The Art of the Good Cigar

A Matter of Taste

Coffee 101: For Love of the Bean

Posted by herfergrrl on July 6, 2009

If you’re like most coffee drinkers, you may never have had a really good cup of coffee. The subtle nuances of flavor in a properly brewed, freshly roasted and ground cup are amazing, and a coffee “cupping” can hold as many surprises and as wide a range of flavors and aromas as a wine tasting. But most people who are accustomed to the Starbucks rendition of a good strong brew designed to cut through tons of cream and sugar will never know the pleasures of a truly fine cup.

So what is coffee, anyhow? Most of us know it as what we drink to keep our eyes open in the morning, relying on its stimulant effects to perk us up for the long workday. But there’s a lot more to coffee than just a morning eye-opener.

According to Wikipedia, there are two main species of the coffee plant, Coffea arabica being the older one. While more susceptible to disease, it is considered by most to taste better than the second species, Coffea canephora (robusta). Robusta, which contains about 40-50% more caffeine, can be cultivated in environments where arabica will not thrive. This has led to its use as an inexpensive substitute for arabica in many commercial coffee blends. Compared to arabica, robusta tends to be bitter and has little flavor, with a telltale “burnt rubber” or “wet cardboard” aroma and flavor. Good quality robustas are used as ingredients in some espresso blends to provide a better “crema” (foamy head), and to lower the ingredient cost. In Italy many espresso blends are based on dark-roasted robusta.

There’s a lot more to coffee than meets the eye, and you can spend hours debating which varietal is better, blend or single-origin, what degree of roast and brewing method brings out the best flavor profile in each varietal, ad infinitum. Hardcore espresso geeks historically favor Intelligentsia’s Black Cat, while both the Metropolis Redline blend and Counter Culture Coffee’s sweetly rich Toscano continue to gain popularity among home espresso enthusiasts and pro baristas around the world.     

Producing a world class espresso blend is as complex a process as making wine, with as many factors to consider. The famed Toscano changes from year to year depending on current crops, and can be considered a “vintage” espresso. But be warned – don’t try to age it, at least not after it’s roasted. The blend has been recently reformulated to emphasize the sweet chocolate notes that accompany Toscano’s classic butter-caramel sweetness. The Fazenda Ipanema “Dulce” lends notes of chocolate, caramel and nuttiness to the blend, and is roasted in the ‘slow’ Italian style. The finishing touch is a Sumatra Aceh Gayo with a clean, dark chocolate character, roasted dark to bring out the flavors of Italian chocolate.

The machine of choice for the entry-level home barista is the Rancilio Silvia, which is widely considered to be about the cheapest you can go and still produce a worthy product with real crema. Really serious espresso gadget-geeks have been known to modify this machine’s already fine control of temperature and voltage with their own special tweaks, including hooking them up to a home computer to get precision feedback. has further resources for the would-be espressohead.

Coffee geeks prefer to evaluate their coffee in its purest form during a ritual known as “cupping”, where exactly 55 grams of lightly roasted coffee are mixed with one liter of 195F – 206F water. For practical purposes, this translates to two tablespoons in a 6 ounce cup, and water that’s just backed off from boiling in the kettle. Coffee cupping is a technique used by professional tasters to evaluate the flavor profile of a blend or varietal, but it’s also very easy to do at home for the would-be connoisseur. This handy cupping guide is an excellent one for the curious home enthusiast who can get his or her hands on some freshly roasted beans.

And that’s the one thing that truly makes a difference in the taste of coffee – freshness. It seems obvious that the fresher a food or drink is, the better it is, with notable exceptions for a few well known comestibles that benefit from judicious aging. But that’s a factor that tends to get forgotten when it comes to coffee. Most large commercial coffee merchants would rather the average consumer didn’t remember, and they spend a lot of money pulling the wool over our eyes on this particular subject.

Like highly perishable but utterly delicious farm-fresh ripe fruit, it’s difficult and expensive to get really freshly roasted coffee into the hands of the end consumer without spoilage and loss. So most merchants don’t even try. Instead they develop all kinds of fancy packaging that is designed to extend the shelf life of coffee well past the point of its premium tastiness, and they spend even more money trying to convince us that it works. Which it mostly doesn’t.

Coffee can be kept from becoming completely unpleasant to drink for some time after roasting by using secure packaging that keeps the fragile beans away from air and light. But like a supermarket tomato that was picked green and hard and gassed to a sickly pink in the supermarket, it will never compare to the sun-warmed ripeness of an heirloom tomato just pulled from the vine, richly red and softly yielding of flesh and flavors. The former is a utilitarian sort of tomato, something acceptable to toss in with your iceberg lettuce in a flavorless salad. The latter is a richly sensual experience, worthy of being savored with a drizzle of ripe, herbaceous green olive oil and a dash of cracked black pepper. Perhaps a meltingly tender slice of fresh mozzarella and a leaf or two of fresh basil would also not be amiss.

