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Coffee Basics 101 – Choosing a Great Coffee!
"I'm searching for a really great cup of coffee -- what variety should I buy?"
I've been asked this question many times over the years and I always provide the same answer -- "That depends!" Early coffee drinkers used to choose their coffee for the caffeine jolt it provided. But times have changed, and in today's world, when choosing a great coffee -- it's all about the taste, and the taste depends on many things.
The taste of a great coffee depends on the climate, soil and cultivation methods involved in the beans' production. Coffee beans contain hundreds of compounds that give them their flavor and aroma. The type of coffee bean you choose, arabica or robusta makes a huge difference in coffee quality and taste. Arabica beans are of a much higher-quality compared to robusta beans, which are normally used as filler for most lower-end coffees. The roasting and brewing process used on the beans can also greatly affect the taste. All of these factors, together, have an enormous impact on coffee taste and quality, and as a result, they do determine whether the coffee is really great or not.
But, I also think that when it comes right down to it, the most important factor that ultimately determines whether a coffee is really great or not is whether you the consumer like it. Not everyone prefers the same characteristics in a coffee; some prefer it light and mellow, while others prefer it heavy and full-bodied. So when asking what variety to buy in order to get a really great cup of coffee, you really have to look at your own personal likes and dislikes in a cup of joe.
Most people, when choosing their cup of preference, weigh the quality of a coffee by its aroma, acidity, flavor and body.
1. The aroma of a coffee is basically one's first impression or "sniff" as the gases released from the brew hit your nose. Words like "earthy," "fruity" and "herby" can be used to describe a coffee's aroma.
2. The acidity of a coffee is the "pleasant sharpness" you taste when you take a gulp (or a sip). Acidity is good in a coffee, in that if it had no acidity, the coffee would taste flat. A low acidity coffee is a pleasant-tasting, mellow coffee, whereas a high acidity coffee is very robust and knocks your socks off!
3. The flavor factor of a coffee is the perception in your mouth of those hundreds of aromatic elements or compounds of the coffee bean. It also refers to any specific taste you notice in the coffee, such as a "nuttiness" or "spiciness."
4. Finally, the body of a coffee is the impression of weight and texture that the coffee leaves in your mouth. This is known as "mouthfeel" and can often be described as "heavy," "watery" or "light."
Coffee comes from three main growing regions of the world: the Americas, Africa, and Asia/Pacific. Each region instills its own distinct characteristics into its coffee. So keeping in mind the four cup characteristics described above, and your own personal likes and dislikes, you can narrow down your search by having a look at some of the characteristics each coffee variety/region has to offer.
* Brazil -- smooth, sweet and spicy with hints of allspice and cloves. Complex aroma, mild acidity, medium body. Look for Santos coffees, with Bourbon Santos being the best.
* Colombia -- rich, full aroma, mild with good acidity, sweet caramelly taste, medium body. Look for Excelso and Supremo grades.
* Costa Rica -- the SHB (Strictly Hard Bean) grade has a good aroma, high acidity, and a fine body. The GHB (Good Hard Bean) grade has a good aroma, very good acidity and a good body. Both provide a sweet, smooth cup. Look for Tarrazu.
* Guatemala -- aromatic, a soft mild flavor with a subtle smokiness, heavy body.
* Haiti -- very mellow and flavorful with a mild sweetness, heavy body.
* Hawaii -- the famous Kona coffee has a splendid aroma and is rich with a mellow character. Very flavorful with a hint of cinnamon and cloves, full-bodied.
* Jamaica -- Blue Mountain being the best, it has a delightful aroma, is extremely mellow and sweet-tasting with a full body. High Mountain Supreme comes in second with a medium to sharp acidity and a good body.
* Mexico -- wonderful aroma, sweet, medium acidity, hints of hazelnuts in the flavor, smooth body.
* Nicaragua -- good acidity and mild flavor with a hint of cognac. Look for Matagalpa.
* Panama -- smooth and sweet, good acidity and mild flavor with a heavy body.
* Peru -- good acidity with a mild flavor and excellent body.
* Venezuela -- great aroma, smooth and mellow with low acidity, rich and delicately winey, a little on the sweet side, light body.
* Burundi -- high acidity with a rich strong flavor and good body.
* Ethiopia -- amazing aroma of cinnamon, strawberries and fresh-mown grass, very acidic, winey, pungent, earthy flavors, spicy and complex, full-bodied. Look for Harrar - Longberry and Shortberry, and Yirgacheffe.
* Kenya -- Very fragrant and floral, sometimes winey, a mild coffee with a delicate acid flavor, and a great smoothness.
* Rwanda -- high acidity, strong flavor and good body.
* Tanzania -- rich and mellow with a delicate acidity. Look for peaberry varieties.
* Zaire -- rich, highly acidic, excellent flavor and body. Look for Kivu.
* India -- spicy aroma with hints of cinnamon and cedar, delicate acidity, complex and very rich, full-bodied. Look for Nilgiris and Monsoon Malabar.
* Indonesia -- rich with low acidity, spicy, strong flavor, heavy body - almost syrupy. Look for Sumatra, Celebes or Sulawesi.
* Papua New Guinea -- sweet and full-bodied. Look for Sigri and Koban.
* Yemen -- age old Mocha coffee - uniquely smooth and complex with a bit of sharpness, tremendous flavor, can be winey with cherry notes, heavy body. Look for Mattari or Sunani.
Once you have narrowed down your selection to a choice few, try to purchase some sample sizes and start slurping! You may discover you really enjoy one particular variety, or several different ones. Nothing wrong with having more than one favorite! Nonetheless, once you've found your favorite beans, always purchase them freshly roasted, and make sure to store them properly to maintain their freshness for as long as possible. Even a really great cup of coffee can turn into a dud if the beans were roasted ages ago, or left out to go stale.
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