With everyone making more coffee at home, we thought we'd share some simple ways to make your coffee the best it can be. In our previous post, we explained extraction and strength in the context of your coffee recipe, but it's very important to be able to evaluate how your coffee tastes and how to use your understanding of these concepts to adjust your brewing.
The most common problem we've found in specialty coffee is underextraction. The easiest way to detect it is a sour or salty flavor in your coffee, as well as a lack of sweetness. Sourness especially can be difficult to evaluate in specialty coffee for some, it's hard to differentiate between "good" and "bad" acidity. A quick explanation is that sourness is sharp and aggressive, completely overwhelming any other flavors, rather than the pleasant, fruit-like acidity that complements other flavors in the coffee.
Since these undesirable flavors originate from under extracting your coffee, there are multiple ways to increase extraction to solve the issue. First, make sure your brew is remaining sufficiently hot throughout the entire process. Always start with water immediately off boil and pre-heat your brewing vessel thoroughly. Even consider re-heating your water after pre-heating or the bloom, as the minute or two your kettle sits waiting for the next step can drop the water temperature dramatically. Next, try using a finer grind of coffee, as this will increase the surface area available for water to act upon and extract thoroughly.
However, once you start tightening your grind setting, you may encounter a new extraction issue: uneven extraction. This will make your coffee taste dry and astringent, with an almost chewy character to it. Uneven extraction often gets misdiagnosed as "over extraction," when that is not entirely accurate. What is actually occurring is the water is not evenly flowing through the bed of coffee, and is then extracting certain areas of the bed more than others. You are then tasting a mixture of various levels of extraction, rather than an even distribution. The simplest way to solve this is to coarsen your grind, allowing the water to flow evenly and achieving a more even extraction.
A good rule of thumb then when dialing in a new coffee is to grind as fine as you can until you start reaching uneven extraction, and then backing off until you find a more balanced cup. However, it is worth being said that this is the point where people begin encountering the limits of what their home equipment can do. Many will try to strike the balance between under and uneven extraction and find their coffee still tasting underwhelming compared to what they find in cafes. Things like investing in a higher quality grinder, filtering your water, working on your pour technique, can make the difference between an ok cup and a great cup, and its up to you to evaluate what you may need to achieve that.
But what does a balanced, great cup of coffee even taste like? Having a standard of quality is just as essential as troubleshooting. An excellent indication of a good brew is sweetness. Coffee is a fruit, and some of that fructose-like sweetness does indeed make it through the roasting process. That subtle sweetness that comes through should mean that anyone can enjoy the coffee without having to add sugar.
Another good sign is clean and clear tasting flavors. A common question people have about specialty coffee is about the flavor notes we list on the bag, many can't believe that their coffee can taste like lavender, pineapple, apricot, when those notes come from our direct personal experience tasting these coffees in cupping sessions. Poorly extracted coffee will always obscure these flavors through either harsh acidity or muddiness, whereas a quality extraction will highlight those pleasant flavors.
Lastly, pleasant acidity is key. As said before, this can be the hardest thing for people to identify, as for some people, acidity is a bad word in coffee. Acids make up much of the flavors we enjoy in coffee, much like those that occur in fruits or wines. If your coffee reminds you of a perfectly ripe plum, for example, you are on the right track. However, if it tastes like you took a bite out of a lemon, you might want to re-evaluate your brew.