Is there anything as disappointing as bad coffee?
Maybe you’ve been there: it’s the afternoon, and your morning buzz is long gone. Five o’clock is still hours away, but you need something to keep you focused on that deadline – so you fill your cup with whatever is left in the pot from this morning’s brew. Unsurprisingly, it’s stale, sour, and burnt-tasting. In a word: horrible. And no one deserves that.
While fresh coffee is undeniably superior to stale coffee, there are a lot of factors to keep in balance when you’re trying to brew the perfect cup. There’s a lot more to making a full-flavoured cup of coffee than meets the eye.
It all starts with the plant. Most coffee drinkers now know that there are two primary species of coffee plant – Arabica and Robusta – and that specialty coffee is almost exclusively Arabica. Arabica beans are much more pleasantly flavoured and have a lower amount of caffeine than Robusta. Almost 100% of the Fair Trade coffee beans sold are Arabica beans.
As any gardener knows, plants are delicate, and respond to whatever is happening in their environments. When you plant tulips in the shade, they take longer to bloom. If the soil is low in nutrients, the plants suffer. Coffee plants are the same. The best coffees are grown at high altitudes. This allows each plant to grow slowly, producing a dense bean with complex flavours.
Coffee growers experience years when the product isn’t up to standards. More or less rain than usual, unseasonable temperatures, disease, and other factors can lead to changes in the yield and character of every year’s crop. Most of the time, this isn’t a bad thing, and true connoisseurs are even known to seek out specific crops from regions around the world in search of exotic flavor notes.
Coffee from Level Ground is grown in South America and Africa, exclusively at high altitudes. Some places, like Bolivia and Peru, see very consistently flavoured crops, year in and year out. Others, like Tanzania and Congo, can see big fluctuations in flavour profile year to year.
It’s important to trust whoever is in charge of roasting your coffee. Roasting coffee beans is, in some ways, like cooking a steak: there’s a very narrow window where the roasting (or ‘cooking’) time perfectly complements the bean. Too little, and the coffee can taste thin and acidic, too much, and you end up with coffee that tastes like charcoal! Like cooking, it’s as much an art as it is a science.
At Level Ground, they adjust their roast for every new shipment of beans. Every tiny adjustment affects the flavour of the final cup of coffee, and it can often take a dozen experiments to find the best roast for a particular crop. The attention to detail and pursuit of quality is what makes Level Ground coffee so spectacular – and it’s why we trust them to roast the coffee with our name on it.
Grinding the coffee is the first chance you have, as a coffee drinker, to make your coffee better. By grinding the beans, you’re unlocking all the flavour compounds stored within the bean and making them available to be extracted.
Lots of people buy pre-ground coffee, and for good reasons – it’s convenient and consistent. The issue with pre-ground coffee is that it quickly loses flavour. If you are choosing pre-ground coffee, store it in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. This helps keep the grinds fresh for as long as possible.
If you do grind your own beans, take the time to figure out what grind works for you. The rule of thumb is that the less time the coffee is in contact with water, the smaller the grind. This means if you’re making espresso, you want a very fine grind, while a French press requires coffee ‘chunks’ in comparison.
Beyond that rule of thumb, you can fine tune the grind size if you’re unhappy with the flavour of your coffee. A burr grinder – one that uses two ceramic or metal ‘gears’ to grind the coffee – produces a more uniform grind size and therefore a more uniform extraction of flavour. If you’re finding that the coffee you’re drinking is muddy tasting or lacking clarity, consider investing in a burr grinder.
If you’ve done your best to choose high quality coffee, roasted by an expert, ground with precision, you should be home free – but you’re not. To truly perfect a cup of coffee, the brew method matters, too.
The main thing that matters is the ratio. This is where a lot of people get lost. Coffee extraction is a delicate operation, so eyeballing the amount you add will just lead to imprecise results – and that means bad coffee. Coffee experts suggest that unless you’re making espresso, the ideal ratio of water to coffee is around 15:1 to 18:1, by weight. This works out to about 55 grams of coffee for every litre of water. This ratio stays the same whether you’re using a coffeemaker, a French press, or a single cup pour over.
If you’ve perfected the ratio, and time and again are ending up with sour coffee, your equipment may be the culprit. Many countertop automatic coffeemakers heat the coffeepot from the bottom. Even though it’s not a lot of heat, this extra heating after the brewing process can scald the coffee before you’ve even poured your first cup. If you are using an automatic machine that heats from the bottom, the best advice is to serve quickly! As soon as the coffee has finished brewing, get the carafe off the heat and into cups. This will minimize the adverse effects.
Now comes the best part.
Contrary to what you might hear, black isn’t best. What you like is best. Add milk, cream, sugar, soy, Splenda, or coconut oil – whatever helps make that cup taste perfect.
Take a moment to enjoy your coffee. We all have days when it’s all we can do to fill our travel mugs before rushing off to work, but whenever you can, take the time, relax, and think about how much care has gone into your drink. From the (fair trade) growers who pick the coffee cherries by hand, high in the mountains of South America or Africa, to Level Ground in Victoria, BC, where the beans are precision-roasted, tested for excellence, and packaged. From there the coffee makes its way to you, for you to honour, delight in, and savour. Isn’t all that worth a few moments in the morning?