A tomato is not just a tomato, and coffee is not just coffee. The difference between fresh premium product and something that’s been packaged to sit on a supermarket shelf for weeks is so vast as to make the latter a hollow mockery and a poor imitation to anyone who has ever tasted the real thing. Coffee is no exception. Green (unroasted) coffee beans can be stored for months or even years without losing freshness, and can actually benefit from aging under controlled conditions of temperature and humidity. But once the coffee is roasted, the clock starts ticking inexorably. Even under ideal storage conditions, in a matter of days you can definitely smell and taste the difference, and in a few weeks the real character and flavor of the bean is completely lost. Once the whole beans are ground, the clock ticks even faster, counting down in seconds rather than hours or days. Precious flavors and aromas are evaporating by the minute, and in less than an hour, the subtlest nuances are gone. A wine connoisseur might compare green coffee to a bottle properly corked and stored, roasted coffee to a bottle that has been opened, and ground coffee to wine that has already been poured.

There are tricks that can slow down these processes that rob the fragile bean of its most precious flavors and aromas, but none of them are really effective once the process of volatizing the essential oils in the bean has begun. Some coffee addicts suggest storing beans in the freezer, which can extend its life somewhat, but this will immediately damage some of the flavor components by crystallizing and expanding the moisture in the bean. Any packaging that does a reasonable job of excluding both light and air can help extend the life of whole coffee beans. Heat and humidity will cause your freshly roasted bean to degrade in quality, which means you should keep your coffee stash in a cool, dry place. The refrigerator is not a good place for your coffee, due to a high ambient humidity and the presence of other food aromas that could adversely affect its flavor.

It isn’t possible to get truly fresh coffee in the average coffee shop, especially in the larger chains. You can always try asking at the counter how long ago your coffee beans were roasted and ground. If the answer to the former is more than 48 hours and the latter more than 45 minutes (or worse yet, if the answer is “I don’t know” to either), move on. You won’t be enjoying your premium coffee experience here.

If you want to fully appreciate the range of flavors and aromas that coffee has to offer, avoid the stale stuff and stick to what’s fresh. Getting your hands on the fresh product can take a bit of extra effort, but the results are well worth it. For the ultimate in freshness, it’s possible and even fairly easy to roast your own coffee at home. The Fresh Roast 8+ from Sweet Maria’s ( is $82.50 including 4 lbs of premium green coffee, and it produces a very creditable roast as well as delicious aromas that will turn your kitchen into a home coffee roastery. Even cheaper than that is roasting your own coffee in an old-style popcorn popper. Sweet Maria’s web site also explains how to do this in detail if you’re handy with gadgets and willing to haunt thrift stores looking for the original heavy-duty models like the West Bend Poppery I. But if you aren’t quite ready to go this far in your personal level of coffee appreciation, just keep your eyes peeled for freshly roasted beans. At the big chains and the commercial stores, this can be a difficult task.

You can buy freshly roasted beans from a quality-conscious, small batch local roaster like Counter Culture Coffee, ( They have a very strict policy of shipping their product the same day it is roasted. You’ll never find old, stale product for sale at Counter Culture. With the time it takes the newly roasted beans to “settle”, their coffee should arrive at your door at its supreme peak of flavor, which is something you have probably been missing all of your life. Even after paying for a couple pounds of absolutely fresh, premium gourmet coffee plus shipping, you’ll be spending less per cup than you would at Starbuck’s, and enjoying your coffee a whole lot more.

The bottom line – small “micro-roasteries” like Counter Culture actually care about the quality and freshness of their product, and the big chains simply don’t. They can’t afford to, so their profits are largely driven by consumer ignorance of the fact that coffee has to be fresh to be good. When was the last time you saw a roasting date on the cup of coffee you drank at a Starbuck’s? You won’t find one on the bag either, not even on their “premium” blends that cost over $20 a pound. Most of the other “big name” coffees you can find, on and off the Internet, say absolutely nothing about how long ago their so-called gourmet coffee was roasted before you get your hands on it. To a coffee connoisseur, that’s downright scary, and definitely to be avoided. Stale coffee is bad coffee no matter how good the beans were to begin with.

You have some chance at getting a decent cup at a coffee shop if you happen to arrive at the same time the fresh coffee does. At most chains, that’s a pretty big if, since the source of their roasted beans may be neither local nor particularly timely with their deliveries. It’s also questionable whether any of the employees will be knowledgeable enough to pay close attention to when the coffee they’re serving was roasted. And most coffee shops grind their beans well ahead of time to beat the commuter rush, so even if your coffee does happen to be freshly roasted, if it was ground more than a few minutes ago, much of its flavor will already have been lost. If you’re looking for good coffee in a shop, ask at the counter about its freshness first. If you’re brewing at home, first get your hands on some really fresh beans, then have the water hot before you even start the grinder.

