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What makes coffee good coffee?

Without recapping the history of coffee and boring you with too many numbers, coffee is the world’s most consumed beverage and hence pretty important for a fair number of people. An estimate of about 1.4 billion cups of coffee are drunk every single day. Based on the assumption that plenty of people drink more than one cup per day, there are still a fair few who drink coffee daily. If all of them were asked for their definition of good coffee, we would have millions of different definitions. Of course we could group some definitions together, but nonetheless, what makes a good coffee for one person can be something completely different for another. Despite all coffee critics, the cup of excellence etc., good coffee is subjective.  Hence, everything I write about coffee here can be taken with a pinch of salt, as a lot of it will be based on what I personally perceive as good coffee, which could be completely different to what you or anyone else thinks.

Especially over the last six months, I’ve been able to immerse myself into the world of coffee, focussing mainly on the third wave coffee movement. This has included visiting numerous coffee shops in Europe, the U.S., Colombia, Central America and South Africa, going to coffee roasters, taking part in cupping sessions, visiting coffee farms and also attending Zurich’s first coffee festival. I had the chance to deepen my knowledge about coffee and the “bean to cup” journey by talking to some very knowledgeable and passionate people along the way, including baristas, coffee shop owners, roasters, fellow coffee bloggers, coffee farmers… All of this has helped me identify my personal “good coffee”.
With the third wave coffee movement, particularly with the rise of the so-called specialty coffee roasters, the “bean to cup” journey is of great significance. A roaster or coffee shop, which is serious about their product, will take pride in the “journey” of their coffee. Where the beans are sourced, is it single origin or a blend, what’s the roasting technique, is it a fine or coarser grind, what are the extraction methods, these are all variables which need to be considered by places serving coffee. On top of that, coffee machine, grinder, temperature, pressure, moisture, milk, and many more, are further variables, needed to be addressed.

img_0753I didn’t start to drink coffee until I was in my early 20s, at first only espresso, which I started drinking in Italy, before also including cappuccinos. At the time I found it pretty easy to get a decent coffee pretty much anywhere I went in Italy. Every place had a proper machine, La Marzocco, Wega, La Cimbali or similar and were able to make a nice crema and good foam for an Italian style cappuccino. I drank both drinks adding plenty of sugar, especially my espressi were saturated with sugar. Only when I was back in Germany and ordered my first cappuccino there, did I notice that I wasn’t able to get a cappuccino to my liking everywhere I went. Nonetheless at the time I didn’t really start paying too much attention to coffee yet.

Nowadays my personal “good coffee” still tends to be coffee with milk, a flat white, a cappuccino, a cortado or a macchiato, no lattes – too much milk, not enough coffee. If it’s super hot, then also different kinds of iced coffee, especially inspired by my time in Athens where after being reluctant at first I got used to drinking a freddo cappuccino. I also still love drinking a “good” espresso! For me personally, two key factors are temperature and consistency. I don’t want to burn my tongue and nor do I want to have to wait half an hour for my coffee to cool down so that I can drink it. For espresso as well as the milk-based drinks, flat white, cappuccino and cortado consistency is key for me, I like them more viscous, more thick and creamy. With the milky drinks the coffee should kind of blend in with the milk, especially for a flat white, if it’s made the way I love it, creating a sweetness so that even I don’t need to add sugar anymore. My espresso taste hasn’t changed much. The espresso (crema) I like most is a classic Italian espresso, so thick that one can almost stand a spoon up in it. I do appreciate and also drink the third wave movement espresso where you can taste different fruits, vegetables, chocolate, nuts and what ever else, but personally still prefer a good Italian style crema, and should I dare admit it, with sugar.
Dear third wave coffee shops, please don’t hide the sugar, I do try all or at least most of my coffees without adding sugar immediately…

In whichever way you prefer to drink your coffee, do you really think that you will stumble upon your perfect coffee simply based on the quality of the coffee itself? In most cases I would have my doubts, as I believe that it doesn’t simply depend on the “bean to cup” journey. As we know good coffee is very subjective but there are other factors than just the quality of the roasted beans and the skill of the barista and his tools preparing your coffee drink of choice. It’s about the entire package, including the interaction you have with your chosen location, the atmosphere of where you choose to enjoy your coffee along with the experience of ordering and drinking it, and sometimes also your company.

