5 factors of great-tasting coffee

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<Coffee for the Average Josh, Part 4 of 10>

Why does your coffee taste like it does, and how can you make it even better?

In approaching such a question, a more sophisticated coff-icionado than myself may start with the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel. Containing 110 attributes of flavor, scent and mouthfeel, this circle is used by professional tasters to describe our mutual friend, Joe — from fruity to floral, from smoky to skunky.

Two quick things to note before moving on to a more “square peg” approach to flavor wheeling:

1. Yes, I said “skunky.”

True story: At official coffee-tasting events — or “cuppings” —organizers prepare ahead of time to help attendees properly grade particular flavor profiles. If a coffee’s “skunkiness” is to be measured at the event, a pair of latex balloons will be stuffed in a 2-ounce glass jar and stored at room temperature days in advance. In order to properly grade potentially skunky coffee, tasters first unscrew the snifter and whiff the balloons. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Why not just trap Pepé Le Pew in the corner of the room and see what happens? Apparently, the tiny, resealable jars are better at preventing comingling scents and regulating aromatic intensities.

2. Yes, I said “professional taster.”

Before you check the want ads, understand this is not the type of job your mother will brag to her friends about. As a professional taster, you are expected to:

  • Spit coffee back out: To keep from over-caffeinating — and probably to curtail bathroom breaks — professional tasters hoick brown liquid like outlaws in a Wild West saloon.
  • Slurp loudly from spoons: In a bit of an Oliver Twist, professional coffee events sound a lot like soup night at the orphanage. (“Please, sir, I want some more.”) Why? Slurping heightens both taste and aroma. It’s why people with poor manners are more likely to enjoy Top Ramen.
  • Become a certified “Q Grader”: Mom won’t be fooled. This is well below an F average.

Conclusion: Go ahead and explore a taste wheel if you like that kind of thing. Attend a cupping and read about flavor profiles if that’s fun for you. But unless you possess a once-in-a-generation palate, don’t deviate down the skunk-strewn track of professional coffee tasting.

Day in and day out, the most important thing for a coffee commoner like you and me is not to taste everything, but to taste our favorite thing.

Here are five flavor factors that — when understood — pave the pathway to consistently sipping coffee you love.

1. Begin with the bean

The starting point for flavor is in its origin. If the bean grew up in the Quindio region of Colombia, it may taste balanced with a hint of chocolate. Yirgacheffe coffee from Ethiopia is famously fruity with a floral aroma. The punchy, earthy taste of Indonesian Sumatran coffee enjoys a zealous following.

While many coffee brands feature blends from more than one region, if you experience a cup you particularly enjoy, it’s worth identifying where it came from. Chances are, other coffees from that region will similarly delight your palate.

Of course, the flavor of the bean is impacted by other factors as well that were covered in previous posts. People typically prefer the taste of an Arabica bean harvested by hand at peak ripeness then prepared for shipping through the “washed process.”

2. The roast-est with the most-est

As a former newspaper publisher, coffee roasters remind me of printing presses in an important way. I once switched from a vendor with state-of-the-art equipment to one with a rickety old machine on its last legs. Sound backwards? Maybe, but my newspaper never looked better.

What I learned can be applied to coffee roasting: A knowledgeable operator is more important than the quality of the tool in his hands. Roasting coffee is a skill earned through talent, study and experience. Great coffee can be produced at a light, medium or dark roast. As a general rule, if you like a sweeter, complex taste with a strong aroma, you will enjoy a lighter roast coffee. The darker the roast, the stronger — but typically less complicated — the flavor profile.

But these flavors can be ruined a dozen different ways. Roast too long or too short or at the wrong temperature, and you can destroy all of a bean’s flavor-packed potential. The operator matters — a lot!

But the opposite is also true: If I dropped off a file of chicken-scratched gobbledygook to my printer, the pressman won’t be able to turn it into the Sunday edition of the New York Times, no matter how good he is. What you are looking for is coffee beans you will love in the hands of a roaster who is dialed in to your tastes.

3. Fresh tastes best

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big proponent of limp lettuce. If I’m debating between a stalk of romaine and green leaf, I’m choosing the one that looks and feels freshest.

Why not take similar care when selecting a sister plant, your coffee beans? I know, I know — coffee freshness is harder to spot. But it has a major impact on flavor, so consider the following tips:

  • Look for roast dates: Coffee is a fickle beast. It tastes best with rest — but not too much. Experts debate the exact timeframe, so let’s keep it general. Wait a couple-four days after roasting to enjoy it, and consume it as long as you don’t notice a drop-off in taste — ideally within a month but longer if stored properly.
  • Wait to grind the beans: Coffee loses flavor more quickly after it’s ground, so buy whole bean coffee when brewing at home. Burr grinders are best for achieving a uniform grind size — another factor to dial in that greatly influences coffee’s taste.
  • Don’t freeze, nuke or abandon: It’s best to buy the coffee you need and prepare it when you’re ready to enjoy it. There’s a reason coffee that is microwaved or sampled after a day sitting on the warmer at the office doesn’t taste fresh. It’s not.  

4. Pay attention to the main ingredient

Did you know at-home coffee brewed through a filter is more than 98 percent water? Why would we expect to achieve great-tasting coffee without first-class water?

True, some parts of the planet are blessed with excellent tap water. In other places, filtered or bottled water is imperative to achieving great-tasting coffee.

When you think about it, the impact water quality has on coffee quality makes perfect sense. After all, I bet you could identify a latte made using nonfat milk versus one made with whole, oat or almond milk.

Finally, pay attention to the temperature of the main ingredient. If you are really trying to dial in taste, the temperature of your water (or milk) influences the taste and should differ depending on your brewing method.

5. Brew for you

I keep a long-emptied bag of Caribou Coffee in my office. Whenever I spot it, I smile. One of my favorite coffee memories was a Turtle Mocha Kim and I shared in the Minneapolis airport on our honeymoon.

More than two decades letter, the Turtle Mocha is still on the menu at the ‘Bou. I don’t really prefer it any longer, but I still order it sometimes. Its flavor profile includes strong notes of reminiscence.

Another “Coffee Josh,” my friend Josh Jensen, calls this the “experiential factor — the epic trip to the coast watching the fog burn off while sipping a cup of the local café’s house sludge with your arm around your bride.”

There is a complexity to flavor preferences that runs far deeper than one’s sense of taste. Far from something to be ashamed of, it may well be the most important flavor factor to embrace.

“Oddly enough, I like Folgers from a percolator every now and then,” Josh added. “It brings back wonderful, nostalgic memories about my uncle and grandpa.”

For the love of coffee, I’m grateful some undertones can’t be defined by the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel.


Next week: 10 ways to take your coffee

This is the fourth in a 10-part series, “Coffee for the Average Josh,” releasing Fridays this fall. Get your fix of Coffee 101 by signing up to receive an email when the next post drops.

Previous:

  1. Where do coffee babies come from? (Oct. 2, 2020)
  2. Growing up on the coffee farm (Oct. 9, 2020)
  3. 3 reasons to pay more for your coffee (Oct. 16, 2020)
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