Coffee isn’t just a commodity trade or daily staple; it’s a delicious drink with a long, rich history, and a flavor profile as diverse as wine. While you might not know the origins of your local diner’s finest, there’s a whole world of specialty coffee out there for you to explore.
Let’s look at how you can find a coffee you’ll love.
Commodity versus Specialty
There are broadly two kinds of coffee: commodity and specialty.
Commodity coffee is bought on the cheap by huge manufacturers who blend beans from any- and everywhere to produce a consistent product. You’ll find commodity coffee in diners and on supermarket shelves around the world.
Specialty coffee is bought in small lots by independent roasters who produce small batches of high-quality java. Generally, it’s sold either as single-origin (meaning all the beans are from a specific region or even a single farmer) or as a high-quality blend.
Most specialty cafes offer different options because, to them and their customers, coffee isn’t an indistinguishable black liquid. Rather, it’s a drink to be savored and variety is celebrated.
We’re focusing on exploring the world of specialty coffees here. If you want to work out which Nespresso pods you should get, just buy a selection and try them.
This article will help you identify the broad categories of coffee you enjoy most, so next time you walk into a new coffee shop, you’ll know what to look for.
Obviously, that’s still a bit simplistic, as it’s really more of a scale. Starbucks, for all the ire it receives, does care about quality and taste, even though it produces coffee on a larger scale than many commodity manufacturers.
Similarly, just because coffee comes from a single origin doesn’t mean it’s any good.
What Affects the Taste of Coffee?
Now that you’ve accepted that coffee isn’t merely a way to kick-start your day, but also a drink worth enjoying, let’s look at what creates the differences between any two cups.
There are two main species of coffee: coffea arabica (arabica), and coffea canephora (robusta). Arabica is delicious and Robusta is mass-produced dross grown only because it’s cheaper to farm at scale.
Virtually every specialty coffee you encounter is made from pure arabica. Even large-scale producers that care the smallest whit about quality, like Starbucks and McDonalds, exclusively use arabica beans. You can pretty much forget about robusta unless you buy a lot of instant coffee or espressos in Italy.
Within arabica coffee, there are dozens of other varieties, including bourbon, caturra, SL14, SL28, SL34, and typica. Each of these has its own unique characteristics. Suffice it to say, even at its rawest stage, there are distinctions between different coffees.
Where It’s Grown
Like wine, where coffee is grown matters—it has terroir. How much it rains, how warm it is, the quality of the soil, and pretty much every other environmental factor you can think of all play a role.
One of the biggest factors is the altitude. The higher the altitude at which a coffee is grown, the better it’s likely to taste. However, the yield will be lower due to the effect lower temperatures and oxygen levels have on the growth of the beans.
Some of the best coffees are grown at over 5,000 feet above sea level, while few specialty coffees are grown below 3,000 feet. In specialty coffee shops, you’ll often see the height at which a coffee was grown either in feet or MAS (meters above sea level) listed next to its origin.
Of course, it doesn’t just matter where a coffee is grown; how it’s grown is important, too.
The pesticides and fertilizers a farmer uses, how far apart the plants are spaced, and how often they’re tended all matter in the final cup.
For one big example, let’s just look at how coffee is picked. Mechanical pickers are significantly faster than picking by hand. However, they can’t distinguish between perfectly ripe, or over- or underripe coffee—they just pick everything. The farmer can sort them out later, but it’s likely the final batch is going to be a mix.
When people pick coffee by hand, they can choose the perfectly ripe cherries, and leave the underripe on the plant for another few days. This way, the farmer can guarantee a higher quality final product, but at the cost of a lot more effort.
Every single decision a coffee farmer makes can have this same level of effect.
Coffee doesn’t just come off the plant and right into your cup—it has to be processed. The coffee bean is actually inside a fruity cherry that has to be removed. The two main methods of removing it are natural or washed processing.
In natural processing, the coffee beans are spread on beds to dry in the sun. They’re turned regularly to stop mold or rot. Once they’re properly dry, the cherries and beans are separated mechanically.
