Learn all the coffee things
May 22, 2016 12:36 PM   Subscribe

After a few years away from caffeine, I'm coming back. How do I best go about learning the different regional and roasting effects on coffee's flavor?

Drinking what's available is suboptimal - structure always helps with learning. Buying bags will leave me with far too much leftover coffee given my limited consumption. So what's the best route to self education here? Coffee nerd me.
posted by bfranklin to Food & Drink (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The route to self education when it comes to coffee, is sticking stuff in your mouth. There's a fair amount of good coffee available to you in your area. There are good shops on that list who will be able to help guide you a little bit. A number of good roasteries have accounts in your zone, and you shouldn't be at a shortage of good stuff. See if any of them host cuppings or tastings, and go to them religiously.

James Hoffman wrote a really good book about coffee. While a really good resources, it should not be taken as gospel as there are a few inaccuracies and the line between fact and opinion is pretty ill-defined (his entire section on coffee varietals is complete hearsay, not supported by any evidence, genetic or otherwise. I would venture to say its probably the best book on the topic written in the last few years.

I work for a coffee roastery, and we've created training manuals for our wholesale clients, and I've mailed them out to other mefites out there looking for coffee information and education, if you memail me your address, I'll drop on in the mail for you too. It's not necessarily the best resource for everyone, because its written specifically for pros or aspiring pros that need to talk to their customers about coffee all day long.

Your question is a bit broad, and might need to be focused in on a bit. I'm really not sure what 'Drinking what's available is suboptimal' means, because everything is available with mail-order, and there isn't necessarily a short cut around getting a bunch of coffees and putting them in your face. It might be suboptimal, but that's basically the only way even professionals get to know stuff in this field too.
posted by furnace.heart at 3:49 PM on May 22, 2016

To clarify, I wouldn't tell someone new to beer to randomly pick bottles. I'd tell them to pick a style and drink within it for a while, then move on to related styles. Is there a similar approach to coffee? I feel like I'd miss a lot of subtlety by picking scattershot.
posted by bfranklin at 3:59 PM on May 22, 2016

And if so, is there a recommended starting point?
posted by bfranklin at 4:00 PM on May 22, 2016

That makes much more sense.

If that's the route you want to take, you should focus on a single country, probably a smaller Latin American country (Colombia or Brazil in coffee is like saying France in wine...you're going to see an insane amount of spread, and they're huge geographically for coffee production). In general, Latin American cups tend to be a bit more balanced, medium bodied, and when produced well, have a high degree of clarity. Far East coffees (indonesia, papua new guinea, etc) tend to be a bit earthier and dirtier, with a low degree of clarity. African coffees tend to be the opposite; super floral, light and delicate. They can have an ultra wide spread in flavor to them, so there's no real great way to track the differences in what you're tasting if you're looking for nuance.

I would focus in on Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, or Honduras for their accessibility (and reasonable pricing). So, pick your country (whatever strikes you, or a country you've had an enjoyable experience from). Then start working through local roasters of positive repute, or regional/national brands of the same. Aside from country/region of origin, it can help to pay attention to varietal, elevation, grade (a rabbit hole that varies by country), and probably most important to end-cup flavor processing. All of these are covered in detail in the Hoffman book.

As for some higher level exercises, sometimes if you find a coffee from a farm that you like, you can grab that same coffee from other roasters. For example, if the country you're focusing in on is El Salvador (not a bad choice, mind you) you might run across Finca Las Delicias (I'm not kidding, they're amazing people and yes it is quite delicious). This coffee is purchased by several roasters in the US, so you can calibrate them against each other. The coffee is the same, but the roasters are the ones putting their individual spin on it. This takes a lot of homework, and isn't easy, but it is rewarding and can let you zone in on a roaster that you think is better than just good. This is something that you cant really do for beer and wine...I mean, i guess you could, but it would be much harder. Not many viniters or brewers are using the exact same grapes or grain-bill in their respective drinks.
posted by furnace.heart at 5:19 PM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Coffee shop, try light roast, dark roast, espresso. Find shops that roast in the shop. See if there's a place that does "cupping" (tasting in coffee-speak). Enjoy, it's all good. Get a manual grinder. Get a drip cone and filters. Buy small quantities of beans from the market. Grind, drip, ahhh.

The really cool artisanal shop down the street has light roasts of specialty coffees that, well, are good but don't actually taste like coffee to me, yummy, interesting, but it's dark french roast that sez coffee to my taste buds. Drink lots of stuff and experiment but don't be afraid to drink what you like.

Ok while I'm on it the hipster place has ritualized the brewing with accurate thermometers and such and it takes almost ten minutes to get a cuppa. The one detail I've determined in my pragmatic expertise for drip is to moisten the grounds just a bit and let that stand a few seconds before filling the cone. Seems to make a difference, whereas pouring clockwise vs counterclockwise makes no perceptible difference for me. :-)
posted by sammyo at 5:20 PM on May 22, 2016

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