The deeper you are diving into what’s behind the quality coffee, the more you discover. But with coffee, and specialty coffee, our perception has been going backwards, in other words, not from the product to the cup, but from the bitter drink that we happen to see every day at our tables – to how it is actually being produced. First. And then the next question – where does the quality really happen? Does it come from the coffee preparation? Does it come from coffee roasting? Does it come from the roasting equipment? Does it come from the methods of coffee brewing?
Here I am gonna talk about how quality perception of what is specialty coffee switched:
- from barista to roaster
- from roaster to producer
- where does the quality really happen
- and if you can elevate the coffee quality with using certain brewing methods
So, once again, we’ve been living specialty coffee backwards. And I’ll give you myself as an example.
I am a coffee roaster now, and a Q grader – nevertheless, ten years ago the coffee that I was drinking was instant Nescafe, half water half milk, 2 spoons of sugar -, and at that time I had never thought about coffee being a fruit – and how it influences the taste of what I am drinking. Partly because I am from the country where coffee doesn’t grow, to begin with, and after all, I’d never seen anybody talking about it – coffee for me at that time was a faceless brown instant powder.
So naturally when I started in coffee, my first thought was it is the way you brew it that brings you the quality. You need an espresso machine, certain grinder, certain tamper.
Then I thought that it is the water that I am using. Has to be very clean, almost distilled. Then – switch of the paradigm, after reading and learning more – it has to have some minerals. So I tried different waters.
Then I decided it has to be freshly roasted. Like 2-3 days, to be at its best. Then I was told that coffee has to rest for 2 weeks. So I tried it too.
Then it is the way you store it. No glass jars – only airtight bags. Far from the sunlight, far from the humidity.
Then I blamed the roasters. Of course for roasting “too dark”. That was the time when everybody started with the philosophy “the lighter the better” and vegetal coffee was in fashion.
The next step – I decided, being a home roaster, that I am better equipped and have more dedication than the professionals, and that I can roast coffee at home better than they do. Just because I read lots of articles, books and watched many videos. Looking back, my arrogance at that time was simply unbearable – I’ll be the first to admit it, honesty first. Then the life humbled me down, and I got that 10 000 hours of a dedicated action are needed to become a pro in something. Just saying.
So I roasted. And roasted. And roasted more. And then roasted professionally. I roasted fresh coffees, commercial coffees, specialty coffees, geishas and typicas, pacamaras and maragogipe, robusta from Sao Tome. robusta from Uganda, I roasted coffee that had 5 years, and coffee that had couple of months. And I cupped. Cupped. And I got something.
All of the above are true, to a certain degree. Bad grinder, dirty espresso machine, poor barista technique, bad roasting, 3 months since the roast date, years after the harvest, bad storage all can ruin the coffee taste.
But doing good all of the steps mentioned above will help you out to bring out what was good in that particular coffee that you have in your hands. Nothing more nothing less.
Choosing a fancy brewing equipment will not make past crop ethiopian taste like a fresh crop, and doing the roasting well will not transform low grown Brasil into a flowery geisha.
Quality comes from the green beans, coffee farms, coffee plantations. From how coffee is grown and processed. All the processes that come next – processing (including controlled fermentation), transportation, roasting, brewing etc – they can enhance what’s already in the bean, they can bring new chemical compounds, if we are talking specifically about roasting coffee – but they will not create from scratch what’s not already there.
The wholistic approach and a proper understanding is necessary.
This is the problem when we are talking about roasting, for example. Roasting is not magic. Like, you cannot take any coffee and transform it into a delicate drink with flowery notes and an acidity of an orange. Coffee itself, in green, has to have certain chemical compounds that in the process of roasting will be transformed, brought to the surface. Not created from scratch. Roaster is working with what’s already in there. Not backwards.
The same about the baristas and brewing coffee at home. Barista can modulate the flavour profile of a certain coffee – but to a certain degree. The same way you cannot make lemonade from apples, you will obviously need lemons, you cannot make a floral espresso from the coffee that from very beginning had no flavour precursors of this type.
Sometimes you may hear that using certain coffee brewing equipment will give you certain flavour.
Using V60 for more florals, using French Press for more body, using Kalita for more sweetness…
It all works, if the coffee itself has these elements.
To have florals – green coffee has to be a certain variety, grown at the certain altitude, with the certain weather conditions, certain elements in the soil. It has to be processed in a certain way. And stored and transported. It has to be roasted to bring out the florals. And only after that it has to be brewed.
This way if the florals (body, sweetness) are there, they will be felt in brewed coffee done in any way (if not messed up completely, of course) – some brew methods or temperatures will help to bring up some elements, some – the other ones, but in a very limited way. To a certain degree. And green coffee dictates these limits.
And being an agricultural product, it is not stable, so the starting point is changing all the time. The moisture content changes, water activity changes, coffee is getting older, more porous, etc. This is what the roaster is working with. Understanding the starting point, and bringing out what’s out there.
Brewers, baristas, coffee roasters are working with the quality of the coffee inside the limits dictated by the product itself. They can always make things worse, of course, there are no limits there – but the degree to which they can improve the taste… It has been set by nature.
So if you ask me to put it simple, the rule of making (roasting, brewing) good coffee – is to buy good coffee.