Coffee basics

by on September 29, 2006

Coffee & Conservation is all about helping consumers make the right choice when it comes to picking great coffee that is good for the environment.  Coffee reviews are by regular folks using, we hope, understandable language and ordinary techniques.  Still, it seems like it would be helpful to have a post that provides links to definitions of some of our terms, and how-to’s on making coffee.  This is that post!

Roast levels
Coffee retailers use a lot of terms to describe the roast color/level of their coffee.  Many Americans are used to a fairly dark roast (the place isn’t called “Charbucks” for nothin’). Dark roasts can overwhelm the delicate flavors of some beans, or caramelize sugars and lend a hearty smokiness.

Here at C&C, we try to provide the roast level indicated by the retailer, and then describe the color and whether or not oils are present on the surface of the beans.  Here are some guides to roast levels:


Grinding

Grinding is probably the most neglected step in coffee preparation.  Ground coffee gets stale in a hurry, and to really enjoy coffee, you have to have fresh beans that you grind before you make the coffee.  It is the simplest single thing to do to vastly improve your enjoyment of coffee.

Coffee grounds must be uniform at a fineness appropriate to your brewing method in order to have proper contact between coffee and water so that essential oils and flavors are released.  Blade (“whirly”) grinders grind unevenly.  Burr grinders are better.

At C&C we always grind our coffee immediately before preparation (2 tablespoons of ground coffee per 6 ounce cup), with either a decent blade or burr grinder.

Brewing methods
There are plenty of ways to make coffee.  For our reviews, we nearly always start off with a press pot (French press) to bring out all the flavors of a coffee.  We also try the coffee brewed, in a typical, middle-of-the-road drip coffee maker (like most people have at home) using unbleached paper or a gold filter. Occasionally, we also use an Aeropress or Eva Cafe Solo. Here is the low-down on these methods:

  • French press. Water just off a boil is poured over freshly ground coffee, steeped for about 4 minutes, after which a mesh plunger is pressed down, separating the grounds from the coffee.
  • Automatic drip.  Ground coffee is placed in a filter basket, and water drips through it.  Good coffee makers heat water to the proper temperature, distribute the water evenly over the grounds, and deliver the water at a speed that insures proper exposure time.  Because the water is in contact for such a brief time and the filter removes particulates (and even oils, in the case of a paper filter), coffee from a drip pot is clean and mild.  Temperature is a key component in this method — most cheap pots don’t heat the water hot enough (190-200 degree F).
  • Eva Cafe Solo. Another immersion method, but the grounds and the beans stay in contact, and the coffee is poured through a mesh filter in the neck of the brewer.
  • Aeropress by Aerobie. A small device that forces the water through the coffee and a filter using air pressure, producing very smooth, full-bodied coffee in about a minute.

This web site provides links to instructions for all the above methods and more from many of the world’s best roasters.

Coffee flavors
One reason we began doing reviews at C&C was that we just didn’t “get” reviews at some other sites.  Personally, I could not fathom tasting brandied tomatoes or Meyer lemon in my coffee. Other sites were too general, or liked every coffee they tasted.  We try to strike a balance here at C&C, as best we can as regular folks, considering taste is pretty subjective.

Still, there are some commonalities and standards in coffee flavors.  Here are some great overviews and tutorials.

Those are some of the basics. There are also posts here on botanical varieties of coffee, as well as a link to variations in coffee taste by growing region.  If there’s anything else you’d like to see added to this post, just leave a comment.

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Revised on March 23, 2014

Posted in Background information

frelkins October 1, 2006 at 1:34 pm

if you are interested in coffee tasting — sensory evaluation — i encourage you to pursue it seriously. this means reading lingle's cupping handbook, attending cuppings with professionals, and studying jean lenoir's nez du cafe.

the latter is so helpful! many aromas that once seemed elusive in coffee begin to sing out once you've trained a little bit with the nez.

on the other hand, some people — apparently mainly men — are just "nontasters." they may have allergies or genetic situations that prevent them from being able to taste. this is why the scaa developed the sensory evaluation.

coffee tasting appears to be something that many women excel at, and all coffee pros will tell you that trained women can taste coffee more accurately and for longer in their lives than most men.

altho' some people, like don schoenholt of gillies, are born with "perfect taste," the equivalent of musical "perfect pitch," most pros are not. coffee tasting is an acquired skill you have to work at with earnestness and discipline.

just as gymnasts train to improve and maintain their flexibility, work hard to learn routines and body patterns, so must coffee tasters work to develop scent memory and cupping skills.

but just as you can train yourself to do a backflip if you work hard and have a good coach, so you can train yourself to taste coffee, by attending cuppings, studying the lenoir, and finding a coffee professional to help.

it is really is like becoming a sommelier. you have to study, study, study and be prepared to work! good luck!

BirdBarista October 1, 2006 at 4:20 pm

Great advice, Fortune. We didn't expect to have learned as much as we have already; I am pretty good at picking out region or origin for instance, and have acquired a real appreciation of lighter roasts. This has been, and continues to be, a great adventure!

jankdc October 14, 2006 at 12:24 am

What about the Toddy cold brew system?
http://www.toddycafe.com/

BirdBarista October 14, 2006 at 9:17 am

I haven't tried it. Sounds like something I'll have to get around to.

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