coffee from the farm to your cup, it can have devastating results in how it tastes. On top of that, if you don’t keep coffee fresh, all of that hard work and effort is for nothing.
The best way to ensure freshness of your coffee is to buy from a local roaster, which means it was likely roasted in the past few days or weeks. Fresh coffee is considered anything that has been roasted in the past 0-3 weeks (most ideal within 14 days) and has been vacuum sealed in an airtight bag. Once you expose coffee to oxygen, it immediately starts the degradation process of the beans, which means a loss in flavor and freshness.
Additionally, coffee roasters who take a seasonal approach to buying beans from specific regions when their coffee is in season ensures that the coffee is at its peak for flavor and freshness. Similarly, we all know that fresh berries at the farmer’s market in the summer taste very different than those you buy when they’re out of season in the winter.
Roasting coffee in and of itself is one of the most complicated processes and greatly impacts the types of flavors that are extracted from the coffee. It takes years of experience and a keen understanding of each coffee variety and its unique characteristics to be able to roast it to bring out the distinct flavor profiles rather than diminish them.
More on roasting later in future blog posts, as I could easily go down any number of rabbit holes with this topic.
So, you have a highly-rated and nicely-roasted specialty coffee from a local roaster. Now comes the task of brewing it properly at home to extract all the goodness and not affect the flavor negatively. Here are three basic best practices for brewing:
- Use a burr grinder so that the coffee is ground evenly. Uneven grinds causes bitterness and undesirable flavors to result in the brewing process.
- Use filtered water to get rid of chlorine and harsh minerals. Nobody wants the taste of bleach in your morning cup. Additionally, never used distilled water. Distilled removes all minerals, which some minerals left in water help bring out the full flavor profile of coffee.
- Heat the water to somewhere between 195 – 205 degree. If the water is too cold, the coffee will become astringent and under extracted. Too hot and it will burn the coffee and become bitter.
Coffee is the second most widely-traded commodity in the world after crude oil, which goes to show that it’s pretty much a major staple in almost every society. At the end of the day, despite all of the factors that go into what constitutes a good cup of coffee based on specific processes and ratings, what really matters when judging coffee is ultimately how it tastes to you and whether or not you consider it good.