All coffee is not created equal: a primer on choosing great coffee.
Although this article is about coffee (eventually) it starts with asking you to imagine that you’re in the market for a new car. Your reliable Ford Focus just broke down and you’re looking for something to replace it. One night at a party you casually mention this to a friend of yours and he tells you that he’s actually got a few cars he’s trying to sell. Because you’re his favorite person in the world he’s willing to give you a special price. This is his offer:
- He’ll sell you a brand new 2018 BMW i8 for $1,000.
- He’ll sell you a 1986 Mitsubishi Delica van for $2,000.
Because you’re a thoughtful person you tell him you’d like to go home and think the offer over and weigh the pros and cons of each options. Later that night you get to thinking.
On one hand the Mitsubishi Delica is certainly practical. It will get you to where you need to go with only a very small chance of falling apart on the way there. If you’re lucky and have more than one friend you could even offer them all a ride! Best of all, it’s perfect on Halloween when you want to cosplay as a Taiwanese delivery man — just add betel nut.
Unfortunately it’s monstrously ugly. It’s terrible for the environment too, guzzling gas in the way your Ford Focus could only dream of. It’s also a complete nightmare to drive. A corner taken a few KPH too fast might send you careening into a death roll off the side of the road.
The BMW i8, on the other hand, is everything that the Delica isn’t. It’s a joy to drive, doing 0–100KPH in just over 4 seconds. Plug-in electric means saving on gas and being good for the environment. It’s a car you can truly look and feel good driving.
Although there might be some die hard Delica fans out there I’d wager that the vast majority of people would, given the information available and the price of each option, choose the BMW i8 every single time. It just makes sense: why would you pay more to receive less?
The question then is: why do the majority of people overpay for the Delica of coffee at almost every opportunity?
“I thought this was an article about coffee!” you’re saying to yourself right now. Let me explain. Here at IMPCT we’re trying to build a better coffee company. We’re using the world’s best coffee to build a better life for the poor people at origin who grow the drink we love. A huge part of that task is education: explaining why what we do is fundamentally different from your other options. We use analogies to show that coffee shares many of the features of the products you already know and love.
The purpose of the preceding caranalogy is to point out the uncontroversial fact that not every product of the same type is identical. We need to be discerning. From features, to price, to purpose, the products we choose between every day can be radically different. H&M isn’t Gucci. Mitsubishi isn’t BMW. A $4 bottle of Carrefour wine isn’t a 1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Starbucks isn’t Blue Bottle or IMPCT Coffee.
The first and most important thing to understand about coffee is this: every coffee is not created equal. At the end of the day a coffee from Starbucks is as different from a coffee at IMPCT as the Mitsubishi Delica is from the BMW i8. To understand why we need to look at three key stages in bringing coffee to your cup: sourcing, roasting, and preparation. We’ll go into more details in future articles so will stick to the broad overview here. If you want the TLDR/Cliff’s Notes version of this whole article just look for the bold text in each section for important takeaways.
Coffee is a fruit!
The first thing to understand about coffee beans is that they’re actually the seed of a fruit, a coffee cherry actually. Just like with wine grapes, where and how these cherries are grown radically change the flavor of the coffee in your cup. Also like wine grapes, where varietals range from Merlot to Pinot Noir, coffee cherries have varietals too. You might recognize the names Gesha or Pacamara, for example. These are different varietals of coffee plants that are difficult to grow, requiring certain growing conditions but producing coffee beans with very unique flavor profiles.
Where we grow that fruit matters.
Every country that grows coffee, because of its unique geography, climate, and soil types, produces coffees with unique flavors as well. Guatemala’s volcanic soil produces coffees with strong chocolate-y tastes while Ethiopia’s drier climate means much fruitier coffees. Small changes in the climates within a country make a huge different to the bean’s quality and taste too. This means that farms from different areas of Guatemala produce coffees as different from each other as Guatemalan coffee is from Ethiopian coffee in the first place. These differences produce significant variations in flavor. If you haven’t liked the taste of black coffee in the past it might be as simple as trying one from a different region.
How we process the fruit makes a difference.
