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Factors That Characterize Great Coffee

Hey coffee lovers! We know that there is a lot that goes into the perfect cup of coffee, but in the end, it all comes down to personal preference. What are your favorite coffee characteristics?

What constitutes great for one person might be decidedly repulsive for another. Some may prefer a bitter coffee with fat body and resounding aftertaste, while others like it creamy with overloaded sweetness.

Whatever you prefer, most of us are bound to agree that coffee shouldn’t taste burnt, charred, or raw. Also, it should balance acidity, sweetness, and bitterness in one sip, with a smooth flavor and no off-notes.

But before any of that, what comes before the pour makes a world of difference in your cup. Great tasting coffee starts with a high-quality bean. Let’s take a look at a few factors that need to come together for the perfect production.

Coffee Bean Production Factors

Plantation

rows of characteristic coffee beans

Plantation is the cultivation of the coffee plant, usually done in large commercial operations. Everything from the climate to the altitude of the beans’ place of origin factors into your coffee’s taste.

Coffee beans are best grown at high altitudes so they don’t overheat or grow too quickly. When they grow slowly and at the proper temperature, they’re more likely to withstand the hot temperatures they’ll experience throughout the rest of the cultivating process.

Correct land elevation, proper temperature, good soil, and access to a good watering system are also factors that crucially determine the quality of the coffee bean.

Harvesting

picking coffee bean "cherries"

We all know that coffee beans grow inside coffee “cherries”. It’s important for farmers to pick the cherries at just the right time when they’re full and meaty.

From there, they must be transported and milled in a timely fashion so their flavor and quality is preserved.

Furthermore, there are a lot of methods of processing coffee cherries: hulled, dry-hulled, wet-hulled, natural, wet/dry processed, or honey processed.

But generally, the natural process makes the freshest beans. Without fresh coffee, there’s no denying that you will end up with one disappointing cup of joe.

Roasting

coffee beans in a roaster

Roasting the beans is where the coffee characteristics we’re all familiar with will start to come through.

The coffee roasting process transforms the raw coffee beans into the distinctively aromatic, crunchy beans we recognize as coffee. It is usually done by setting the coffee through fire.

The degree to which coffee beans are roasted is one of the most important factors that determine the taste of the coffee in the cup. It could arguably make or break your blend. It is a finicky process that requires consistent heat applied throughout the roast time.

The most common way to describe coffee roast levels is by the color of the roasted beans, ranging from light to dark (or extra dark). As coffee beans absorb heat in the roasting process, their color becomes darker. Oils appear on the surface of the beans at higher temperatures.

A good roaster knows the characteristics of the beans and can match the roasting level with the beans.

Brewing Styles

characteristic coffee pour-over being brewed

All the variables in brewing matter a lot too! From water temp to grind size to filter and beyond, they all play a part in how well the delicious coffee from the farm makes its way to your mouth.

Brewing coffee is the process of extracting the soluble material in roasted ground coffee. As this coffee is brewed in hot water, hundreds of unique compounds (caffeine, acids, lipids, and sugar) are extracted from the ground beans — creating brewed coffee.

Here are some of the most common methods to brew a coffee:

  • Pour Over– pouring water over and through the grounds to extract the coffee flavors into your cup or serving vessel.
  • French Press– a manual brewing method, which means you’re not letting an electronic device do everything for you. You get to measure your ingredients, grind the coffee, pour in the water, time the brew yourself, and press the plunger.
  • Aeropress- a go-to brew method for those who love delicious coffee on the go. Coffee is steeped for 10–50 seconds and then forced through a filter by pressing the plunger through the tube.
  • Espresso- also done by using pressure to force hot water through finely ground, compacted coffee. It is more concentrated than coffee brewed using other methods.
  • Auto-drip Brewer- The auto-drip is probably the most well-known and most popular way to make coffee. It is used to grind coffee to medium-fine particle size.

Regardless of the brew method you choose, make sure you’re using the appropriate grind size for your brew method of choice. Be sure also that your water is clean, and that you’re using water that is at an appropriate temperature.


Coffee Taste Characteristics

All the technical factors above will determine how your coffee will taste after its production. Although taste is subjective to one palate, here’s how professional coffee tasters (or cuppers) grade the coffees on five basic taste characteristics:

1. Flavor

A coffee’s flavor describes the overall and combined sensations of the coffee’s distinctive aromatic and taste characteristics–bitterness, sweetness, and aftertaste.

It’s about defining specific attributes of a coffee according to standardized terms. Some “winey” coffees have a flavor reminiscent of red wine. Other coffees have a fruity essence that suggests berries or citrus.

