Coffee. For those of us hooked on this dark elixir, just the mention of the word has a physically (or is it spiritually?) nourishing effect. Did you feel it when reading the word above? From the aroma of fresh grounds, to the unmistakable jolt of the day’s first sip, the humble coffee bean provides billions of joyful moments to mankind every day.
As a coffee vendor at the Napa Farmers Market, I know that Napans enjoy their fair share of those moments. But as a Napa resident, I feel compelled to ask: why is there so much bad coffee out there?
In honor of National Coffee Day on Saturday, Sept. 29, let’s attempt some simple answers to this deceptively complex question.
So what makes a “good” cup of Joe? This is somewhat subjective — just as you may like an oak-bomb Chardonnay and not a racy German Riesling, one woman’s dark-roast perfection may be another’s cigar butts in the ashtray.
But what’s not subjective is the basic balance of flavors and aromas in the cup. As a former sommelier, I was trained how to formally taste and evaluate wine, and much of that training applies directly to coffee—aspects like sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel, finish, and unique flavors/aromas are all evaluated and graded when formally “cupping” a coffee sample.
My job as a roaster is theoretically simple: 1) select the absolute highest quality lots I can find for the prices I can charge, 2) roast those beans to bring out the best balance of flavors and aromas, and 3) prepare and serve coffee drinks in a way that brings out the most intensity, complexity, and straight-up hedonistic delight that I can.
Here are just a few ways that “bad” coffee can result at any of these steps.
Like a Napa Cabernet producer, I am blessed to be able to pick and choose coffee lots from among the top 1 percent or so of quality coffee produced in the world. That means using all Arabica beans (Robusta is a cousin of Arabica used as high-octane filler in a lot of cheap blends). It means always using current crop, since even green (unroasted) coffee beans stale over time. It also means carefully evaluating each lot to make sure there are no flaws or issues from poor processing/handling. And it means paying a premium for organic- or sustainably-farmed beans that pay a living wage to skilled workers. Cutting corners in any of these areas will quickly impact cup quality, and put pressure on the roaster to mask shortcomings in bean quality with darker roasts or other tricks.
There is a deep divide in the coffee business about this subject. On the one hand, you have the chains who for the most part roast the heck out of their beans. A dark roast has a number of benefits for these companies — dark roasts allow the flavors of the roast process to dominate the flavors of the beans themselves, so there is more product consistency.
The underlying bean quality also matters less, so darker roasts can use lower quality beans without impacting cup quality. The problem is that you cook off many of the delicate flavors and aromas, leaving only the taste of burnt beans. It’s like drowning your burger in ketchup — you’re left with one overwhelming flavor that, while not unpleasant in moderation, doesn’t allow you to taste much of anything else. Hence the needs for syrups, sweeteners, and other flavorings.
On the other hand, you have the specialty, “Third Wave” craft roasters who barely roast their beans in their quest to remain true to origin, and showcase every nuance of each precious bean.
Problem is, this style can take some getting used to, particularly for coffee drinkers accustomed to choking down the burnt stuff. Lighter roasts retain more of the beans’ natural acidity, and can come across as citrusy, and even green/vegetal. While I’ve tasted a lot more bad burnt coffee than bad Third Wave coffee, I get why this style is not for everyone.
At Ohm Coffee Roasters, I try to take the best from these two approaches, roasting dark enough to tease out natural sweetness, but not so much as to overshadow the bean’s origin character. Much more important than this roaster’s opinion, though, is your individual taste—find roasters that roast in styles you like, and you’ll be well on your way to drinking good coffee.
Storage and Preparation
This last—and most critical—step is the true source of most of the bad coffee we drink.
Roasted coffee is a highly perishable product. As beans recover from the roasting process, they start out delicious and steadily improve for a week or two, before peaking and beginning to stale. Assuming the bag has been gassed with nitrogen and properly stored, another week or two is about all you can expect from those beans before they are spent. So if you want to avoid bad coffee, the first step is don’t buy the 5 pound bag of months-old beans at the big-box store, and drink it over a month or two. Find a local roaster, buy beans within a week or two of roasting and those beans within a week or so.
