Coffee is more than just a brain-rebooting substance. It’s a sensual celebration of one of the world’s most complex and aromatic plant products.
Coffee is just as complex as wine – possibly even more so – and appreciating the nuances of coffee is much like appreciating fine wine. It’s only quite recently that the subtleties of coffee have started to be recognised by people outside of the industry, and consumers have started to realise that there are so many different aspects to coffee, and so many different ways to enjoy it. So, if you love coffee, and you would like to get to know it better, deepen the relationship, and love it more, then perhaps it’s time to explore the many, many facets of this most intriguing of beverages.
But first, why is coffee delicious?
Coffee is delicious because it has hundreds of volatile flavour compounds that are brought out by the roasting and brewing processes, and that are also affected by the whole journey the bean went through to get from the tree to the roaster. And – much like a fine wine, or even a delicious meal – a good coffee is one in which all the flavours are beautifully balanced. At their simplest, these are the universally acknowledged tastes of sweet, sour (or acidic), bitter, salty and umami – but that’s just the taste on your tongue.
The real flavour of anything is actually the aroma, and the way it interacts with the sensation of taste on the tongue, and the texture, or ‘mouth feel’. And, again like wine, once you start hanging around serious coffee tasters, you’ll hear them talk about ‘bright citrus notes, earthy spice, a hint of chocolate’ or ‘a definite whiff of jasmine’. Until you understand it, it just sounds crazy, but it’s actually very logical – and the best way to start understanding it is to purchase the flavour wheel published by the Speciality Coffee Association of America. This was created by World Coffee Research using an international (and rapidly becoming universal) lexicon of flavours that is the same as that used for wine.
The good, the bad and the ugly
If you look at the wheel, you can – crudely – divide it into good flavours (the top half) and bad flavours (the bottom half). It’s an over-simplification, but it is useful. The flavours on the top half of the wheel are the ones that will delight you, and make you smile involuntarily. They are also the most volatile so they are the most fragile, and will be the first to be lost through any bad management, and are unlikely to survive in coffee that is stale or is stored already ground.
From the less desirable bottom half of the wheel are the flavours produced by bad processing, under-roasting, over-roasting and/or bad storage. If you find these flavours in your coffee, you should probably buy from another source.
The most common fault that you’re likely to find, though, is coffee that is stale, and tastes – well – stale! It’s also the easiest to avoid. Buy freshly roasted coffee in small quantities, and grind it just before use. The latter is the most important. Ever wonder why it smells so good when you grind coffee – it’s all those beautiful fruity, floral, spicy volatiles disappearing into the ether like so many fairies at dawn.
What’s the point?
All this is not so you can sit in your local coffee shop and say, ‘Aaah, I detect some blackcurrant on the nose, and a lingering aftertaste of hazelnut’. There are only two flavour characteristics that count – nice and not-nice – and they are totally subjective. And – unless you want to become a serious coffee taster – the only purpose in understanding any of the above is to learn the language so you can make sure you buy the best possible coffee for your own palate. And, really, it’s not necessary to become a fanatic to drink good coffee. The most important factors are freshness and consistency. So, use fresh, good-quality beans and a consistent brewing method. If you’re really not into making a big production of it, and you just want good coffee with the least amount of fuss, a bean-to-cup machine offers consistency and freshly ground coffee. For an even easier – and only slightly less delicious – option, capsule machines take away all the guess work. Yes, the coffee is pre-ground, which is a compromise, but it is sealed into the capsule almost immediately, so not too many fairies will vanish.
But – as with anything in life – the adventure starts when you step out of your comfort zone, so keep trying new coffees, adding milk only if you think it will improve them. And take notes. It could take a while but, one day, when you’ve found a coffee that just makes you want to smile when you drink it – that you couldn’t bear to adulterate with milk or sugar – then you’ll begin to understand the magic that is coffee. And that will take you to a whole new level. And probably a whole new obsession.
There are only two flavour characteristics that count – nice and not-nice – and they are totally subjective.”