Professional growers, sellers, and baristas try coffee at controlled tastings called cuppings, but the average person may not know what separates a great cup of coffee from one that’s sold by a vested, mustachio’d server at an overpriced but minimally decorated modern coffee bar.
As with all things, personal taste and preference are the rule, but for food obsessives interested in diving deeper, we asked Jimmy Sherfey, a journalist (and Eater contributor) who covers coffee from farm to bean to coffee bar — including specialty coffee production, sustainable agriculture, quality producers, and consumer concerns — for some guidance.
Say you’re trying a new cafe for the first time. Beautiful latte art aside, what makes for a well-balanced coffee drink? Taste is subjective, of course, some people really like milk and sugar in spades, the coal miners among us prefer their morning coffee to be something of a rude awakening. The best coffee roasters and shops are walking a tightrope aspiring towards brews that are clean, sweet with a desirable weight and pleasant bitterness. Trying to achieve these ideals without having to pitch in additives is where the real balancing act happens — no falling asleep at the roaster or kettle.
We’re in a golden age of coffee discovery.
Our growing discovery of coffee’s inherent quality is a relatively new one particularly for a product is still widely regarded as a simple commodity. Consumers have to acquire the taste of coffee, and upon doing so they discover that so much of what they’ve always wanted out of coffee already rests in the bean.
A coffee’s quality is constantly hanging in the balance. If you want the best coffee shop experience, look for shops that let the actual brews take center stage. Some coffees will be sweeter, some will be more acidic, some will be more velvety. The idea is to let the coffee be the best version of itself. So as long as a carefully-harvested and intentionally-sourced coffee is roasted and brewed within a strict set of parameters the output should shine.