Why Does My Coffee Taste Like This?
Why does your cup of coffee taste the way it does?
Coffee gets its taste a piece at a time through every step from planting to cupping. Knowing where the flavors come from allows the caffeine indulgent among us (and decaf lovers too) to select the coffees we will enjoy most, whether at a cafe or brewing at home. Let's explore each step of the flavor process.
It all starts with a bean.
Well, truly, it's a seed, not a bean. As I've mentioned before, coffee isn't just coffee. Coffee is more like a rose. A quick trip to your local home and garden store will reveal not only are there multiple colors of roses, but also a plethora of sizes, shapes, petal counts, and more. But they're all roses. Coffee is the same way.
What we think of as simply "coffee" comes in two main species: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is more commonly consumed and, broadly speaking, produces a taste we identify as the flavor coffee. Within Arabica are variations, often referred to as varieties or varietals in descriptions from a roaster. Those have names like Typica, Caturra, and Bourbon. Each carries different flavor potentials.
The next step is the flavor journey depends on the farm and farmer. Where in the world the coffee trees are planted, the altitudes at which they grow, how they are cultivated, and the ripeness at which they are harvested all influence the taste we eventually experience in our mugs.
Coffee trees grow a fruit, known as coffee cherries. The "pit" of the coffee cherry is what will become our beloved coffee beans. Once harvested, the fruit is processed to separate out the pit from the fruit. You may see words like natural, honey, or washed process in coffee descriptions. Why mention them? Because the processing method is one more factor in the final flavor of the coffee.
After processing, the beans are a pale green, not looking much like any coffee we'd recognize in a cafe. Roasters purchase these beans from all over the world. They heat them until they turn that familiar brown color, coaxing out specific flavors through the temperature and length of roasting time. Light, medium, and dark roast are the simplest descriptors for the result of this step.
Roasters choose whether to roast the beans from one location by themselves - a single origin roast - or combine different beans to create a blend.
Personally, I love trying signature blends from small roasters. Those blends are where roasters showcase their expertise and produce surprising, unique, and exceptional coffee experiences.
Many of these roasts are limited edition, dependent on the harvests of the specific beans used in the blend. The rarity makes them extra special and enjoyable to try.
From the roaster, the barista - or you and I brewing our beans at home - takes over creating the perfect cup o' joe. How long we store the beans before brewing, how coarsely we grind them, the brew method we choose, and what we add into the mug all influence what the final flavor will be.
Now that you know what factors impact the taste of your daily brew, the next step is to find out what you personally enjoy. There's no exact right or wrong way to make coffee. You brew you.
When I started my own exploration into the wonderful and delicious world of specialty coffee, the only distinction I could confidently make in my preferences was that gas station coffee always seemed bitter, and there was indeed something better about the four dollar cappuccino I got from a local coffee shop. What was better, I had no idea. But I wanted to find out.
I began tasting coffees and seeing what I noticed that I liked. Being the nerd that I am, it was important to me to make notes on my research. I chose a coffee journal from 33Books to record what I tasted. It gave me space to rank flavors I tasted, indicate the brew method I used, include the roaster's information from the bag, and add my own notes about each coffee. The fact that Dave at 33Books adds coffee to the ink on the tasting journals made me love them all the more.
After filling up a small stack of these journals, I know my personal preference for coffees at the moment tend to have fruity notes and be a light-medium roast. It's fun to try roasts outside those parameters as well, and I'm often surprised by what coffee can taste like. Now, you and I both know what factors make it taste like it does!
What coffee have you found you enjoy - or don't? Leave a comment below with your preferences and what you'd like to try next!
Also, if you'd like one of those tasting journals I mentioned, they are now available here.
Amy, Founder of Red Eye Bistro