I am by no means an “expert level” coffee aficionado, but I have tasted a lot of coffee in my life and I can tell you with certainty: some coffees just taste better than others.
Why is that?
There are a variety of reasons, but before I go into them, let me give you my origin story...
At some point, an “awakening” may occur that turns a regular coffee drinker into a full-throated, amateur coffee snob.
That “awakening” for me happened around 2015.
At that time, I started making more and more of my own coffee at home. I tried a variety of different brewing methods and bought all kinds of different beans. It was fun and exciting to try new things and I noticed how just about anything I made at home tasted better than any of the coffee that the major chain stores served me when I went in for a fix.
I decided to quit going to Starbucks around that same time. I was a big fan of their app and the free drinks I could get with their rewards program, but after several weeks of experimenting at home, my palate was now able to discern how bland and charred tasting their coffee really was. I started frequenting a lot of local coffee shops, some of which roasted their own beans, and I discovered a broad expanse of exquisite coffee flavors.
On menus and coffee bags at these local places, I started seeing words and phrases thrown around that I had no idea what they meant…
Over the last few years, whenever I saw a new word describing coffee that I didn’t understand, I would go home and dutifully do my research… with a fresh brewed cup of coffee by my side of course.
Generally, there are five major things that determine how good a coffee blend will taste and what it will taste like.
Let me explain...
One: Country of Origin
Ninety-nine percent of all coffee is grown in tropical or subtropical regions (a.k.a. the Bean Belt), but not all tropical regions are the same. There are large deviations in rainfall, temperature and sunlight in these ideal coffee growing areas of the world and these deviations affect the development of the plant and its beans.
For example, West Haregre, Ethiopia and Aceh, Sumatra both lie in this tropical region close to the same latitude and both produce world-famous coffee bean varieties. The West Haregre region produces the well-known Harrar bean variety and it receives an average of 34 inches of rain a year, has an average yearly temperature between 50* F and 83* F and has cloud cover 47% of the year. However, the province of Aceh, Sumatra, which produces the Aceh bean variety, has an average rainfall of 68 inches, a yearly temperature that ranges between 74* F and 90* F and is cloudy 86% of the time.
These natural climate variations that exist throughout the Bean Belt produce incredible diversity in coffee beans and the endemic flavor differences that develop from region to region are readily acknowledged by coffee drinkers world-wide. I’ll give a brief overview of what the general consensus is from the coffee community when it comes to flavor strength and tasting notes by country…
Flavors: Berries, Lemon, Cocoa, Bergamot and Jasmine
Flavors: Fruity, Berries, Grapefruit and Wine
Flavors: Fruity, Floral, Wood and Blackcurrant
Strength: Mild ranging all the way to Bold
Flavors: Spices, Fruity, Wood and Earth
Flavors: Caramel, Bourbon and Smoke
Strength: Mild to Medium
Flavors: Nuts, Cocoa and slightly Fruity
Strength: Medium to Bold
Flavors: Caramel, Nuts, Cocoa and Citrus
Strength: Medium to Bold
Flavors: Fruity, Spices and Smoke
- Costa Rica
Flavors: Cocoa, Apricot, Nuts and Citrus
Flavors: Caramel, Brown Sugar and Nuts
This is by no means a detailed or exhaustive list. There are over fifty countries in the world that grow coffee and each country has is own unique flavor profiles, sometimes several to a country.
The explanation for that first factor was like gulping your coffee instead of sipping it. Lets move to something much easier to explain: elevation.
It has been shown that the higher you grow coffee plants, the stronger the flavor of the beans will be. The effect of stronger flavors is attributed to how the micro-climates of the mountains make the beans harder and denser. The denseness of high-elevation beans produce stronger flavors.
It is quite straightforward, but farmers and coffee experts have been able to get even more nuanced and determine the specific growing elevations that start to act on the strength of the flavors. Here is a routinely circulated list of those elevation levels that affect flavor strength...
- 5,000 ft or above: Strong berry, spice and fruit flavors
- 4,000 ft or above: Cocoa, citrus and vanilla flavors
- 3,000 ft or above: Caramel and tea like flavors
- 2,000 ft or above: Muted flavors and somewhat bland
If you are looking for a coffee with strong, wake-me-up flavors, go with a bean grown at a higher elevation. If you are looking for something to chill-out with in the afternoons and not get too excited about, go with a lower elevation bean.
