Coffee 101: Basics of the BrewIf you’re still drinking Folgers and K Cups, listen up! There’s a lot more to experience in the wide world of coffee, and getting into it doesn’t have to be fussy or expensive. In this Part One of a multipart series on coffee, Cody Miller walks you through the basics of selecting beans and brewing a proper cup of joe.
By: Cody Miller, BLOC Staff Coach
Like our beloved whiskey, it takes more than education to fully appreciate and understand coffee. In fact, sipping a cup of black coffee is one of life’s rare and mysterious experiences that grows to ever increasing satisfaction the more you practice. Most of us don’t immediately enjoy the flavor (or smell) of highly aged cheese, beer or whiskey on the first date. It’s a relationship. One that needs to be nurtured and developed to reach it’s full potential. Things are also unlikely to start out hot and steamy with your fresh cup of joe but suffocating it with milk and sugar is only going to land you a mediocre prospect. When it comes to good coffee, you have to pay attention to the little things. There’s a better chance of polishing a turd than masterfully brewing a delicious cup of Folger’s coffee so let’s present a brief and “watered down” lesson on nature’s masterfully crafted pre-workout beverage.
While whiskey involves the fermentation of corn, rye, wheat, barley or any combination thereof, coffee is popularly made from either Arabica or robusta beans. These “beans” are literally seeds from berries that grow on Coffea plants thriving across the equatorial regions of the world (Africa, Hawaii, South America, etc). The less palatable robusta seeds provide a more aggressive, bitter and harsher taste but they contain more caffeine and are much more affordable due to less demanding cultivation. Many of the popular supermarket brands will at least blend in robusta coffee to keep costs lower while also providing some body and strength to the flavor. Arabica producing trees require higher altitudes, longer aging, and more selective environmental conditions to thrive. They are a bit more expensive but usually present a more interesting flavor profile that is sweeter, softer and satisfyingly acidic. Tasting notes of sugar, chocolate, fruit, floral tea and wine are common but it largely depends on the region the beans are grown.
Without getting too detailed, coffee grown in Africa will generally be more fruity, pleasantly acidic and fragrantly floral. A naturally processed Ethiopian coffee is a great option for starting the venture into the world of specialty coffee. Roasted and brewed properly, the acidity is tame and the notes of blueberry are unmistakable. The wash processed variant is very similar to floral tea (for you tea lovers). Rwandan coffee is also very fruity and although the tasting notes are often more unusual and less approachable to newcomers, Kenyan coffee is fantastic.
Central American coffee tends to have a more mild, balanced and familiar taste with less overpowering flavors. They are often sweet and chocolaty. Guatemalan beans are consistently the most interesting with complex fragrance and apple-like acidity but most countries have unique and atypical offerings if you look hard enough and research farmers.
South America provides the world’s most recognizable flavor profile due to hosting two of the three top producing countries. Caramel-like sweetness with a nutty undertone is the generic expectation of Colombian coffee but it can be just as complex and creative as those from Africa. Search for marketing of cola, vanilla and cherry notes if you want to spice things up.
Indonesia offers a very strong, earthy flavor from countries like Sumatra and Java but they typically lack the acidity and complexity that most find palatable. Single-origin Hawaiian coffee is a treat but it’s more difficult to come across, routinely costs $30-40/Ib and must not be mistaken with “Kona blends”. The same goes for Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. Frauds are even falsely labeling generic coffee with these highly regarded names.
A quick note on “Single Origin”: This term infers that the beans are from a very specific region of the world. For example, instead of blending and balancing a brighter African coffee with a sweet and darker Central American coffee, single-origin coffee highlights only the unique characteristics that one particular region has to offer. Although there isn’t a right or wrong way of going about it, it is very adventurous and interesting to compare coffee from various parts of the world week to week. One can quickly start to distinguish between Ethiopian, Kenyan, Colombian and Sumatran coffee.
After the berries are harvested, the seeds are extracted, fermented, dried and milled. Roasting is then necessary to transform these green seeds into the beautiful brown beans that the world loves to grind up and mate with nearly boiling water. This is the stage where the flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel can be manipulated the most by the consumer. In fact, folks like our very own Karl Schudt have taken up the hobby of roasting at home in an attempt to dial in these specific and subjective characteristics. This is the true beauty of coffee. The trendy specialty coffee shop down the street may brew some of the brightest and most wonderfully acidic light-roasted coffee whereas traditional Italians are prioritizing balance, body, and crema by blending darkly roasted robusta beans into their espresso.
Roasting effects lie on a spectrum; the most lightly roasted beans maintain the characteristics contributed by the origin’s environment while the darkest roast is characterized by the flavor and aroma of the roasting process itself. Lighter roasts have a lighter body/mouthfeel, higher acidity, and very little roast flavor. Medium roasts express a fair amount of origin character yet with greater body, more sugar, and muted acidity. Choosing your favorite roast will take some experimentation but it’s highly recommended to venture into the realm of light and medium roasts if you have been disappointed with mainstream coffee in the past.
Coffee is mostly water so it should be obvious that your H2O should taste better than a penny yet somehow this is usually the variable that becomes less prioritized. Simply filtering tap water would be the minimum effective upgrade but here is the very detailed criteria recommended by the Specialty Coffee Association of America if you want to geek out.
Bottled spring water can get you closer to ideal but the most optimal home-brewing solution would involve purchasing a product called Third Wave Water (or similar). For basically an additional dollar, you can transform a gallon of distilled water into a perfectly balanced environment of minerals for superior coffee. These fellas actually landed a $100,000 investment through the reality television show “Shark Tank” not too long ago and purchasing the product quickly eliminated my skepticism.
Brewing coffee is ironically similar to the way we program strength training at Barbell Logic Online Coaching. There is a set of variables that must be experimented with and finely tuned in order to create the desired result. One begins with a collection of both empirical and anecdotal evidence but must be attentive and responsive to the individual variances that arise. Put simply, brewing the perfect cup of coffee requires systematic yet simple experimentation. Start with an intelligent hypothesis, experience the finished product and adjust one variable at a time until you are satisfied. The scientist in me LOVES this and that’s exactly why pour-over drip coffee is so intriguing. There is a laundry list of other brew methods (automatic drip, French press, AeroPress) that can be perfected into a consistently delicious cup but there is something very gratifying about mastering a particular coffee with baker-like precision. The ten-minute break in the kitchen becomes an artistic experience that provides a recharging mental recess for the rest of the day.
To get started, you will need to purchase some equipment but we are going to save that for part two of this installment. We will list recommendations for a gooseneck kettle, bean grinder, measuring scale, and pour-over apparatus while also taking you step by step through the process of brewing a consistent and tasty cup. Until then, start experimenting at your local coffee shop. Cycle through the various regions of the world, refine your pallet and pay close attention to what you like and don’t like. If you don’t have a local shop, purchase some online and brew it up any way you know-how! The key is just getting started.