First of all the term ‘specialty grade’ is not some esoteric term or marketing lingo. It is one of the grades used in evaluating and sorting coffee, from the rubbish that can’t even qualify for a can of Folger’s, to the award-winning micro-lots vying in the various Cup of Excellence competitions. Coffee is reviewed in an industry standardized procedure known as “cupping” where scores are given for individual attributes and then the total score tells where it fits into the big picture. Specifically, specialty-grade coffees begin at the level of 84 points.
While it is a subjective number that can vary from ‘cupper’ to ‘cupper’, all the coffees sold at The Excellent Cup need to cross the 86.5 threshold to be considered, and even then we find that many coffees get rejected because we simply want more than merely adequate coffees. You deserve the best, and we aim to provide you with precisely that.
With regard to the roast level of a given coffee, we experiment with each coffee to find what we believe will offer you the best representation of what that coffee has to offer.
As beans are taken through what is known a ‘roast profile’ — the graph if you will, of time and temperatures — they swell and darken, and reach a temperature where they crack audibly almost like popcorn; this is First Crack, and after this period the beans are officially roasted and it’s generally referred to as a City roast. Given more heat and time, the beans progress to a City Plus, Full City, Full City Plus, and then a second, more muted crack begins. If the roast is allowed to continue at least 30sec. into Second Crack it will be called a Vienna roast, which with more heat and time will become a French roast.
As a general rule, a City or City+ roast will exhibit more brightness, or acidity, and a slightly darker roast can have the effect of taming that aspect. One very important distinction; acidity (also called brightness) in coffee is related to the sensation it has on the tongue, and not to how it might affect one’s stomach. I have many customers who quit drinking coffee altogether because of stomach irritation, who found that they could tolerate my coffees very well, due to a proper roast profile (and quality beans). The sliding scale along the roast level from very light to very dark is that on one end you have ‘origin’ characteristics, and on the other end you have ‘roast’ characteristics. Coffee, being an agricultural product will exhibit flavors specific to that country and even down to certain areas and hillsides of a given coffee farm, much the same as wines from different regions or valleys will be different. At a City, City+, or Full City roast level, most of the origin characteristics are still intact, while a Full City+, Vienna or French roast level will notice the roasty flavors beginning to eclipse the origin flavors. In other words, a Guatemalan coffee will taste like it’s Guatemala origin flavors at a light to medium roast, and less Guatemalan and more dark/roasty flavors when taken darker. At The Excellent Cup we believe coffee should exhibit the flavors the coffee farmer worked so hard to cultivate, and so we rarely roast beyond Full City+, and only have one or two coffees we take into Vienna.
If you’ve been accustomed to buying whole bean coffee from a local roaster, online, or especially from a supermarket, you will most likely notice an oily sheen on your coffee beans. This can be due to either the very dark roast level or a marker of how much time has passed since the coffee was roasted. Coffee contains some oils, and darker roasts will produce more oils. Over time these oils will migrate to the surface, and eventually the oils will oxidize and become rancid. This migration can happen immediately on a very dark roast or over the course of a couple weeks on a Full City+ or Vienna roast. Either way, we consider it a bad sign.
A comment we hear from time to time from people just beginning to enter the world of specialty-grade coffee is that it seems weak. The simplest answer is that all the ‘yuck’ flavors of over-roasted, old, low-quality beans have a higher-impact and when you take those flavors out of the cup it’s not quite as in-your-face. In fact, many people will need to re-calibrate their palates, stop to examine and investigate the flavors in the cup, as well as change how they store and brew their coffee; more on that later.
While I would like to offer some guidelines on which coffees you might want to try first, based on how many different experiences people have had with the vast variety of coffees, it’s impossible to say “If you’ve like this, try that.” I recall the days when I was buying coffee from a local coffee shop that roasted their own beans, it took some trial and error as I worked through their two dozen coffees before I found a few favorites I loved. I would encourage you to read through the descriptions of the individual coffees and just launch out. There aren’t any bad coffees here, and you might just enjoy the adventure of a coffee trip around the globe.
Based on your typical consumption, we suggest ordering no more than what you might use in 2-3 weeks. We’ll cover the idea of freezing coffee under Storage/Brewing Tips. Freshly roasted coffee has an out-gassing period of 1-4 days after roasting where CO2 is leaving the beans, which in turn allows certain roast reactions to finalize. During this period the flavors will culminate and peak, and that period of peak flavors might last several days, after which the coffee will very gradually lose some of its nuance. This is not a falling off a cliff scenario, and if you were to buy coffee at day 14, you may never realize it was going downhill. But if you take coffee on day 1, day 2, day 3 and so on (and actually pay attention to what’s in your cup) you’ll notice it improves for a few days, plateaus for several, and then slowly becomes less interesting and compelling. And that’s why we suggest a 2-3 week supply for each order.
The main enemies of coffee freshness are oxygen and moisture, and of course time.
Any airtight container can be used to store coffee. If you choose a rigid container such as a plastic canister it should be easily washed, and should be done so every few months. Because the excess air can be squished out of the zipper bags our coffees come in, we recommend you simply leave the coffee in the bag. Refrigeration is not recommended, since other flavors from other foods can migrate to the coffee, and there is no real benefit to keeping it cool in the fridge.
If you want to really go the extra mile, you can double-bag the coffee, placing our bag inside a larger ziplock bag, and simply keep it in a dark, dry place such as inside a cupboard or cabinet.
Some customers want to place larger orders to spread out their shipping costs, and this is where a good freezer comes in. In the “What To Expect” section we explain the out-gassing of CO2 during the resting period the beans go through after they come out of the roaster. Freezing more or less arrests this resting process, and in doing so, arrests the staling process as well. For long-term storage, freezing is actually a very good option, especially a non frost-free freezer, since the way that type of freezer avoids frost build-up is to periodically raise the temps in the freezer and slightly thaw things out. Again, double-bagging in a larger ziplock, say gallon-size bags, is important. The only caution against freezing coffee is to allow the bag you pull out for use, to come up to room temperature for a half hour or so to avoid any moisture in the air from condensing onto the beans when you open the bag. That’s the main reason we discourage freezing for daily-use coffees; every time you bring it out and open it, you’re introducing enemy #2 into the coffee beans.
Remember the rule of ordering what you expect to use in two weeks, three weeks at the most, unless you can keep one bag out and freeze the remaining bags.
Here’s an area that will have to remain somewhat vague, and will be reserved for future blog posts. There are some standard coffee to water ratios, but since we are all individuals, a little experimentation will be in order. As a rule of thumb, you may want to brew it stronger than you first think. The word ‘strong’ is not used here to describe how dark a coffee is roasted, but rather defines the ratio of water to coffee, less water/more coffee would make it stronger.
The accepted water temperature from proper extraction of the coffee’s flavor is between 195-205 degrees. Very few automatic drip brewers will reach that high, which is why I’ve been using manual methods for years. For example, a french press or press pot, or a pourover – the cone-shaped filter holder – over a single cup or a carafe. You have total control with those methods; the water temp, the saturation of the coffee grounds, and the amount of time the coffee is in contact with the water.
Some people prefer the ‘cleanness’ of their coffee when a paper filter is used; others prefer that the oils in coffee are left intact and not filtered out, so they use something with a fine screen as in a press pot or metal filter. Both have advantages too; paper is easier to clean up, while a reusable filter can end up costing less over time.