Whatever it is, the right amount of flavor extraction is obviously an important factor. Inconsistently ground beans result in weirdly extracted coffee; the same goes for inconsistent temperature and timing.

All-in-all, a great coffee has balance, and no single flavor characteristic dominates or overpowers the others.

2. Acidity

As a taste characteristic, acidity refers to the sharp and pleasing aftertaste, often referred to as the liveliness of the coffee (bright and dry taste that adds life to a coffee).

In coffee, acidity is a highly desirable quality that describes the brightness of flavor. Acidity ranges from low to high OR smooth to lively. A coffee without any acidity is generally undesirable and is referred to as flat, dull, boring, and mellow.

Acidity in great coffee is balanced, crisp, and creates a zingy feeling across the front half of your tongue. This combination of characteristics highlights the naturally occurring flavors in the coffee, pushing the entire sensory experience a step forward.

3. Body

Body is the texture or mouthfeel of a coffee such as oiliness, thickness, and heaviness. It is a desirable quality that describes the feel of the coffee in your mouth rather than the actual flavor.

To shed some light, here are some characteristic coffee body descriptions from Espresso & Coffee Guide:

Light Body

light body (or “thin body”) is water-like, with very little residue or texture on the tongue. Coffees grown at low altitudes and in soils lacking nutrients commonly exhibit a light body. Brewing methods that use a paper filter to remove oils and other solids can make a lighter-bodied coffee, as well as brewing quickly (eg. a k-cup).

A light body isn’t necessarily a bad thing however. Some people (eg. super-tasters) are simply more sensitive to the tastes and lingering effects of a heavier bodied coffee and prefer a light body as a matter of preference. Don’t let anyone tell you that drinking a certain coffee you enjoy is wrong.

Because “body” is a measure of the concentration of dissolved solids, simply diluting a coffee with more water is a way to make a coffee’s body lighter. This should be done after the coffee has been brewed, using same-temperature water, to avoid over-extraction of bitter compounds.

Medium Body

medium body lies somewhere between a light (or mild) coffee and a heavy (or syrupy) coffee. Since light and heavy bodied coffees have attributes that might be too extreme in one direction or another, a medium bodied coffee will be a good, easy-going daily drinker.

Most coffees that are too light or heavy can be brewed with a medium body by altering the brewing method. If a coffee is naturally light bodied (Mexican, Brazilian, Jamaican), then brewing slowly and without a paper filter (espresso especially) is a good way to bring out more of the solids and mouth-feel. If a coffee is naturally heavy-bodied, then decreasing brew time and using a paper coffee filter while brewing will tone it down.

Heavy Body

heavy body (or “Full Body”) is one that can be felt on the tongue, almost textured, due to a combination of the fat, protein and fiber content. Heavy bodies are typically attributed to high grown and shade grown coffees, especially in rich volcanic soils, and is seen as a positive attribute. It can also be the result of brewing method, mostly in an espresso, moka pot (stove top) or steel-filter pour over drip coffee (not paper filter).

4. Aroma

Coffee aroma is the fragrance of brewed coffee and is closely related to coffee flavor. As our sense of smell affects our taste, some of the subtle taste characteristics of coffee actually come from the coffee aroma.

In fact, according to a research in coffee chemistry, coffee aroma is responsible for all coffee flavor attributes other than the mouthfeel and sweet, salt, bitter, and sour taste attributes that are perceived by the tongue.

The more subtle nuances of coffee flavor such as “floral” or “winey “ come more from the aroma or smell of the coffee than from the taste. Coffee cuppers smell the coffee grounds to judge or classify the flavor characteristics of the coffee.

Moreover, a coffee’s aroma is also related to the coffee’s flavor and acidity. For example, if a coffee has very rich flavors, then the aroma will also reflect that richness, and if a coffee has acidic flavors it will also smell acidic.

5. Finish

If aroma is the overture of the coffee, then finish is the resonant silence at the end of the piece. Finish describes the immediate sensation after the coffee is swallowed (or spit out).

Some coffees develop in the finish — they change in pleasurable ways and will leave a pleasurable taste or feel in your palette that lingers. Sometimes called the “aftertaste”, this can be chocolate, burnt, mint, tobacco, tang, etc.

Lastly, finish is also a reflection of the “body”, and therefore, heavier bodied coffees will have a longer finish than lighter bodied coffees.


Parting Time

As you probably are already aware, coffee is extremely complex and also very delicate. If something goes wrong in any part of the process of getting the coffee from the farm to your cup, it can have devastating results in how it tastes.

At the end of the day, despite all of the factors that go into what constitutes a great cup of coffee based on specific processes and ratings, what really matters when judging coffee is ultimately how it tastes to you and whether or not you consider it good.


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