When it comes to coffee, chaos often reigns in determining what lands in your mug. Everything from the chosen seed, to the hillside the seedling got planted on, to the mood at the mill the day the coffee cherry was processed, to the cleanliness of the coffee grinder, to your barista's preoccupation with that ambiguous drunk text they got last night from their ex can affect the final cup. Hard and fast toeholds for landing on specific preferences are few and fleeting.
A good cup of coffee is subject to more variables than the sort of beverages we can get in bottles. Think of beer or wine as being like novels or books, while coffee is closer to a magazine or newspaper—a product best enjoyed in its moment and time. Coffee's ephemeral nature makes it much harder to pin down—but that's also a big part of its charm.
A better approach is to embrace ahead of all other minutiae a sort of first order preference for coffees that are above all good—possessing the essential characteristics that elevate them above most of the products cluttering the marketplace.
Mediocre or just plain bad coffee is everywhere. Store shelves are stocked with stale beans. Capsule, pod, and K-Cup coffee reigns but is a very poor value in both the machines and the consumables, and the results are a far cry from fresh coffee. In terms of raw material, most of these coffees edge closer to commodity coffee and not much care is demonstrated in their roasting. The marketing prose on a can of Folgers doesn't sound very different from the copy on a bag of "gourmet" coffee, so the consumer is often left with very few clues. (Photo by -0- (Flickr).)
Fresh roasted. The full flavor and richness of coffee diminishes dramatically and rapidly after roasting. The broadest range and intensity of flavors is experienced within the first two weeks, and no technology or fancy packaging can do very much to stop that decline. Once you experience the aroma and presence of drinking coffee from fresh roasted beans, it's hard to go back to the stuff on the supermarket shelf. Only buy coffee that has a roasted-on date and will get consumed within a couple weeks of that date.
Good green. Long before a roaster gets into the picture, great coffee begins at the farm with great land, great plants, great farmers, and great processing. An enormous amount of effort and care goes into growing the best coffees and there's typically a strong correlation between higher quality and more sustainable agricultural practices. Look for coffee that's traceable back to individual farms or cooperatives and from roasters who are dedicated to paying farmers healthy premiums for high quality.
Whole bean. Coffee's oomph is best experienced freshly ground. The minor convenience of buying beans pre-ground doesn't outweigh the massive loss of flavor and freshness that you'll incur. Buy whole bean coffee.
Sweetness. Balance. Flavor. A truly good coffee will have all three of these in spades: a natural sweetness that carries through each sip, a good balance of organic acids, a pleasing mouthfeel that makes for a cup that's lively without being bitter, flat, or rough, and an intensity of good flavors that add up to deliciousness. Seek out roasters who are discerning in their green coffee sourcing and meticulous in their roasting.
There are a growing number of small and medium sized coffee roasters doing great work and putting honest effort into their product. Starting your coffee upgrade journey by exploring the best releases from top-tier roasters is the right road (of course this author is a bit biased towards one in particular.)
Coffee is cultivated throughout the tropics, and more countries and more growers are getting on board the quality coffee bandwagon. A perusal at the offering lists from a bunch of top roasters is likely to push the limits of most people's geography knowledge.
While individual growing regions might show distinctive flavor characteristics or have particular processing styles that tend to give them a signature taste, it's important not to fall into the easy trap of dismissing or embracing an entire region or country based on just a small set of experiences. Again, coffee's slippery nature is such that even at the level of a single individual estate during a single harvest season there may be coffee experiences awaiting you at every end of the spectrum. If you keep an open mind, there are surprises to be found from almost every corner of the coffee growing world.
Roasting styles run the gamut from charcoal black to light golden brown and many consumers feeling their way through the murky consumer coffee landscape find roast degree to be one of the few graspable features to lock onto as a stated preference. Even among experienced coffee pros, absolutes about degree of roast rightness and wrongness persist, though many other less visible nuances of the roasting process arguably play bigger roles in determining the ultimate awesomeness (or lack thereof) of the finished bean. Keep an open mind on roast degree and you'll likely encounter pleasant surprises across a wide swath of the spectrum.
Sustainability, from both an environmental and economic justice perspective, is the subject of endless dialogue inside and around the coffee industry. Consumers looking to feel good about their buying choices will encounter an array of certifications on packaging labels. Each certification has its strengths and its flaws and ultimately, as with almost all agricultural products, there are no magic bullet solutions that fits every farm. Organic certification emphasizes the farm's inputs, while some of the other eco-certifications focus on bird habitat or biodiversity. Several others focus on setting floor prices for struggling farmers and building market access for cooperatives.
Some of the most exciting progress in coffee sustainability is happening with small and medium size roasters and boutique exporters and importers working to improve traceability and better prices for producers based around quality. For a newer generation of microroasters and sophisticated coffee farmers, meeting face to face and doing business more directly is paying dividends for everyone in the supply chain and resulting in the extraordinary leaps in cup quality that underly some of the current hype around high end coffee.
Inside of the coffee trade, the formal system of cupping—a procedural way to taste and evaluate coffees—leads a lot of us to develop a pretty baroque lexicon for describing a coffee's flavors. Sometimes these flavor descriptions are right on the mark ("you really can taste the apricot in that cup!"). Other times the descriptions hint at a general constellation of flavor rather than a specific taste (general citric acidity) or might even be euphemisms for something unpleasant or disappointing (calling it "fruity" instead of "fermented"). All this talk of fruits, flowers, and nuts or "cleanliness" can seem a bit intimidating and often takes away from the real gestalt of the cup. (Pictured at right: stages of maturation at Finca Matalapa in La Libertad, El Salvador. Photo via Tonx.)
The process of applying pretty prose to coffees is fun, but not always good for guiding you toward coffees you'll love or away from ones you'll dislike. So while there is much to learn about the complexity of coffee by digging into tasting notes, trusting in your tongue and worthy roasters ahead of your thesaurus is the best approach.
Sadly, it's close to impossible. Green coffee too has a shelf life and good coffee roasters manage their green inventory based on the harvest cycles. Falling too deeply in love with a newly-landed bean from Guatemala in April might lead to heartache come November. But exploring beans from roasters that share or cater to your emerging tastes can keep you very happy. Those practicing artful blending can provide you a relatively consistent flavor experience even as the components shift with the tilt of the earth.