Obviously we don’t drink coffee cherries, we drink coffee beans. The journey from coffee cherry to coffee bean is a remarkably difficult one that we call “processing”. Processing involves everything from removing the fruit from the coffee bean to drying the bean to exactly the right moisture content to prepare it for storage and roasting. How we do this completely changes the taste of the coffee you’ll end up drinking. From our conversations with Latin America’s best coffee farmers how well a coffee is processed is probably the single most important factor in its final taste and quality. When we talk about washed, honey, or natural process coffees these refer to different ways of processing beans.
Specialty coffee vs commodity green coffee.
The point of talking about how coffee is grown and processed is to help you understand one very important distinction, that between “specialty” (some would say “third wave”) coffee and commodity coffee.
Specialty coffee is a term reserved for the top fraction of 1% of all coffee grown worldwide. This is the very best coffee the world has to offer. Specialty coffee can be traced back to exactly one small farm, in one country, of one varietal, harvested on one date. When we sell a cup of specialty coffee we can guarantee everything about that cup, from the farmer who grew it to how it was processed and everything in between.
Commodity coffee, on the other hand, is the opposite. Commodity coffee is generally a mix of random coffees beans grown within one country. These are generally grown on huge factory farms in different locations, with beans of different varieties all bundled together in one generic and undifferentiated package. These coffees are graded, not for their flavor, but by how many defects (bad beans) a batch might contain. They’re bought in huge lots on commodity marketplaces.
Think of the difference like this. Commodity coffee is as if we bundled together a bunch of different grapes from Italy and Chile, made something vaguely red and alcoholic, and slapped it in a bottle with a label reading only “Red Wine”. Specialty coffee, on the other hand, would be a great vintage wine from a single estate in Tuscany.
This isn’t to say there’s no place for cheap, commodity coffee. If what we care about is getting a caffeine-filled brown liquid into a drink with a bunch of calorie-laden cream and sugar at the cheapest possible cost, commodity coffee is great. If what we care about is enjoying the unique characteristics of coffee from around the world, specialty coffee is almost surely the way to go.
Like with any product, limited production and high quality specialty coffee costs significantly more than low quality commodity coffee. Starbucks, who use almost exclusively commodity grade coffee, pays around $3 per KG for green beans. Specialty coffee companies like ours pay much more: anywhere from $6–15+. The extra money we pay goes straight to the farmer, being re-invested in his operations and the well being of his employees.
When Starbucks tries to sell you a $5 cup of coffee you should be skeptical. Only pennies of that is actually the cost of the coffee beans used. The rest goes to a huge marketing budget (almost $400,000,000 in 2016) working to convince you that they’re making something much higher quality than they actually are. The reason you find so much cream, sugar, and flavoring in coffee from companies like Starbucks is precisely to hide the negative characteristics of the very cheap coffee they use. Their signature “dark roast” is yet another strategy designed to cover up the taste of cheap coffee beans, which is our next topic.
The second piece of the coffee puzzle is roasting. When we buy specialty coffee it arrives here in the form of “green” beans. These are beans that have been picked and processed as described above and are now sitting waiting to be roasted. Roasting is the process of slowly baking coffee beans to develop their full flavor potential. This happens by the Maillard reaction. The same process that makes BBQ meat so good is also responsible for your delicious cup of coffee.
Freshness is key!
Roasting is an extremely difficult scientific process (although some might argue that it’s more of an art) that takes years to master. Probably the most important thing to understand about roasting is that, whatever roast style you prefer, the more freshly roasted the better. After roasting coffee needs a few days to develop its full flavor potential but after that it should ideally be consumed within about a month. Beyond a month it quickly loses flavor and intensity, becoming a dull and stale mess.
Micro vs macro roasting.
Another important factor to consider when you’re trying to select a roasted coffee bean is the batch size during roasting. Very high quality specialty coffee is often roasted in very small (2–15kg) batches on expensive, precision-control, roasting machines by a roast master who knows how to bring out the best in each bean they roast. Small batches mean increased quality control and consistency across batches.
Light vs dark roasts.
