A coffee expert and Barista Trainer at the Nashville “brewtique” CREMA, Nathanael Mehrens answers the question we’ve all asked more than once: How do I know I’m buying good coffee and where do I get it?
As a coffee professional, one of the questions I get most often from those new to specialty coffee is “How do I know what to buy and where to buy it?” It can be complicated, and the industry makes it worse with buzzwords and unfamiliar terms. Shade-grown this, Fair Trade that – what does it mean and, more importantly, how good is it?
Sadly, I can’t explain everything in a blog post, but what I can do is give you some pointers to help you cut through the mess and set you on your way to a good cup.
WHAT TO BUY:
1. Buy whole beans – grinding fresh is super important. Trust me.
2. Try something new – There’s no one way that coffee should taste. Coffee is actually more complex than wine (chemically and otherwise), and though that can be intimidating, it can also be endlessly entertaining. Be open to new experiences, and you’ll have a better time of it.
3. Keep it “light” – I’m just gonna go ahead and say it: Dark roasted coffee is burnt coffee. That’s really all there is to it. Once you reach a certain stage in the roasting process, all of the individual characteristics of the bean disappear and are quickly overshadowed by the taste of carbon and/or burning.
What is “dark roasted” coffee? I say anything with surface oils on the beans. This indicates the roast was taken to “second crack,” an exothermic reaction that basically means most of the goodies that used to be on the inside of the bean are now on the outside and are quickly degrading. No bueno.
4. Keep it fresh – Coffee is a perishable food. Its exact lifespan somewhat depends on the coffee, but generally it’s best up to two weeks after being roasted (you can totally get away with a month, though). This means that when you are buying beans you should be looking for a roast date not a use by date. Use by dates are pretty useless.
5. See information as your friend – Even if you have no idea where Huehuetenango is, how to pronounce that farm name, or how elevation affects what you’re drinking, the very fact that the coffee company in question knows these things means they care about them and will, hopefully, honor them with a roast that compliments the coffee.
WHERE TO BUY:
Wherever it’s freshest. This generally means at a cafe or roastery. In rare instances you can find specialty stores that keep decent tabs on their stock, but this is sadly not usually the case. If you don’t have access to good, fresh coffee in your area, there are several great roasters out there with coffee subscriptions (try Intelligentsia, Counter Culture or Stumptown for starters), and a few coffee of the month clubs (check out citizenbean.com). Soon, you’ll also be able to order CREMA’s coffee online at crema-coffee.com.
Good coffee is an adventure.