I drank – and made – a lot of coffee in 2015. Most of it was good – but not all of it. However, none of it was wasted effort – the activity resulted in a lot of delicious coffee, but more importantly I learned a few lessons along the way. And while I’m definitely not a coffee EXPERT, I’ve manged to pick up a few things that I’d like to share with you. Maybe these nuggets will help you with your own coffee adventures in 2016.
Coffee Lesson 1: To Each His Own – Don’t Be a “Coffee Snob”
They say the best cup of coffee is the one you like. I’m not a big fan of the idea of a “coffee snob.” If you like “fancy coffee” then great, good for you. If you like coffee from McDonald’s, ok fine – that might not be for me, but if you like it then still good for you. We should all come to an agreement – people who like, say, pourovers made with organic Guatemalan beans, shouldn’t look down on the convenience store coffee people, and people who make 3 gallons of Folgers in the morning shouldn’t hassle those who refuse to make coffee with beans ground more than 5 minutes before the coffee is prepared.
Easier said than done, I know. And yes, this article is directed more towards those who might lean towards the side of appreciating coffee as an art, but still. It’s just like world peace – it’s something we can keep in mind, and strive towards. One big happy coffee family… One Coffee Love.
All that said, there are still certain qualities that make a coffee “good” or “not quite so good” or maybe even “awful”…
Lesson 2: Do Your Homework and Ask Your Barista 3 Questions
When looking for coffee shops to try, it pays to do some homework ahead of time. It’s a fine line – we don’t want to forget Lesson #1, but I also need to be honest and say that there are often signs you can look for to tell if you’re going to get a “good” coffee or espresso drink.
For example: just because someplace gets a 4.8 on Yelp doesn’t mean the coffee is good – I’ve seen reviewers giving someplace 5 stars because “the wi-fi is great” or “loved the donuts.” So you can’t necessarily go by reviews.
And if the shop’s web site refers to their drink as “expresso,” I would definitely pass it up…
There are also 3 basic questions you should ask the barista before ordering:
1. How many ounces is [insert your drink of choice here]?
If they don’t know, you can’t get an idea of how “milky” your latte or cappuccino will be. Proportions vary WILDLY.
2. What type of beans are they using?
If they don’t know the brand or type of roast their beans are, this is a Very Bad Sign. If they can tell you what they’re pouring without looking at the bag, this is a Very Good Sign.
3. Do they offer a money back guarantee?
I don’t think you can really ask this but if the answers to questions 1 and 2 scare me enough, I’d consider it…
TRUE STORY: This actually happened this week:
I’m visiting my Dad’s, and we wanted to go to the local bookstore so we figured we might as well try the coffee while we were there. I checked the espresso machine – a Rancillio. I’ve heard of that before, so that was a good sign. The smallest cappuccino was 12 ounces – bad sign. Usually they’re around 6 oucnes. Then I asked what type of beans they were using and the barista said it was “an espresso blend, from Costco I think.” THIS WAS A HUGE HAIRY RED FLAG. But she assured me it was good, nothing like Starbucks. OK I felt a little better. THEN she went on to tell me that unlike Starbucks who just presses a button to make their espresso, her shop actually “grinds the beans and mashes them in by hand.” Meaning, they grind and then tamp the grounds into the portafilter, to use in the espresso machine. (For a quick example of grinding and tamping, see this video).
I should have run screaming from the building. No one who calls it “mashing” should be allowed to work behind an espresso machine, Lesson #1 be damned.
Needless to say it was awful and I couldn’t finish it.
Lesson 3: Take Your Time Making Your Coffee
If you’re going to make your own espresso or drip coffee, don’t rush the process. Part of the enjoyment of a real cup of coffee is the experience of preparing it. It adds to the satisfaction and the deliciousness when you’re done and you get to sit down and enjoy your artistry.
Lesson 4: Invest in Good Equipment
An artist needs the proper tools, there’s just no way to get around this fact. To make good coffee, you need not only high quality beans, but also a good grinder, a proper kettle, and a good dripper. You can go crazy with other accessories (see Lesson #5) but you can always just stick to the basics. To see some basic tools that I use / recommend, go here.
Have you ever heard the term GIGO? It applies to coffee.
Lesson 5: Choose Your Level of Geek.
Coffee is like wine. Or cheese. Or whiskey. Or beer. It’s a hobby / food-drink that has infinite varieties and an unlimited amount of accessories, tools, internet forums, books, t-shirts, events, etc… you can see where I’m going. Where there are enthusiasts, there is a Rabbit Hole, and you can decide how far down that rabbit hole you want to travel. Some people manage to dabble; others of us get lost…
Lesson 6: Choose Your Level of Adventure
This relates slightly to Lesson #5. There are many countries that grow coffee, there are many different ways to grow it, harvest it, dry it, process it, roast it… and drink it. These factors can provide us with ENDLESS variations in flavor, by the time the coffee gets to our cup. And unless you are a true top of the line Coffee Geek, it’s really difficult to keep track of all this. For example, I know a little about a lot of aspects of coffee. But I don’t know much about the flavor differences between Nicaraguan beans and Guatemalan beans (yet).
But because these factors can produce such different outcomes, it’s a good idea to at least set a few guidelines for yourself. Here’s a few things to consider, to get started.
1. Where was the coffee grown? Do you like South American beans, Central American, African or Ethiopian?
2. Do you like a lighter or darker roast?
3. Do you like dry or wet processed beans?
These pieces of information can be a good place to start. Geek out as much as you like from there.
Lesson 7: Enjoy!
The most important lesson of all. Whatever type of coffee you like is alright with me – just enjoy it. Sit down with a friend or loved one and share a cup of awesomeness.
Happy New Year!