The one investment you will have to make if you’re interested in enjoying the full range of flavors that premium coffee has to offer is a good quality grinder. The basic “whirlybird” style coffee grinder that you can get at WalMart for around ten dollars will do for a start, but eventually you’ll want to upgrade to a decent quality conical burr grinder. The Solis Maestro Plus can be gotten for around $100, and it’s one of the best values in its class.

Brewing doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive, and you can get excellent results with very simple and inexpensive brewing methods, as long as the coffee is freshly ground and freshly roasted. A good French press can be bought for less than $20, or improvised at home for even less than that. What you want is to put your freshly ground coffee in contact with just short of boiling hot water (195F – 205F) for long enough to extract its essential flavors and aromas, and pick your method of filtering the grounds out of the resulting drink so that it isn’t crunchy. The finer the coffee is ground, the more rapid and intense the flavor extraction, and the finer the filter needs to be in order to keep the grounds out of your drink. French press coffee is usually ground coarsely, but using a better quality mesh can allow for a finer grind and richer extraction. If what you have is a blade grinder (eg, the WalMart cheapie), you probably want to stick to a fairly coarse grind and the French Press method.

The unique flavors and aromas that can be appreciated in a truly fresh cup of coffee are well worth the effort it takes to get that cup. Comparable to a fine wine in depth and complexity, a single-origin varietal or a well prepared blend may offer fruit or floral notes, rich chocolate or caramel, hints of toasted nuts or exotic spice. Its finish may be crisp and clean, or syrupy and lingering. One varietal in particular is justly famous among coffee connoisseurs for its intense fruit and floral aromas.

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. When Counter Culture Coffee hands you some of their fresh roasted organic Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Ambessa, you can make something even better than that. Ethiopia is the original homeland of coffee. The coffee plant was first discovered growing naturally in Ethopia, and was first transplanted and farmed as a crop in Arabia. The indigenous people of Ethiopia used coffee, but not as a drink. They ate the coffee cherries, beans and all, as a stimulant and as a source of nutrition. It was the Turks who first roasted the beans and brewed them into a potent drink, often with the addition of spices such as clove, cinnamon, cardamom and anise.

The Ambessa doesn’t need any extra spices to blow you away with complex and crystal-clear flavors. The fruit and floral notes in this coffee are really amazing. If someone had asked me before I’d tasted this whether I’d enjoy a coffee that tasted like lemon blossoms, roses and honeysuckle, I would have eyed them in disbelief, tapped my temple gently and suggested that those flavors probably wouldn’t go over too well in a cup of coffee. But through some alchemy of flavor magic, it really does work.

It tasted like a sin to muddy this delicate cup with additives, but in the name of experimentation I added a bare sprinkle of Splenda about halfway down. It was like drinking a delicious lemon candy, with just a tiny amount of sweetener bringing out the natural sweetness of the brew. A small splash of cream towards the end of the cup did obscure most of the delicate flavors. Even if you don’t normally drink your coffee black, this is definitely one that is worth drinking in its pure and natural state.

How does a coffee get to be so good? Mark Overbay of Counter Culture explains how his company takes the time to select varietals for roasting that can yield these kinds of powerful and complex flavor nuances. “Seed, soil, altitude, weather, fertilization, cultivation, harvesting, processing, shipping, storing, and roasting all dramatically influence cup quality before the end consumer even fires up his or her grinder. We pay close attention to all of these factors and more when deciding on a green bean purchase.” From picking the green beans to carefully controlling how they are roasted – and even more importantly, when they are roasted – Counter Culture certainly does do a superlative job of transcending the ordinary cup.

The Ethiopian Sidamo from the same roastery is well known for its potently delicious aroma of blueberries. Sweet Maria’s Yirgacheffe has subtle notes of dried apricots and rum, with a corresponding depth and richness. One thing that all of these delicate gourmet beans have in common is that they are at their best in a lighter roast, rather than the dark, oily, high-temperature roast popularized by the bigger chains such as Peet’s and Starbuck’s.

There aren’t quite as many ways to roast your coffee as there are to cook your food, but there are distinct degrees of roast that bring out different aspects of a coffee’s flavor profile. Once again Sweet Maria’s web page offers an excellent guide, with photos of the roasting process.  Briefly, the stages of roasting are City, City Plus, Full City, Full City Plus, Vienna or Light French and Full French.

Over-roasting does bring out some of the more intense flavor notes in a coffee, making it easier to taste the strong coffee in a typical latte or mocha drink. But it also mutes the more complex and delicate nuances of the bean, and over-roasting can be used to disguise a poorer quality bean that simply doesn’t have any really interesting or desirable flavors and aromas. It is almost impossible to find a commercially offered coffee in any other style than a dark roast (Vienna or darker). That itself is a telling commentary on the quality of big-chain coffee.

If you’re ready to expand your coffee horizons and become a true connoisseur, why not give the premium stuff a try? Check out the links below to learn more.

Counter Culture Coffee
Sweet Maria’s
Popcorn popper coffee roasting
Coffee Geek reviews and forums
Cupping overview
Home espresso machines


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