Although we can confidently talk about the quality difference between commodity and specialty green coffee or the benefits of fresh vs. stale roasts, roast level is a bit more controversial. Although most specialty coffee companies are known for their very light roasts, there’s nothing saying that a darker roast can’t also be great. Fundamentally the difference is that a light roast highlights the unique flavors found in a bean while a dark roast hides them. A light roast minimizes roast taste where a dark roast will predominantly feature flavors introduced by the roasting process. Our position here at IMPCT Coffee is that if we’re going the extra mile to source, purchase, and prepare unique coffee offerings then it makes sense to do everything we can to highlight those characteristics with a lighter roast.
Specialty vs commodity coffee roasting.
Like with green coffee, there’s a huge gap between the way specialty coffee companies and commodity coffee companies handle coffee roasting. Specialty companies like our tend to view roasting as something meant to compliment the high quality beans we source, giving customers a more “pure” experience. We do light-medium roasts in small batches to show off the extremely hard work our farmers put into producing the coffees we love. We also try to honor their work by always trying to sell our coffee within a month after roasting.
Commodity coffee companies are playing a different game here. It’s common to find extremely dark roasts that have been sitting on the shelves for months and months at your local supermarket or Starbucks. Although Starbucks were a pioneer of the dark roasting style it has mostly become a tool that enables them to source inferior quality coffee, hide the defects in those beans, and have it last longer on shelves.
The science of brewing coffee.
Broadly there are two main ways of preparing coffee: drip brewing(V60, pour-over, siphon, machine) or espresso. Drip techniques produce a larger cup of less intense coffee while espresso makes a smaller amount of very concentrated coffee.
Where you find yourself will influence how the average coffee is prepared: North America and Scandinavia tend to prefer drip preparations while Europe (and the more traditional coffee markets) tend to prefer the quick-drinking espresso preparations. Here in Asia the latte (espresso and steamed milk, sometimes with flavoring) is far and away the most popular option although this is quickly changing in favor of black, drip coffee.
Regardless of the preparation method you choose, there are a few factors that will determine the quality of the cup of coffee you end up with. For any given brewing technique there is generally an optimal extraction amount that we aim for. We measure this in TDS (total dissolved solids), the amount of compounds from the coffee beans that get dissolved in the water during brewing. Grind size, water temperature, and extraction time are probably the top 3 factors influencing this so controlling them is paramount. Complicating things further are that every different coffee bean (and slightly different roast technique) requires tweaks to any/all of those parameters to produce the optimal cup of coffee.
When it comes to coffee preparation, specialty coffee companies invest a considerable amount of time and money into equipment and training that allows them to precisely control the brewing process. When the difference between a good and a great cup of coffee is down to a few degrees in water temperature this amount of control really does matter.
Here at IMPCT Coffee we use pour-over brewing setups made in the USA by a company called Modbar. These allow us to develop our drip pour-over recipes by hand (something we’ve spent thousands of hours doing) and then program them into the machines to be perfectly executed time after time. What this means is a consistently amazing cup of coffee that doesn’t rely on how good of a day your barista is having.
Although the easy conclusion to an article like this would be to simply recommend specialty coffee in all situations we don’t believe that’s useful or even true. The conclusion to be drawn here is the same as in the opening analogy: be discerning, get what you pay for.
There’s a place in this world for commodity coffee and specialty coffee. Each serve their purpose, and priced fairly each should be a part of your coffee routine. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting a $1 latte from 7–11, as specialty coffee lovers we’re guilty of doing it all the time. It’s a different and enjoyable experience whose price makes it approachable as an every day thing.
On the other hand, there’s a lot more to appreciate about specialty coffee given the extreme care that goes into bringing it to you. It’s ethically produced with a transparent supply chain, uniquely reflects the country that grew it, and (in our opinion) simply tastes better. It’s a way to travel the world without leaving your home city.
There is, however, no place in this world for commodity coffee done poorly and priced at a premium. I call out Starbucks multiple times in this article because they’re easily the world’s worst offenders here. Starbucks, at a basic level, is the cheapest coffee they can source, over-roasted with maximum efficiency in mind, packed full of artificial flavors, and sold at a price that should make a reasonable person cringe.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of coffee companies that put Starbucks to shame in terms of quality and price in any given city. If you’re interested in trying expertly made pour-over coffee built to build a better future for the communities who grew it we’d obviously recommend coming to try us. If we’re not available in your city, leave us a message in the comments and I’ll personally recommend you a great place to grab a coffee wherever you happen to find yourself.