Coffee Corner: What makes good coffee good?

Post by Grant Mouton

coffee1

In my previous articles (“My coffee is cold” and “This coffee is too expensive”), I touched base on how temperature affects your perception of flavour as well as pointing out that coffee is in fact under–priced. Today I’ll be taking all of you avid coffee drinkers a little bit deeper by answering a simple question: “What constitutes a good cup of coffee?”

Coffee seems to be a simple thing – but I can assure you that there is a whole lot happening behind the scenes that many are unaware of. To try and keep you, the readers, enthralled; I will divide this segment into the following:

• What makes a one coffee bean better than the rest
• What sets baristas apart
• How can I tell if my coffee was good?

bean

What makes one coffee bean better than the rest:
Plants are funny things, temperamental at the best times. Now, I am no botanist, but I have had my fair share of veggie patches as well as a once glorious Bonsai collection in the past.

Let us begin with the anatomy of the coffee tree. The coffee “bean” as we all call it is in fact a seed. This seed is no different to other plants’ seeds in that it is responsible for the plants reproduction. Plants do a wonderful thing when they are stressed due to lack of rainfall or thin air as a result of high altitudes or other stressful situations. Plants, when under certain stressors put extra energy into producing more, stronger seeds. The reason for this is that is the mother plant wants their offspring to be stronger and healthier with a better chance of survival, perhaps for them to even flourish. This touching act that is written into the DNA of the plant ends up benefitting the ever consuming human -it results in a mother plant putting extra energy into its fruits and seeds which results in a better coffee experience for us. This phenomenon is not exclusive to coffee – it has long been observed in grapes. Another thing that helps is biodiversity. As with all plants, the higher the biodiversity, the more effective pollination occurs which also results in better fruits.

So we now know that weather conditions can affect the coffee and that some of the best coffee is grown at high altitudes. There is also a trend in bean flavours that shows the higher the coffee is grown, the fruitier and more floral the taste will be. Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule. Many other factors can contribute to the flavour of coffee, i.e. What sub-varietal is the plant? What was the processing method?

I want to highlight the importance of processing. This is the method whereby the seeds are removed from the cherry and dried. It is crucial to the quality of the bean that utmost care is taken at this step to avoid rot, leaching of flavours and the removal of defects.

So you are looking for a tree grown on the correct slope (sunlight) in a biodiverse area that is high enough above sea level and also processed correctly. Not asking for much, right? If a bean doesn’t tick all the boxes, it won’t taste good.

tamping

What sets baristas apart?
A good barista has attention to detail that is borderline OCD. The reason for this is that when you are working with the temperatures and pressures they do, it is easy to ruin a cup of coffee by extracting for 1 second too long or too short. Making sure the coffee grind size is not too coarse or too fine, they need to be consistent with tamping (packing the coffee into the portafilter) and rinsing the machine’s groupheads etc..

There is so much going on that the barista needs to pay careful attention using all of their senses during each step of making the coffee, or you’ll be left quite literally with a bitter taste in your mouth.

They are on the frontline of the early morning assault on tiredness. Getting up before you do to ready the shop – calibrating machines before you’ve even had your first stretch! These champions of coffee use all their senses for each cup to ensure a great end product for you. I am forever grateful for them.

How can I tell if my coffee is good?
This is probably the simplest topic I will discuss. Your coffee is good if you enjoyed it. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taste – and tastes differ. Sometimes you want more, you what to strike a conversation or bask in the ambience of the store. It all boils down to your enjoyment. If you enjoyed it, then it was good!

Keep sipping!

Post by Grant Mouton
Self–proclaimed coffee guru, coffee education addict, SCAA/SCAE accredited.
Brand manager at % Arabica.


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16 comments, add your own...


  1. meh says:

    248am is a good name for a coffee blog

  2. Nasser says:

    Hi Grant,

    This is a slightly random question, but how good is the quality of the coffee in the Nespresso capsules?

    If you have an idea

    Keep up the great work

    • Grant Mouton says:

      Hello Nasser,

      Nespresso capsules are tricky for me. What I can tell you is that there has to be additives as the crema on the espresso is directly related to freshness. However, even year old capsules I find produce crema.

      Being that it’s made by Nestle, I imagine the coffee quality is not the highest – that being said I think that Nespresso still outclasses instant coffee as well as most store bought coffee beans.

      It’s important to remember that Nespresso capsules only contain 5.5g of coffee, a standard espresso contains 18-22g, so it will never taste as good.

  3. SV says:

    You make me want to start drinking coffee by just reading your posts. Great information!

  4. Grant Mouton says:

    It all boils down to consistency, if you consistently drink 5 or 6 cups a day you won’t have problems sleeping, shaking etc. After a two day break you will notice your caffeine tolerance is lower.

    Also, never drink on an empty stomach

  5. Mastic says:

    Hi Grant,

    How can you tell if coffee is burnt?

    • Grant Mouton says:

      Hello Mastic,

      You can tell by looking at the beans: if the surface is shiny and oily it has been burnt.
      When drinking coffee it will taste bitter.

  6. ozzy says:

    Hello Grant,

    It seems as though you’re very knowledgeable on coffee and its process’. However I feel these posts are redundant. Weren’t you talking about good and bad baristas last week, and different methods of preparation?

    How about the different types of beans? Different ways of growing the beans? What are the ways that they are cultivated, and picked? How are the beans best packed for shipping for freshness? What about the different freshness seals on all the coffee packs are they bogus? How long, and what is the best machinery to roast coffee in? What are good blends? Can a person buy un-roasted beans and roast them at home to their liking? If so, where? How has coffee been consumed in history, and how is it consumed now?
    What are the effects of modern day machinery on the roasting and preparation of coffee? How was it done in the past? Has it changed flavor over the past few hundred years?

    • Grant Mouton says:

      Hello Ozzy,

      It seems as though you may know a thing or two about coffee yourself! Thing is, this isn’t a coffee blog so I cannot write an article with the assumption that these technical terms/processes/trends etc are understood. I have a structure for the series, it’s going to be something of a journey 😊. If you hang in there you will notice that some of your questions will be answered as early as next week!

  7. DeViL says:

    The end note says it all …

    “How can I tell if my coffee is good?
    This is probably the simplest topic I will discuss. Your coffee is good if you enjoyed it.”

    Good going Grant! You are on right track, next posts also tell us about different coffee brews.

  8. mungee says:

    Yeah I’m definitely in the camp that what makes a good cup of coffee is totally subjective. From country to country, tastes vary – heck even the amount of saliva excreted from glands is different from culture to culture which makes the taste experience different. in terms of baking, the japanese prefer super soft cakes while people in the west like them with a bit more substance…

    I hate the idea of ‘craft coffees’ – the idea that coffee can be trendy is ultimately stupid to me. Especially since craft coffees come from places where often, they are drunk as run of the mill coffee.

    I find your posts very even handed and fair – and of course they will speak mostly to the western and arabian experience of coffee… it’s only natural. To me though, i’ve had coffee in street corners for dirt cheap that rival some of the most trendy, expensive coffee shops. That’s not to put those places down – just to put them in perspective. Vision, smell and ambience DO all effect taste – but our preferences when it comes to these contexts can also vary widely.


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