Three: Bean Processing
The three main ways coffee beans are processed after being picked are natural/sun-dried, wet/washed and semi-washed.
The break-down of how these processing methods affect the flavors of the beans are based on what is specifically done in each process.
The natural/sun-dried process leaves the skin and flesh on while the beans are drying. This allows the enzymes and sugars in the flesh of the coffee berry to interact with the chemistry of the bean for a period of several weeks and therefore it typically skews the flavor of the bean towards having a more fruity/berry flavor when brewed.
Washed beans are completely removed of the skin and flesh that surround them after they are picked. This is usually done through mechanical means and it reduces the coffee down to it’s simple bean (seed) form before the drying process begins. The absence of skin and flesh before drying frees the bean’s internal flavors from being interfered with by the enzymes and sugars that are in the flesh and skin. When brewed, this usually results in flavors coming out that are inherent in the bean itself.
Semi-washed beans are put through a hybrid process where all of the skin and some of the flesh is removed before they are dried. Some of the skin still being left on the bean while being dried, makes the bean flavor profile fall in between both of the other two methods. As far as flavor profiles go, semi-washed beans produce a normative middle ground in tasting notes.
I’ve tried beans that have used all three methods and I tend to like beans that are naturally processed, but occasionally, I will buy beans that have been fully washed when I want to experience some flavors unique to a particular country or region.
Roasting is a well studied art-form at this point thanks to the growth and increased sophistication of the coffee culture in America and around the world.
Roasting is probably the single most influential factor in what kind of flavors a bean variety will produce when it’s brewed. You can have an Ethiopian bean variety that’s been grown at a high elevation and that has been processed naturally, but if you roast it too long, you won’t taste any fruity flavors, you’ll just get a burnt ash taste.
There are three types of roasts: light, medium and dark. There is a broad range of variations between each type of roast and what particular flavors the roasts take away and/or accentuate.
Light roasts from the lowest roasting temperature to the highest...
- Light City
- Half City
- Cinnamon Roast
- New England Roast
Medium roasts from the lowest roasting temperature to the highest…
- American Roast
- City Roast
- City Plus Roast
- Full City Roast
- Full City Plus Roast
Dark roasts from the lowest roasting temperature to the highest…
- Vienna/ Light French Roast
- French Roast
- Italian Roast
- Spanish/ Dark French Roast
- Turkish Roast
Light roasts by and large cause the sour, tart and fruity properties of the bean to be the prominent flavors coffee drinkers taste when they brew it. If you want to taste the distinct flavors that the bean’s origin country is known for, then try a light roast.
A medium roasted coffee leads to a well-balanced flavor experience. I usually choose medium roasts because they still maintain some of the origin country’s tasting notes, but they are not as sour or fruity and have a more complex, longer lasting taste in your mouth. Medium roasts tend to be the most common type of roast.
Dark roasts ordinarily make coffee taste bitter, smoky and somewhat charred. The tasting notes and flavors that you would get from a particular origin country, elevation and processing method can be almost entirely muted out by roasting beans to a dark level. If you want to make espresso or something bold enough to make your hair stand on end, then choose a dark roast.
Five: Whole Beans Vs Ground
The last thing I will address that can affect the flavor of your coffee is if you should choose to buy whole beans or pre-ground coffee. The uncomplicated answer is: if you want a lot more flavor when you make your coffee, then buy whole beans.
Pre-ground coffee is great if you don’t have the time to grind it yourself, but as soon as coffee beans are ground, they start to oxidize, loose fragrance and their flavors gets more and more bland the longer they stay in a ground state before being brewed. Buy whole beans and grind them yourself right before you get ready to make a pot if you want a more fulfilling tasting experience.
I hope this article will help you make better buying decisions when you are at the store or cafe next time trying to decide what kind of flavors you want to experience with your next coffee purchase. You don’t have to get too complicated with coffee, but you’ll probably enjoy the selections you make more if you understand why certain coffees taste the way they do.
Keep on sipping,
Coffee w/ Crypto