p1020203To now not completely downplay the importance of the coffee itself, let’s kick things off with the taste or flavour of coffee. After all it still is the key ingredient and if the coffee isn’t up to scratch, it’s pointless to go any further. Apart from the coffee needing to have a certain quality, for me drinking espresso based drinks, there also needs to be a decent coffee machine present for me to even enter the coffee shop. Not that I don’t think that Nespresso, WMF, Jura or similar haven’t developed a decent product, but I don’t believe that I will ever be fully satisfied by a coffee which is prepared by the push of one button. If I see one of these machines in a coffee shop I tend to do a 180 and head back out the door.
Back to the taste of coffee.. Despite occasionally referring to myself as a coffee snob, and people asking me for my opinion on coffee, I’m not a critique and don’t even believe I’m that great at tasting the nuances of different coffee beans. I have been to a couple of cuppings and will probably go to some more, but I’ll leave the grading to the experts who do this for a living at competitions like the Cup of Excellence or at coffee auctions. Similar to wine, I mainly just judge if I like or dislike a certain coffee. Like with wine, with coffee often judges also contradict each other, again highlighting how subjective good coffee is.

With coffee some prefer a lighter roast, while others prefer darker ones. Some are on the filter coffee bandwagon with increasingly more jumping on it. Others swear by their espresso, some straight, some with milk, some with sugar and again others with both. There are even some who like their instant coffee, i.e. Nescafe. I’m not here to say what’s right or wrong, what ever floats your boat… However having visited some coffee farms and talked to a number of people in the industry, when it comes to the quality of coffee beans there is definitely a better and a worse selection, e.g. for instant coffee versus what you might find at your chosen specialty roaster.

p1020509Having immersed myself into the coffee scene a while ago now, and having visited more coffee shops and roasters than I can remember, hanging out at many with friends or family, with a book or my laptop, or to further my coffee education, it got me thinking. I’ve visited many exceptional and memorable coffee locations, but some I also almost forget as soon as I exit the door, even if the coffee might have been decent enough. For me to “favourite” a place, of course I must have been served a great cup of coffee, but that’s not enough. I believe the x factor is in large part the coffee shop or roaster itself. Similar to with meeting your soul mate, it’s about the first impression, about chemistry, the communication with staff. It’s always nice to come across people who are very passionate about coffee and interested in their customers and their coffee preferences. At the same time it’s nice to see when people take pride in their “art”, are consistent at serving a great cup of coffee, and might not even serve a cup of coffee until they are happy with their work. Regarding this aspect, I believe it’s quite a difficult step for people who started their own coffee shop to take a step back and let others run the show once it’s time to employ staff. Maybe more than in a lot of other industries, it’s about the fit, not only does a barista need to consistently produce a great cup of coffee. As the face of a coffee shop a barista ought to demonstrate a passion for what he or she does and be approachable. They don’t have to be everybody’s darling but should be able to relate to the majority of the clientele the coffee shop would like to attract. Some of the less pleasant experiences are when baristas or coffee shop owners don’t seem welcoming, aren’t interested in their clients or their coffee preferences, or have a bad attitude. With the whole third wave coffee and hipster movement, I feel that some baristas seem to have forgotten that they rely on their customers. With starting this blog, it’s obvious that I appreciate the science and art behind a good cup of coffee and I am always happy when a barista convinces me to try something else than what I actually ordered. It’s a shame when some baristas don’t realise that “serving” a good cup of coffee isn’t quite rocket science, so you guys please step of your high horse… Nothing ruins the coffee experience more than a hipster barista with a patronising, arrogant or snobbish attitude.

I like hearing the stories of the people ensuring I am served the best possible coffee, and the ones I often find the most interesting are when people landed in the coffee industry by accident or quit their 60h work week or 9-5 day job to do something they are really passionate about.

What makes coffee good coffee, for you?

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