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How to avoid crappy coffee

Why is it so easy to find bad coffee? Because it's really difficult to make good coffee. 

Don't get me wrong, if you like bad coffee keep drinking it. I'm the first one to say you should drink your coffee your way. This is not a coffee snob thing. I like mine drip with cream and sugar. But...I beg you...ditch the Keurig. Or, at the very least, know that you can get a cheaper, better quality cup of coffee than what Starbucks has to offer. 

Coffee has more flavor compounds that wine. It's greatly influenced by growing conditions, processing, and ultimately how you brew it. So when I sat down to think about writing up a short guide it hit me that it's actually a lot easier to tell you how to avoid a bad cup than how to get a good cup. I'm still searching for the perfect cup. I've come close. But that's the tricky part...you can never quite get the same cup of coffee the way you can never step into the same river twice. So, with that in mind, here a few simple ways to think about your daily coffee. I'm not going to focus so much on brewing--now that's a complicated topic. But I'll try to get you to the point where you're standing in front of some form of coffee brewing equipment with fresh grounds in front of you. 

  1. Coffee is agriculture. Yes, it's also a commodity. But one of the greatest lessons you can ever learn about coffee is what famed coffee icon Geoff Watts said in a lecture I was at last year: from the time it is picked, your coffee can only get worse, not better. How it is grown and processed impacts the flavor in your cup. There are types of coffee plant. There are types of processing--wet or dry--which you can learn about. There are regions and nations which have characteristic flavors...I tend to like coffees from Guatemala and Rwanda. Coffees from Costa Rica are known for being "balanced" but sometimes too balanced for people who want a little rough edge. 
  2. I won't go into a roasting too much here...but the lighter the roast the less burned it is. Essentially, when you roast coffee you're creating charcoal if you go too dark. There's a reason that light roasts have become all the rage is that it it allows the flavors of the crop to come through so you can taste all the amazing sugars, fruits, etc.. PS light roast also has more caffeine. 
  3. Whole bean. Green coffee can store for awhile...months. A year. But once it is roasted, it needs to off-gas briefly then the quality will go downhill fairly quickly. Once coffee is ground--well, it should be brewed within minutes. Yes, minutes! 
  4. Ok, so you're now standing in your kitchen with freshly ground light roast beans from Ethiopia or Brazil. Now what? Well, the water needs to be a certain temperature, first of all. Then there is the problem of how the long the water and the grounds are in contact. Then you need to drink it before it sits too long. I'm not going into all the various methods and details...if you really want to see the standards I recommend the Specialty Coffee Association's Minimum Certification Requirements for Coffee Brewers
  5. A word about blends...there's nothing wrong with them. Just know that it can be difficult to mix coffees well and that you're missing out on some of the unique-to-region flavors that you get with single-origin coffee from one farm or one mill in a particular country.
If you're looking for a shortcut for good quality coffee there are well-known companies out there doing it. Intelligentsia and Metropolis are right here in Chicago. Stumptown is famous. Any local coffee shop you can find that roasts their own probably can get you started. 

But if you're one of those people out there looking for a national chain or something from your grocery aisle...well, good luck. Most of it is purchased in large quantities from huge coffee estates with bad growing and social practices. I have my favorites but I'm not going to get into endorsing one over another. And I'm not even touching "organic," "fair trade," or the other hot button coffee topics with a 10 foot pole. Needless to say, there are larger discussions to be had. 

I know some coffee farmers where I can get beans from directly. I roast my own. I brew my own. So I am happy to offer more insights, tips, or discuss the nuances of the industry. Just comment or Tweet! 

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