Have you ever been in line at your favorite café, anxiously eyeing your watch, late for work, and the barista at the register is droning on about every last minutiae of the featured coffee of the day to a disinterested but politely listening old lady who has probably never heard of a microclimate in her life?
If you can’t tell from the oddly specific scenario, we have.
Baristas who work in Specialty coffee should be experts in their fields, sure, but there is a subtle art to discerning just who actually wants to hear that information.
Making a point to make sure every customer you serve knows EXACTLY how deep your coffee knowledge runs, is not education; it’s annoying.
We’ve heard from plenty of folks on the customer side of the counter who have been completely turned off from Specialty coffee because of what they perceived to be esoteric, unwelcoming, almost intentionally exclusionary service scenarios that they had experienced in “third-wave” shops.
This blog, however, isn’t about customer service, nor is its purpose to shame the industry - many shops do a great job with their service and the industry in general has seen a substantial focus on hospitality over the last 5-10 years.
The point of the blog is that a lot of terminology you may hear thrown around in the cafes you frequent isn’t as hard to understand as you may imagine and, furthermore, understanding some of the basics will making selecting the best coffee offerings for you much easier.
Before we get into our vocab lesson, here are a few things we will not be discussing in this piece: variety, elevation, certifications. Variety and elevation are listed on many Specialty coffee roaster’s bags – some getting quite precise in the name of “transparency” - but we tend to feel they don’t convey relevant information to the vast majority of consumers and, as for certifications, we will expand on our thoughts on those in an upcoming piece.
Now for a few terms we will address that will keep your coffee lexicon as rich as your morning brew.
One thing you will want to look out for when purchasing retail coffee is the roast date. There is a finite span of time during which coffee performs at its best potential and after which, the flavor can slowly deteriorate.
We recommend brewing coffee within a month of being roasted.
Pro-Tip: Not all coffees age equally – some coffees may be delicious months off roast, while some may develop unpleasant flavors after 4 or 5 weeks. Whether or not the bag has been opened and how the coffee was stored can have major impacts on how long the coffee tastes fresh.
If you’re looking at a bag of coffee and there is no roast date listed, that’s likely by design and the coffee in your hands is more than likely quite old.
Various factors such as climate, soil chemistry, altitude, etc. can affect how a coffee tastes.
These affects that the location where the coffee grows can have on the coffee is known as terroir.
There aren’t hard and fast rules for what coffee from a particular origin or region is going to taste like, however, there are some very general characteristics of coffees in certain regions which you may find to be more common than others.
Generally, you can expect that African coffees will feature brighter, more acid forward flavors along with lots of floral and fruity flavors. Coffees from South America tend to have classic “coffee” profiles with notes of chocolate, caramel, and nuts, while coffees from Central America tend to be a bit cleaner and fruitier, with more acidity than their South American counterparts, although they often maintain a chocolate profile as well.
Within these regions, specific countries, regions, or even specific areas of farms, may have their own common traits, for example, coffees from Kenya tend to be feature high acidity with black currant and cranberry-like characteristics.
“Processing” refers to how the coffee seeds (what we typically call beans) are removed from the fruit which they grow within and is one of the largest contributing factors to a coffee’s flavor profile.
The two most prominent processing methods are known as the natural process and the washed processes.
Natural process coffees are dried with the fruit still on and will generally have very fruity, berry-forward flavors.
Washed coffees have are de-pulped, meaning the seed is removed from the fruit, and rinsed with clean water (washed) before drying and will tend to be cleaner and present more acidity.
Producer / Farm / Mill
If you drink coffee frequently, you may discover that there are particular producers, mills, or farms that you prefer over others. While the coffee may not taste exactly the same every year, it does share common characteristics, and regardless of type of coffee or year, you’ve come to identify this producer as producing products of excellence.
To make a wine analogy, changes in soil chemistry or differences in climate may cause wines from a particular vineyard to taste different year to year but there are certainly vineyards and winemakers known for their ability to create products that are consistently great.
Whether or not this is a purchasing metric for you, at the very least it is an opportunity to learn.
If you see a producer, farm, or mill listed on a bag of KLLR Coffee and want to learn more, visit our website and click the corresponding coffee bag.