If you have beans you know you won’t be able to consume that quickly, put the amount you can’t consume (tightly wrapped in its bag or a ziplock) in the freezer. The freezer will strip a lot of flavor out, but if you freeze it while it’s still as fresh as possible, it’ll be way less bad than letting it sit on the shelf for months. Otherwise, store your fresh beans in a cool dark place like a cupboard or pantry. Don’t refrigerate, as the humidity will quickly give you bad coffee.
One of the most fundamental pillars of avoiding bad coffee is always, always, grind to order. Don’t buy pre-ground coffee, and don’t ruin your freshly-bought bag of beans by grinding it at the grocery store (and don’t even get me started on k-cups.) Beans go stale within weeks after roasting, but they stale within a matter of minutes after grinding. I’d love for every coffee drinker to invest $125 in a high quality burr grinder for their home (such as the Baratza Encore), but even a $20 blade grinder used just before brewing will give better results than preground.
How fine or coarse to grind depends first on your brew method, then on fine-tuning to your equipment and flavor preferences. Too coarse, and not enough flavor is extracted from those larger grounds, leaving you with something thin, acidic, and bad. Too fine, and the grounds are over-extracted, resulting in a bitter, bad cup.
An adjustable burr grinder will allow you to get the same grind every time, versus a blade grinder, which is much less consistent since it shatters the beans into many different-sized fragments. A good rule of thumb is that the brew process should take about 4 minutes for most methods. Longer, then your grind is too fine, and vice versa.
If you are using an auto coffeemaker, you have less control over the brew time, so instead I look at the grinds after brewing — they should be fine enough that they come 2/3 – 3/4 of the way up the filter during the brew cycle, but don’t overflow the filter letting grinds into your pot. Finer grinds will slow down the brew and force the water level higher in the filter while brewing.
Many people simply don’t use enough beans for the amount of coffee they are brewing. The “classic” ratio for specialty coffee is 1 part beans to 15 parts water, by weight. This is tricky because most of us were trained to measure by volume. Your best bet is to buy a cheap gram scale and measure 20g of coffee per 300g (~10 fl oz) of water, but if you can get in the general area by using about 2.5 level tablespoons of whole beans per 8 fl oz of water. I’m trying to resist the urge go after k-cups again, but a typical k-cup has about half the grounds that it should for a standard cup.
Start with filtered water. Napa has notoriously “hard” water, which is tough on equipment and hinders a good extraction. The ideal brewing temperature for coffee is 195-205 degrees F. Below 195 degrees and you underextract, leaving lots of deliciousness in the grounds; above 205 degrees and you scald those delicate oils.
In the home environment, this is a major source of bad coffee — most cheap coffeemakers don’t have a strong enough heating element to get the water hot enough, or to keep it hot enough during the entire brew cycle. And here I go mentioning k-cups again, but also most k-cup brewers can’t heat the water above 185 degrees, damning their owners to bad coffee for the sake of convenience.
If you have the budget and need the convenience of a drip coffeemaker, try to buy one that is certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. There are about a dozen models on the market ranging from about $100 to $400.
If you are more adventurous and don’t mind a bit of manual effort, you could pick up a gooseneck kettle with adjustable temperature. The Bonavita BV382510V allows you to set and hold a temperature for up to an hour, and will set you back about $60. This kettle supports most brewing methods.
The last step is drinking it and holding whatever you don’t drink right away for later. The main bad coffee culprit at this stage is the glass carafe on the hot plate. For the love of all that is good, please don’t cook your beautifully brewed batch of coffee on a hot plate! It’ll be dead within 10-20 minutes.
Insulated pots are way better and can keep coffee plenty hot for 30-60 minutes, which is about as long as coffee should be held before bitter acid chains start forming. There are many insulated versions of French press pots as well as coffeemakers. Just be sure to preheat them with 195 degree-plus water so you don’t sap your coffee’s heat to warm up a cool carafe.
Deceptively complex, right? Now go enjoy some good coffee!
Chef demo at the Market: On Saturday, Sept. 29 at 10 a.m., I will do a coffee demonstration at the Napa Farmers Market. The demonstration is free and tastes will be provided.
Live music on the KVYN Soundstage: On Tuesday, Sept. 25, Bruno Grossi will perform. On Saturday, Sept. 29, Oscar Reynolds will perform.
Kids’ Activities: Bring your youngsters to the Napa Farmers Market’s Education Station on Saturday for Story Time at 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., followed by Free Play: Fun Games with Fruits and Veggies at 10:45 a.m.