“What is that taste? Blueberry? No, maybe strawberry? There’s definitely some creamy, butter-like notes that balance it, though.” Stream of consciousness-like phrases often crop up around the cupping table when our team sits down to evaluate a set of coffees looking for the ideal coffee to add to our selection. Although we spend a great deal of time figuring out exactly what tasting notes we notice, much of the conversation centers around the elusive “quality” questions. Which coffee is a higher quality? Which one is, in effect, better? More to the point, how do you even begin to determine high vs. low quality when the beverage in question is so subject to personal preference? The short answer – we’re still figuring that out. The long answer – keep reading.
When looking at coffee, many specialty coffee professionals have boiled quality down to a set of simple criteria. In addition to the internationally recognized Q grade of a coffee (a point score from 0-100 that the Specialty Coffee Association and the Coffee Quality Institute have developed), many coffee roasters have a few simple attributes they look for. In our case we try to identify coffees that are sweet, clean, interesting, and balanced.
Many high quality coffees display a lovely sweetness. This can range from the juicy strawberry or blueberry notes of a naturally processed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe to the sugary or honey flavors found in some washed Central American coffees. Although processing (what happens to the coffee after it’s picked) and roasting (what we do at our West Midtown location in Atlanta, GA) will have a significant effect on how sweet a coffee can become, in many cases it displays the skill and expertise of the farmer in cultivating the land and properly harvesting the coffee. The farmer then turns the coffee over to be processed and shipped, both of which have a direct effect on how clean the coffee is.
Now, when we’re looking for a clean coffee we’re not primarily making sure it’s sanitary, although that’s a part of it. A clean cup of coffee is one that clearly displays the flavors inherent in the coffee without introducing any “off-tastes”. A coffee that is literally dirty will often taste that way. If it’s been processed in dirty water it will taste like dirty water. If it’s been shipped in unprotected bags next to, say fish or tobacco, well… you get the idea. Many times these factors are mitigated by bagging the coffee in GrainPro bags, which help protect the beans. But external factors are only part of a clean cup of coffee; cleanness is also a measure of how carefully the coffee is processed. We’ll dive into processing in future posts, but suffice it to say that although no one coffee processing method is inherently better than another (we like them all, but you can look here for a little more info) some coffees are processed better, more rigorously and with more care, than others. These more carefully processed coffees typically produce cleaner flavors.
Although many coffees are clean and sweet, not all of them are interesting. This is the easiest way for us to say: “we like coffees that pop!” Say you have two coffees from Colombia in front of you. They are both sweet and clean with solid chocolate and fruit tasting notes. You try coffee A and it’s great, with a milk chocolate smoothness and a light berry flavor. Then you try coffee B and the chocolate taste is deeper, maybe like 70% dark chocolate, and the berry flavor is there but more complex; in fact, it reminds you distinctly of a blackberry cobbler. You would probably think more highly of coffee B. It’s more interesting. That’s the one we’d choose too. Although interesting-ness is one of the most subjective areas of quality, we make a point to try coffees multiple times both by ourselves and in small groups so that the interesting qualities aren’t ever identified in a vacuum. (If you want to see interesting-ness in action pick up our Sampler Pack and try some of our coffees side by side and let us know in the comments which of our coffees you find the most interesting!)
Lastly, it’s always key to keep an eye toward the balance of a coffee. All the attributes we’ve already listed are important, but we’ve found that one attribute can be so present that it outshines another. We’ve had to pass on coffees that were clean and sweet but didn’t have a pop of interesting flavor. We’ve had to pass on coffees that were so clean that they were almost bland of any sweetness. We’ve had to pass on coffees that were wonderfully interesting, displaying notes of jasmine or sharp lime zest because the interesting part overpowered the sweetness and cleanness of the cup. Our hope is that this approach has left us with a selection of coffees that shine in all these attributes – from some unique single origin offerings to a selection of carefully curated blends.
This is the first of many posts that will focus on quality. Our knowledge of coffee is constantly evolving and growing and we’re constantly getting connected to more coffee producers and importers that enable us to find those sweet, clean, interesting, and balanced coffees from around the world. Thanks for joining us on the journey!