What is Good Coffee?

Have you ever taken the time to think about coffee? Ask yourself questions like: does coffee even taste good? Where does it come from, really? Can it taste better than this bitter mud in my mug? Yeah, me neither… Not until a while back anyway. I used to think coffee was just coffee and that it came in light roast, medium, or dark. Dark being the most flavorful of the three of course! I was wrong, so very wrong.  In this post, I will give a brief overview of what goes into getting a good cup of coffee in your hand and how you can help the process along. If you want to jump straight to the facts scroll to the bottom to find out what it takes to make a good cup in four simple bullet points.

The Coffee Supply Chain

Coffee is not just coffee… It is a plant, a cherry, a seed. It’s a chain of many people growing, nurturing, and altering the product. It is hundreds of people caring for this seed in different far off countries near the equator. Farmers grow, clean, process, and package them. They take great lengths to ensure these seeds get across the land or the ocean via exporters or retailers to reach a warehouse filled with businessmen and laborers. These climate-controlled warehouses hold the beans safely so the businessmen can place orders. The laborers then ship these orders out to some guy with a man bun and a giant beard, wearing a flannel and leather apron. This dude, Man Bun Guy, probably having a vast knowledge of coffee origins (where the coffee came from), varietals (the different genetic variants of Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora commonly called Robusta), bean density, moisture content, and other fancy science stuff… throws these seeds into his roaster. Watching it very closely he records the sights, sounds, and smells while roasting the beans, all while measuring the time it takes this different sensory data to occur. When all the data makes sense to him after ten to fifteen minutes he decides it’s time to cool the bean. After it cools, he gets it packaged and shipped out to his lucky customers. At this point do we know if it’s good yet? No, probably not. What we do know.. it’s a process to get this far though.

What Coffee Are You Drinking, Arabica or Robusta?

It’s hard to say what good or bad coffee is. Coffee like anything is all about preference and it will be different for everyone. Don’t get me wrong if you drink a mass produced ground coffee in a tin or plastic can, to me, it probably tastes like pencil shavings, it is far too bitter, and it is in fact awful. This mass produced coffee you are drinking tastes bad because it is stale, and a Robusta more likely than not. A Robusta is one of the two consumable species of coffee. In most cases, it is the lowest grade of normally consumed coffee as far as flavor goes but highest in caffeine content. It is commonly used in low-grade mass produced coffees and as part of espresso blends giving that espresso you’re drinking an extra boost of caffeine. Arabica coffee beans are where you get into specialty grade coffee. You’ll normally find Arabica coffee ground or whole bean in nice little heat sealed bags. Most packaging will tell you what kind of bean you are getting and where from. Arabica is what I would consider “Good Coffee.” Like wine or beer tasting, really any snobbery there is a scale for rating coffee beans and Arabica beans normally sit atop.

Specialty Coffee is GOOD Coffee

The scale used in coffee grading is a point scale from 0-100. Specialty grade which is the best of the best when it comes to coffee falls in the 80-100 point range. Within here is where you’ll get light roasts with strong origin flavors such as floral notes, hints of citrus fruit, berries, melon, and really most any other flavor you can think of. You can find medium roasts where you get hints of those flavors from before with stronger caramelized sugar flavors such as chocolate and caramel itself. Dark roasts get into the bitter ashy flavors and further caramelized sugar, but can still hold onto a small amount of all the origin flavors mentioned before if a skilled roaster is in charge. The silly part is most coffee companies don’t say this here in your hand is a 90 point coffee unless you search on their website or are at a high-end coffee shop. Their packaging just lists things like hints of orange zest, caramel, and milk chocolate, if even that. Some of that coffee probably just tastes like vegetable soup or a regular can of mass-produced ground coffee. Now you’re wondering why you spent $19.99 on a bag of beans that promised notes of cherry, lemon, and chocolate when all you taste is grassy tea flavors or vegetable broth.

You Can’t Have Good Coffee Without Good Coffee Equipment

Coffee that tastes like vegetable soup could be underdeveloped (not roasted long enough or at high enough heat), but most likely it is not brewed properly.  This comes down to the equipment you use. If you’re brewing a $20 bag of specialty coffee in a $20 automatic coffee maker you are probably not getting a “Good” cup of coffee. Like most anything food related you need decent equipment that you know how to use to make it taste right. A $20 coffee maker won’t heat the water up enough to extract the good flavor from your expensive coffee. Now your expensive coffee tastes similar to your cheap coffee. You can get a decent automatic coffee maker at the low end of $100 dollars and it is well worth it if you love coffee.  If that’s too much you can get a french press or a manual pour over for closer to $20-$30. Having a nice burr grinder is very important when it comes to good coffee. Coffee stales and loses flavor quickly once it is ground so being able to grind whole beans at the time of brewing is very important for a “Good” cup. A kitchen scale is also important and will run you $20-$30. Accurately measuring just how much coffee you are adding each time can greatly help with cup flavor and consistency.

After all that blah blah above, I guess the difference to me between a good and bad cup of coffee isn’t dependent on whether it is a light, medium, or dark roast. I do in most cases prefer the bright characteristics of a light roast if you were to ask. A good cup of coffee boils down to a handful of things I’ll list for you:

  1. Fresh roasted specialty quality Arabica Coffee beans.

  2. A kitchen scale. Measure your beans before you grind them 1-2 grams per 1oz. of water. Measuring beans helps you consistently get a good flavorful cup of coffee if you have all the other components in place. If you don’t have a kitchen scale start off by using one coffee scoop or two level tablespoons of grounds per 6oz. of water then adjust from there until you get that cup that makes you happiest.

  3. A good coffee grinder. You can use cheap blade grinders and they’ll do the trick but if you want a noticeable difference and consistent grind size for even extraction, try a little more expensive automatic burr grinder or a hand crank burr grinder.

  4. Get a good coffee maker! Be it an automatic brewer, espresso maker, pour over, or french press. You can’t have a good cup of coffee if under-extracted coffee soup is coming out of your brewer! Make sure the water coming out of your automatic maker or kettle is HOT! You want the water contacting your fresh grounds to be between 195-205 Degrees F. The closer to 205 the better! Water quality is always an important factor as well.

If you’d like more information about green coffee, roasting, brewing, or cupping coffee click here or look at the bottom of the Our Method page.

Joe McAdams