Professional growers, sellers, and baristas try coffee at controlled tastings called cuppings, but the average person may not know what separates a great cup of coffee from one that's sold by a vested, mustachio'd server at an overpriced but minimally decorated modern coffee bar.
As with all things, personal taste and preference are the rule, but for food obsessives interested in diving deeper, we asked Jimmy Sherfey, a journalist (and Eater contributor) who covers coffee from farm to bean to coffee bar — including specialty coffee production, sustainable agriculture, quality producers, and consumer concerns — for some guidance.
Say you're trying a new cafe for the first time. Beautiful latte art aside, what makes for a well-balanced coffee drink? Taste is subjective, of course, some people really like milk and sugar in spades, the coal miners among us prefer their morning coffee to be something of a rude awakening. The best coffee roasters and shops are walking a tightrope aspiring towards brews that are clean, sweet with a desirable weight and pleasant bitterness. Trying to achieve these ideals without having to pitch in additives is where the real balancing act happens — no falling asleep at the roaster or kettle.
We're in a golden age of coffee discovery.
Our growing discovery of coffee's inherent quality is a relatively new one particularly for a product is still widely regarded as a simple commodity. Consumers have to acquire the taste of coffee, and upon doing so they discover that so much of what they've always wanted out of coffee already rests in the bean.
A coffee's quality is constantly hanging in the balance. If you want the best coffee shop experience, look for shops that let the actual brews take center stage. Some coffees will be sweeter, some will be more acidic, some will be more velvety. The idea is to let the coffee be the best version of itself. So as long as a carefully-harvested and intentionally-sourced coffee is roasted and brewed within a strict set of parameters the output should shine.
The intrinsic nature of a given bean and the environment in which it was grown, and manner in which it was handled is a enough to deliver a boatload of complexities into which our palates can delve. A well-balanced coffee drink preserves and showcases all the nuances a given bean has to offer since the the day it was picked from a branch in Honduras, Rwanda, Papua New Guinea, or any tropical country with mountainous terrain.
Taste is a matter of preference, but for novice drinkers, what are the things to look for when tasting a cup of black coffee or an espresso? What are things to look for when tasting a latte or other espresso drink with milk? The main characteristics to look for across the board are sweetness, acidity, body, and cleanliness, and if there is a lingering aftertaste, of course, you want it to be pleasant.
If it's a cup of brewed black coffee, look for that sweetness you get from brown sugar, the acidity you'll find in lemon, raspberry, or blueberry. Also feel how the coffee weighs on the tongue. Is it closer to whole milk or 2 percent? Maybe it is light-bodied, near indistinguishable from a strong cup of Earl Grey Tea.
For espresso, make sure it's not sharp or salty. You want it to be equal parts syrupy, fluffy with a slight intensity tempered by a mild sweetness. It might even be pleasantly effervescent.
If you ordered a latte you want to be able to taste the espresso.
Steamed milk is lovely, but if you ordered a latte you want to be able to taste the espresso as well. For instance, is there a fruitiness that shines through? A current trend has shops pulling the really bright blueberry notes from an Ethiopian Natural so that all the flavor is not hogged by the milk.
What language is used by coffee tasters to describe different types of coffee? Last year World Coffee Research built the Sensory Lexicon enlisting the expertise and scientific approach of seasoned industry professionals as well as a research group at Kansas State University. Together they identified 108 flavors that quality graders can now use as a common language, a sort of touchstone for the tongue. As Susan Sarandon taught us in Bull Durham, 108 also happens to be the number of stitches on a baseball and the number of beads on a Catholic rosary. Coincidence? Either way, we can leave all the more subtle nuances to the coffee clergy.
For the layperson it's great to start with the basic flavor categories, and a good way to classify them is by attaching the general profiles to the specific geographical origins where they commonly occur. Is the coffee sweet like caramel or maple syrup? You'll find this is often true of Colombian coffee. Is it fruity like mango, pear, or pineapple? You might be drinking a Central American Coffee. Does it feature the bright, punchy acidity of raspberry, orange or grapefruit? Then you could be basking in the glow of a Kenya or a Rwanda. Is it nutty and chocolatey? This is a classic profile for Brazil. Is it roasty, earthy, tobacco-like, or spicy like clove or nutmeg? This is not uncommon for beans from Indonesia. It's important to remember the rules of origin profiles are not hard and fast. Expect to find plenty of overlap across origins, and be pleasantly surprised by the inevitable anomalies along the way.