A machine called a depulper removes most of the cherry during washed processing. The beans are then soaked in water to ferment, which removes the rest of the fruit. The now-separated beans are then spread out to dry in the sun.
How a coffee is processed is one of the biggest factors affecting how it tastes. We tried the same beans processed by both methods and the two cups tasted completely different. Natural processing tends to leave a fruitier flavor, while the result from the washed process tastes more acidic.
Neither processing method is superior, although you’ll likely prefer one over the other.
Once it’s processed, “green” coffee is packed into jute sacks and sold to roasters worldwide. It’s likely a few of your local coffee shops roast their coffee themselves. It has to be done close to the point of sale, though, as coffee is at its best within a week or two after it’s roasted.
How long, at what temperature, and to what degree a coffee is roasted all matter in that final cup. So, a roaster has some big decisions to make.
The easiest is how light or dark to roast a coffee. A lot of the burnt, bitter taste people associate with coffee is mainly due to a dark roast. Lighter roasts tend to have a more pleasant flavor, but they’re also harder to keep consistent and brew well.
The same as almost anything else, it’s a trade-off.
The best coffee beans in the world can be ruined by a bad barista. However, a world champion barista working with bad coffee can only serve you perfectly brewed bad coffee.
The brewer controls all of the following aspects:
- The brew method used
- The filtering method used
- The water temperature
- The ratio of water to ground coffee used
- How coarsely the coffee is ground
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Whew! So, that was a lot. In most cases, though, your major options when it comes to specialty coffee will be the following:
- Where the coffee is grown.
- Whether it’s washed or naturally processed.
- How it’s brewed.
For example, in one of our local coffee shops, you can choose a washed Ethiopian or a natural Colombian, and both are brewed as a pour-over.
Of course, if you go out of your way and try different coffee shops, you’ll be able to sample a wider variety of coffee, which is exactly what we recommend!
Now that you understand the broad factors that affect the flavor of different cups, visit the different coffee shops near you and talk to the baristas. Let them know what you’ve liked in the past, and what you have and haven’t tried, and they’ll be able to guide your choices.
Over time, you’ll develop an understanding of the different characteristics of coffee and discover which kinds you like best.
Learn to Brew Consistently
Sampling different coffees at coffee shops is only the beginning, though. If you really want to expand your palette, you’ll have to order some different coffees from roasters. To do that, you need to be able to reliably brew great coffee.
One option is to practice cupping, which is how coffee is officially tested at every step of the process, from plant to mug. Unfortunately, cupping doesn’t really make for a nice cup of coffee. You can taste everything, but because the grounds are left to steep in the cup, it’s not exactly something you’ll want to sip every day.
Instead, you can check out different brewing methods and pick the one that works best for you. We prefer pour-over, but French press is the easiest. You’ll also need a decent grinder and coffee scales.
No matter how good you get, there’ll still be some slight differences between the coffees you brew. However, at least you’ll know you’re not ruining your coffee. This will allow you to trust what you’re tasting as you dial in what you like. After all, no one likes horrendously under-extracted coffee!
Some Final Considerations
Now that you have all the info you need to start exploring specialty coffee, here are some final tips to keep in mind:
- Taste around: If there’s a coffee you haven’t tried at the local cafe, get down there now!
- Talk to the baristas: They’re coffee people and will be happy to help you.
- Learn to make great coffee at home: It’s worth the time because it’ll save you money and guarantee you good coffee every day.
- Buy as many diverse single origins as possible: The smaller the origin area, the better. It’s also fun to find the farm that grew your coffee on Google Maps.
- Re-try coffees you didn’t like at first: Your taste will change as you try more varieties.
- Don’t become a coffee snob: It’s great to appreciate different coffees, but you should still be able to chug a mug of the gas station’s finest when that’s all that’s available.
With a little bit of knowledge and time spent tasting different coffee and brewing methods, you’re sure to find your perfect cup!