"Why are Some Coffees Better than Others?"
The simple answer is: Quality.
The way to determine good, high-quality coffee is the same way as in other industries-- higher prices usually equal higher quality products.
Below are some key factors that determine coffee quality.
- ORIGIN- The country where a coffee is grown plays a significant role in the coffee’s inherent flavors. Some countries simply have more advantageous ecological factors that product tastier coffees: climate, soil conditions, etc.
- ALTITUDE- Typically, the higher up coffee is grown, the better it will taste. Coffees grown above 1,200 meters have these factors that produce excellent coffees: mild temperatures, plenty of rainfall, ample sunshine, and warm days/cool nights. Because of cooler temperatures at higher altitudes, the coffee plants grow slower, which develops more sugars in the fruit producing sweeter flavors in your mug.
- VARIETAL- Like other crops there are many different species of coffee. Arabica and Robusta are the two main ones, Arabica being superior. Robusta has more caffeine but tastes less sweet and is used in Commercial grade coffee. Arabica is used in the Specialty coffee industry. Within the species of Arabica coffee, there are many different varietals that all have different flavor characteristics (think apples).
The skill of the roaster plays a key role in producing a good tasting coffee. The common names for roast levels are: Light, Medium, and Dark. These levels are on a spectrum, meaning there is no specific point which a coffee is exactly at these levels. Light roasting accentuates flavor notes of fruit, floral, and brightness. Medium highlights notes of chocolate, nuttiness, caramel, and earthiness. Dark roasts are beginning to burn the outside layer of the bean, which is why the coffee tastes smoky and charred. The natural flavors of the bean fade the darker a coffee is roasted.
The job of the roaster is to know the inherent natural flavors that exist in the bean, and then roast them to a level that will accentuate those delicious flavors. Some coffees will taste terrible at a light roast, while most will taste good at medium. Typically, the most expensive high-quality coffees are roasted light to accent their sweet & juicy fruit notes. Remember, coffee is a fruit.
People’s expectations for what coffee should taste like have been determined by the recent past when coffee quality was poor (only a few decades ago); therefore, it was roasted dark to mask its subpar flavor. Times have changed as farming and roasting has progressed, and now the trends in the Specialty coffee industry(called Third Wave) lend toward coffees that have complex flavors, and are roasted on the lighter side.
Coffees will be at their peak flavor a few days after the roast date and will taste excellent for several weeks if stored properly and kept as whole bean. Once coffee is ground, the flavors instantly begin to decline.
Hopefully, this has been a helpful introduction as to why some coffees are better than others. There is much more to this topic, but we hope this enlightens and excites your coffee drinking experience.
As always, Drink Mindfully. :)