Don’t Know S**t About Coffee? Here Is a Guide to a Better Brew

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We should face, first off, that most people suck at coffee. There is simply too much going on in the world to be a pro at everything, so there is no shame in this. Most of us get to be good at just a few things, and maybe great at a couple. The majority of stuff, we are okay at — the rest, we suck.

Broadly speaking, this is okay — it is, after all, the natural order of things — but there are some unfortunate consequences of the fact that we are sometimes (usually) actually pretty bad at things we do all the time. Things like selecting and preparing coffee. First, for the record, we are not here to argue that you should vacuum brew your morning cup of Joe or that you should only drink coffee brewed from beans grown 4,500 feet above sea level on micro-farms in Kenya. The mission is more fundamental.

A majority of adult Americans drink more than one cup of coffee every day — nearly a quarter of us drink more than 13 or more cups per week — and many people sell themselves short. Many people don’t know enough about coffee, this thing they put into their bodies every single day to really enjoy it as much as they can (as much as they should be, we would argue). So the mission is this: learn enough about coffee so that people can maximize their enjoyment of this thing they drink every day. (If you don’t drink coffee, apparently it has a bunch of health benefits, so check that out.)

The nice thing about the word “perfect” is that it’s subjective. If the best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup, then rock on. As long as you made an informed choice, we are not here to change your mind — but, believe it or not, many people have no idea what they are doing when they set about making a decision about what coffee to buy. Light or dark? Beans or pre-ground? Do I want beans from Columbia, Brazil, or India? Does it matter if my coffee beans were grown more than 4,500 feet above sea level? Here’s some information.

The Roast

Broadly speaking, there are three types of roasts: light, medium, and dark. As you may be able to intuit, the longer a bean is roasted (they start out green) the darker it gets. As with any roasting process, the longer something roasts, the more it changes. Here are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about what roast you want.

Un-roasted, green coffee beans are very acidic. The acidity of the bean will decline the longer it is roasted, meaning lighter roasts are more acidic, and darker roasts are less acidic. The other side of the coin with this reaction is that lighter roasts will be less bitter compared to darker roasts, which tend to be more bitter.

The so-called “brightness” of the bean also declines the longer it is roasted. By this, we don’t mean its physical shine or sheen (in fact, dark roasts tend to look slick and shiny compared to lighter roasts.) Brightness roughly equates to the profile of unique tastes that a bean acquires thanks to where it was grown. We’ll get into this a bit more later, but a bean grown in Columbia will brew coffee that tastes different than a bean grown in India. These differences will be most noticeable in lighter roasts.

If you find yourself hanging out with coffee aficionados at any point in the near future, keep in mind that there is a trend towards serving origin-specific coffees, often made with a single type of bean from a single farm. Like tea leaves or wine grapes, coffee beans change with soil type, climate type, variable seasonal effects — a thousand different things that can change the way the coffee tastes. To capitalize on the moment, consider a light roast.

As roasting continues, beans gain “body,” which is another nebulous term that has no straightforward definition. The longer the roast, though, the more the roasting itself will determine the flavor of the coffee, and the less distinct those origin-specific qualities will become. Generally speaking, large operations like Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) serve dark roasts, which is a way to implement a degree of consistently (not necessarily quality control) over the coffee it sells, because the beans can often produce such different flavors if lightly roasted. Fun fact: lighter roasts also tend to contain more caffeine than darker roasts.

Origin Stories

As mentioned, coffee grown in different regions yield different flavors. The top coffee producing countries in the world are Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, India, Ethiopia, Honduras, Peru, Guatemala, and Mexico — and generally in that order in terms of volume. It’s all broad strokes when talking about flavors native to various regions, and getting to know coffees by geography is a task for the committed. For the average consumer, where the bean was grown won’t come up.

For the curious, other factors that affect the taste of coffee but won’t come up in most retail settings are elevation, how the bean was processed (there are two primary methods, both beyond the scope of this article), and whether or not the bean was shade grown. Once again, if you find yourself with aficionados and out of your league, describe the flavors you are looking for, and someone will brew to taste.

A note on vocabulary: The terminology of taste is a little hard to grasp, but for coffee there are a few key words that everybody should know in case you ever need to describe the type of coffee you want. Coffee will fall somewhere on a spectrum of acidity and bitterness (one or the other, usually). If you find yourself needing to describe a coffee preference, be sure to include whether you lean towards or away from acidity or bitterness. Common flavor notes in coffee are: chocolate, fruits, spices, nuts, and floral tastes.

Species

There are two primary species of coffee grown for commercial consumption: arabica and robusta. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but arabica beans generally produce a better cup of coffee than robusta beans. Most canned, pre-ground coffee is made from robusta beans, where as arabica will populate the shelves of artisan coffee shops. These are broad generalities, though. What determines the actual quality of the coffee really boils down to a variety of smaller factors that are in the hands of the individual growers.

To Pre-Grind or Not To Pre-Grind?

The last major factor to consider when selecting coffee is whether or not you want to buy whole bean or get pre-ground coffee. If you are at a higher-end cafe, you will notice that the barista will grind the beans on the spot and immediately brew the coffee. This is because whole beans store flavor longer than ground coffee does. Sealed in a container, a bean can hold its flavor on the shelf for up to 9 months, where as ground coffee will hold flavor for only 5 months.

However, once coffee is ground the oils begin to evaporate much more rapidly, which can cause a quick change in flavor. Coffee aficionados will be able to tell if the beans used in a brew were ground right before the coffee was prepared, or the day before. So, generally speaking, if you want to maximize flavor, grind on site, and right before brewing.

Don’t Miss: 6 Surprising Health Benefits of Coffee.

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