How do you decide if a particular cup of coffee is good?
We get this question really often, and more often than not, we don’t know where to begin to give an answer. “Good” is a concept that is really difficult to tie down and has been a subject of debate since Socrates. Is it the origin of the coffee that makes it good? We could start from the very beginning by pointing out exemplary growing techniques, showing you superior processing methods, highlighting the nuanced roasts and award winning-barista techniques. All of that matters a great deal, but since coffee is a drink, the fundamental question should always be, “how does it taste?”
People always get a shock when they’re told that they’re gonna be tasting four different coffees (“Thank God I haven’t had any today!”), but tasting coffee is not exactly the same as drinking coffee. Tasting suggests greater focus on particular elements of a particular coffee’s tastes. At the simplest level, this can be broken down into three elements: Flavor, Body and Acidity. So whenever you have a cup, deconstruct the delicious-ness on your palate into the three elements.
Flavor refers to the elements of the cup that strike you as coming from other foods or drinks. Coffee is usually an interesting mix of a whole bunch of tastes and smells. Some coffees have nutty or earthy smells, others have really fruity or floral flavors. We once had a Sumatran Pak Lintong Joner which upon tasting, just reminded us of intensely ripe grapes. The flavor element of coffee is pretty memorable; it’s something that allows you to quickly differentiate the coffees from one another, and is very much both a taste sensation as it is an aroma. Chocolates and nuts are really common flavors that show up in coffee, as are red apples and plums.
Body refers to the mouthfeel of the coffee, or how “heavy” it feels on your palate. You could analogize this to milk. Whole milk is going to be richer than skimmed milk, which in turn will be richer than non-fat milk, which is gonna be thicker than water. In the same way, some coffees are more tea-like and light in the Body section, whilst others are more thicker and denser. Such a sensation is usually attributed to the oils in the coffee, and some brew methods (espresso, french press) are going to give you a much more full bodied experience than others (Chemex).
Acidity refers to the tartness or brightness in a cup of coffee, and is usually what strikes you immediately as you take your first sip. Some coffees will basically be screaming “HI-MOM-I’M-ON-TV!!!” while others will scuttle away pretty quickly, kinda like your housemate during Finals week as he hunkers down in the book stacks. This brightness comes in various forms, ranging from the lemony “pucker-your-lips” kind of tartness to a milder, sweeter acidity similar to a ripe nectarine. As a rule of thumb, the darker the roast, the milder the acidity.
We look at these three points when tasting a cup of coffee, and describe the coffee mainly based on these three categories. Of course, this highly subjective process does not allow us to directly make claims that one coffee is significantly better than the rest. Much of that lies with our personal preferences. Between the two of us writing this column, we have wildly different tastes and if we had to choose, we would likely point to two different cups in a set consisting of one cup. Industry professionals, however, do score coffees in coffee cupping settings as an attempt to quantify this “goodness”. For similar points though, personal preferences do matter more than the exact points the coffees get.
As mentioned in the beginning, there’s more to what makes a good cup of coffee, and in future articles we’ll definitely reveal a little more (…balanced extraction…processing…). But having the tools to understand the cup of coffee in your hands is definitely a start!