I know professionals taste coffee during controlled cupping sessions. How can the average home coffee drinker discern a good cup from one that was poorly harvested, roasted, or is past its prime? Off-flavors in the cup can come from a number of factors. At origin they are uneven drying practices, scorching from huge mechanical dryers. In the shop it's roasting the coffee too much or too little, brewing it too sharp or too flat. Wherever you are in the supply chain, uniformity is key — from harvesting and processing to roasting and brewing, when we blend different ripeness levels, bean density, origins, or grind sizes we risk losing quality, nuance, and inherent complexity.
Even with uniformity on lock, the mantra for specialty coffee pros at each stage comes in varying languages and colloquialisms, but essentially it all boils down to this: Don't fuck this up.
To avoid improperly brewed coffee, consider the aftertaste.
And there are innumerable ways to botch a batch, whether it is at the processing mills, in the roastery, or in the cafe. For instance, a coffee can be flat for a number of reasons: It was dried past the optimal moisture content of the bean (around 12 percent); It went more than a year without being roasted; Or the brewer (human or machine) failed to ensure a the right amount of hot water remained in contact with the grounds throughout the brewing process.
A coffee is sour if the brewing temperature was low or if the cherry over-ripened before harvest. A coffee is phenolic (tastes like a bandaid or a burnt rubber) if it picked up mold during its life as green coffee. This problem could arise from fluctuating humidity coupled with poor storage or packaging conditions, be it at origin, in transit, or in the warehouse of the roaster or importer.
If a coffee lacks character, say it offers little more than that simple dark chocolate taste, it was likely a deep roast taken to second-crack, or the second time the beans make a popping sound as a result of an internal temperature approaching 450F (It should be noted, however, that this does not necessarily equate to a poorly handled coffee).
To avoid improperly brewed coffee, the aftertaste can be a good tell. Make sure it's not bugging you. If it's a cup of black coffee, is there a chalky or salty residue on your tongue? If so, the coffee was likely over-extracted — the water was too hot or the amount of water contacting the coffee during the brewing process was too great.
If it's espresso are the sides of your tongue numb like you just took a shot of Robitussin?
The puck might not have been properly tamped causing certain grinds to be extracted more than the others, again compromising uniformity. If it is a freshly whipped latte, does it feel as if powdery milk solids are lingering on your tongue? The milk may have been scorched during the steaming process.
How do soy, almond, coconut, or other alternative milks affect the taste of coffee? Following the specialty coffee ethos, if you're going to serve coffee that's roasted small-batch and consumers are willing to pay a premium for it, why not take the same approach to the milk alternatives you are adding? The realist answer might be, "labor," but there are plenty of ambitious shops finding a lot of value in house-made nut-milks, proving the extra buck or two per drink is worth the delicious dairy-free experience, which can be hard to come across.
As Clarissa Wei points out in a recent Eater article about soy milk, though the artisanal stuff is popular in Taiwan, it has yet to seep into Taipei's cafe culture. And in the U.S. most of the soy milk we consume, particularly that in cafes, is a pale shadow of what the drink could be. If there is a cafe out there bold enough to churn out enough house-made soy milk to fill the demand of a given consumer base, the added body and texture could pair nicely with both styles of espresso: a traditional Italian that's sweet and chocolatey; or a super bright, west coast-style espresso that perhaps sports a hint of sesame.
Do you have any other advice? Don't be afraid to ask your barista any coffee question you might have, provided there isn't a long line behind you. If they are hungover, too cool for school, coddling an ego as effortless as it is well-groomed, that is their problem — and unfortunate. Luckily the large majority of barista culture is growing out of that awkward-phase and we are currently in a golden-age for coffee discovery. But if you want to win their immediate favor, no questions asked, have them pull you shot of their favorite espresso.
Ask a barista to pull you a shot of their favorite espresso.
Espresso machines have really been the playground of baristas over the past five years. To jump into the current coffee trend ask your barista if they have to the tools to serve you a lungo shot, lower pressure espresso, which will make around 3 ounces.
It's an espresso with a lesser concentration of total dissolved solids (TDS), thus not quite as syrupy or intense as a traditional shot. In it you are likely to find more of the umami flavors like what is found in a mushroom or soy sauce — a very chic category.
To switch things up, instead of a traditional, sweet shot of espresso to back your briny lox and cheesy bagel, try pairing a long umami-geared pull of a bright Kenya or Rwanda to go with your buttered toast and gravlax.
Food pairings can be a good gateway to coffee appreciation. Now squarely in the culinary category, there is a whole world of flavor locked inside of coffee. It's ultimately up to you, the consumer, to appreciate it.