If you’re anything like me, you drink a lot of coffee. And by a lot, I mean a lot. You’ve probably also had your fair share of java that made you cringe and others that kept you going back for more. I have come to understand the difference between an okay cup of coffee and a great one and I guess I have become fussy. I don’t want to sound like a snob, but life is just too short to drink bad coffee.
While similar to the likes of wine and cheese where personal preferences and acquired tastes come into play, I still believe there are some key fundamentals needed when it comes to roasting, brewing and serving a perfect cup of coffee.
For those of you who don’t know, coffee (unlike money, unfortunately), grows on trees. The coffee bean begins its life as the pit inside a coffee tree’s red or purple fruit called a cherry. Even though coffee beans are actually seeds, we refer to them as beans because of their resemblance to, well, beans.
When the cherries are ripe, they are almost always handpicked, and then sent to be processed using one of two methods. Wet (or washed) processing is when the flesh of the cherry is removed and the seeds are left for up to two days to ferment in water. This process softens a sticky pulp which is then rinsed off with water. Dry processing was typically reserved for lower-quality beans as its cheaper and easier to do, but has become more popular and can be used to make premium coffee. The cherries are then spread out in the sun to dry for 2-3 weeks and the end product will be the green coffee bean which can be used for roasting. Roasting varies from light to extremely dark and how far you decide to roast the coffee bean depends on what you plan to use it for. Light roasts have a sharp, acidic taste and aren’t generally used for espresso while dark to extremely dark roasts have a fuller flavour. The darker the roast, the greater the char flavour you’ll experience.
So you now have a perfectly roasted bean, but what happens next is a barista’s responsibility to ensure that coffee tastes good and that the final cup does the humble bean justice.
Extraction is an important process of coffee making. Under-extraction and over-extraction are closer than you think to the perfect cup. It’s very easy to get it wrong but understanding what the correct process and end-product are will help you decipher whether a cup has been under- or over- extracted. But what is extraction exactly? If you haven’t taken enough flavour from the bean, you’re left with an under-extracted cup that can taste sour and salty (yes, at the same time). This happens because the sugars of the coffee bean haven’t had enough time or chance to dissolve completely into the water. On the other end of the scale, when you take too much flavour out of the coffee bean, and you’re left with a cup that’s bitter, ‘dry’ and tastes empty. A soulless coffee like this is caused by over-extraction.
In between over- and under- extraction is the percussion centre when a cup of coffee is sweet without any added sugar and fills your mouth with a richness and aroma that lasts long after the last sip. We’ve all had that moment with a cup of coffee, at least I hope you’ve experienced the joy of a perfectly balanced cup - I do every morning and it’s pure bliss!
For a cappuccino or flat white, the correct milk temperature is also a vital component when aiming to achieve a good cup. Milk is often steamed to a temperature where it is burnt, resulting in a bitter tasting coffee. Likewise, bubbles also play an important role. Flat whites require steamed milk only and cappuccinos require frothed milk. It takes a lot of practice to achieve perfectly frothed milk, where the bubbles are small and stable, resulting in a velvety smooth coffee.
Since opening smak, I have realised that it’s a real art to create and present a beautiful and delicious cup of coffee and I have learned so much through experience. I truly believe that every cup of good coffee needs to be made with love and that no shortcuts can be taken!
At the end of the day though, the most important thing to remember is that coffee is a fruit that grows on a tree and so it can be included as one of your five-a-day* - makes sense right? ;)
Enjoy every sip
Co-founder and chef at smak delicatessen and restaurant
*this is not nutritional advice and should not be taken seriously