Specialty Coffee 101 – The Ultimate Guide to Coffee Terms
So you’re flirting with specialty coffee, eh? Don’t be shy! We encourage your curiosity.
It usually starts innocently enough. Maybe someone offers you a sip of their single origin pour over… “Single origin?” you think. “Well, of course it’s single origin; who would go to more than one store for a single cup of coffee?” If that didn’t make you chuckle to yourself, read on. This blog is for you.
Overwhelmed by the jargon? Befuddled by the numerous technical specs on a single bag of coffee? Tired of the pressures of holding up the line while you attempt to decode the café menu?
“Did all these folks go to coffee college, or what? Can’t I just get a ‘regular’ cup of coffee?”
Relief is here! We’re here to be your guide through the upgrade from Mr. Coffee to V60, from Maxwell House to Onyx. This is coffee college, and class starts now.
So, pour yourself a coffee and get ready to begin your journey from novice to BeanGenius.
Single Origin vs. Blend
“Single Origin” signifies a coffee which comes from a single farm, region, or producer. Similar to wine, differences in the soil and climate of each growing region affect the development of different compounds during growth, giving coffees from different regions unique, regional flavors. The term to describe these unique regional flavors is, “terroir.” (from the Old-french root, terre, meaning “land.”) High-quality single origin coffees possess very unique characteristics; they are often roasted lightly, to preserve and highlight those characteristics. Very few single origin coffees can be described as “well-rounded,” or “balanced,” which brings us to our next topic.
Blends are roasters’ attempts at alchemy. That is, combining multiple single origin coffees in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. At least that is the goal.
By deliberately highlighting and combining the desirable qualities of each “component coffee” (this is where skill comes in to play), roasters create their own flavor combinations in such a way as to provide their customers with consistent quality, despite the need to swap out components as supply dwindles or prices fluctuate.
Blends also allow roasters to cover up mistakes made in the roasting process as well as harsher flavors introduced by the use of cheaper filler coffees. Such crafty behind-the-scenes of blend tactics affirm that single origin coffees are generally of higher quality than blends.
The specificity of regional data is determined by the roaster’s informational provision. Some specialty coffee roasters simply say, “Africa” or “Ethiopia,” whereas others will articulate the province or sub-region (e.g. Sidamo or Yirgacheffe, respectively). Coffees from the same region or country tend to develop resembling flavors; harnessing this information can can be a helpful tool in the process of identifying and articulating your taste preferences.
Farm / Producer / Co-Op
This is the name of the farm, farmer, or group of farmers that produced the coffee. As with any industry, there are farms and families that have been producing coffee longer than others, sometimes for many generations. These farms produce higher-quality product which earns a higher market price. Some farmers join forces to create co-ops to hedge against bad crop years, market fluctuations, and other risks. Co-ops are not always beneficial to the farmer, however, as the co-op itself becomes another middle-man in the supply chain.
The names given to single-origin coffees are almost always the region, sub-region, farm name, or producer that created the coffee. Names for blends are a toss-up. Some blend names attempt to give consumers clues as to what is contained within (e.g. Blue Bottle’s Three Africas Blend). Other blend names allude to the roaster or brand, and others are just fun names with a story.
After a coffee cherry is harvested, the bean must still be separated from the fruit, cleaned, dried, sorted and bagged. The method through which a coffee is processed can dramatically affect the coffee’s brewed flavor. Natural and pulped natural, sometimes called ‘honey’ processing, allows the coffee to dry with varying amounts of fruit left intact, imparting sweet, fruity flavors. Other processes, including washed and fermented, completely separate the coffee beans from the fruit before drying. Washed and fermentation processes soak the coffee in water after depulping, allowing it to ferment lightly. This removes the final layer of skin coating (and much of the fruit flavor) from the coffee bean and produces cleaner flavors which showcase a coffee’s terrior.
The most common processes from least human intervention to most (and from fruitiest to cleanest, respectively) are as follows: Natural < Black Honey Process (Pulped Natural) < Red Honey < Gold Honey < Yellow Honey < White Honey < Washed < Lactic Acid Fermentation. There are also a plethora of other processing methods which are being invented or have yet to be invented!
Generally speaking, flavor complexity increases with elevation; coffees grown at lower elevation or sea level tend to be less interesting than coffees produced at high elevation. Some sub-species, or “varietals,” of coffee only produce desirable flavors at high elevations.
There are two main species of coffee produced today: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is lower-yielding, better tasting, and less resistant to pests and environmental factors; most specialty coffee is arabica. Robusta, as its name implies, is a hardier, high-yielding species of coffee with less interesting flavors. As it is (usually) much cheaper than its tastier counterpart, Robusta is often used as “filler” coffee.
As previously mentioned, ‘varietals’ are simply sub-species of coffea arabica (the scientific name for Arabica coffee). The most common varietal produced globally is aptly named “typica.” Different varietals feature different intrinsic qualities in their taste, disease resistance, crop yield, and a laundry list of other factors.
While producers aim for a final product with the best possible list of general qualities and flavors, roasters pick and choose which qualities they want to accentuate or conceal. Lighter roasts tend to highlight a coffee’s intrinsic flavors or processing, while dark roasts tend to impart a “roast” flavor. This iconic dark roast flavor derives from the sugar caramelization or, in the case of very dark roasts, carbonization that occurrs during roasting.
In much the same way an expensive steak is never cooked to “well done,” most specialty coffee is roasted lighter to preserve the complex, often delicate flavors. It is these subtle flavors for which you are paying when you choose to invest in a specialty coffee experience. Cheaper coffees, on the other hand, are akin to skirt steak or carne asada. A little “char” or roast flavor can often help improve the overall experience by adding much needed complexity.
A coffee’s acidity is usually tied to its roast level. Acids change into different compounds as roast level increases, so light roast coffees tend to preserve more acidity, whereas dark roast coffees tend to be lower in acidity.
This is often a point of confusion for many new coffee drinkers. Many believe that if they cannot taste what is on the bag, they are simply unable to taste coffee or that they have been lied to. We assure you, neither are true. These “tasting notes” are actually better descriptors of the aromas associated with the coffee. There are only 5 (or more, depending on who you ask) primary flavors that can be processed by the tongue: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory. The rest of what we know as “flavor” is more closely tied to our olfactory system, or sense of smell.
Coffee is the most chemically complex beverage we humans consume. During the brewing process, many of these large, complex compounds quickly break down into smaller, simpler ones. This is why fresh brewed coffee is generally considered better than coffee that has been sitting out on a burner. The way we experience taste varies from person to person, so often times flavor notes should be taken as general guidelines, rather than specific flavors to taste for while drinking. (Fun fact: recent findings have found correlations between a person’s genetics and how they experience taste!)
Both green (unroasted) and roasted coffee are perishable food items; their quality gradually degrades with time. As roasted coffee sits, it “off-gasses” many of the gasses trapped inside of the cell structure of the bean. Many coffee bags have a built-in air valve to release air, and avoid the bag swelling like a balloon. While this may lead one to believe that fresher is always better, coffee can actually be too fresh to drink. The ideal range for roasted coffee is generally 7 -12 days “off-roast” (or, after the roast date), but 5-14 days off-roast will still brew great coffee.
Where To Next?