There's no getting around the fact that getting into specialty coffee can be daunting. Before you even get to picking out which coffee you want to enjoy, there are so many questions. How do I know it's ethical? What is a process? How should I store it? What brew method is best? That is us only scratching the surface. So the time has come for us to write down everything we know, to make your life easier. Read on for our ultimate 'how to' guide on buying and enjoying specialty coffee.
What is Specialty Coffee?
Put simply, specialty coffee can be defined as any coffee from the species Coffea Arabica (or progresively Robusta), that scores over 80 specialty coffee points on a scale of 1-100. Scoring of coffee takes place at farm level as well as by exporters, importers and roasters, many of who are qualified Q Graders. These Q Graders taste the coffee and score it based on the quality of sensory properties. Any coffee scoring above 80 will be classified as specialty coffee.
What is a Coffee Variety?
Coffea Arabica can be traced back to its birthplace in Ethiopia. Many different varieties stem from this single species. If you're buying high quality coffee, you will usually find the variety visible on the bag. Some examples of varieties could include Caturra, Catuai, Gesha, & Bourbon. Although there are far too many for us to list here, in fact in Ethiopia there are so many that they are classified in a group term as 'heirloom varieties'.
What is Processing?
Once a coffee has been grown and picked, the next step in the supply chain is processing. In order to get to that delicious little bean that we turn into coffee, we must first remove the cherry that surrounds it. There are three main processes used to do this.
The first of these is the Washed Process. This involves picking the cherry and then pulping straight away before slightly fermenting to remove the mucilage and then washing the seed clean.
The second is the Honey Process, this involves picking the coffee and then pulping, but this time there's no washing involved. The coffee is dried with some of the mucilage still intact, allowing the coffee to soak in the acids and sugars that remain.
Last up we have the Natural Process. Here we dry the coffee with the cherry still intact completely, before pulping. This allows the coffee bean to soak in all those incredible acids and sugars increasing flavours of body and sweetness.
Nowadays, there are several experimental process now being utilised. Many of these have been adopted from the wine industry, and many of them add layers of complexity to already delicious coffee. There seems to be a never ending of these processes, here are some of the most commo; Extended Fermentation (EF), Anaerobic, Anoxic, Thermal Shock, Carbonic Maceration, Ice Fermentation to name but a few.
Is Coffee Seasonal?
Yes! Coffee is seasonal. Just like any fruit, coffee comes into season and is ready to be harvested in different locations, climates and altitudes at varying times throughout the year.
Understanding Taste Notes
Now you've navigated the bag, it's time to tackle those taste notes. Any good specialty coffee will have some degree of taste notes on the bag. This is the flavour profile that the head roaster has decided upon after tasting the coffee. It's important to remember at this point that taste is subjective. This means that the flavour that an individual experiences could be perceived differently depending on their exposure to flavour throughout their life. When referring to taste notes on a coffee bag, you should use them as a useful guide only. Specialty coffee is yours to discover, so why not experiment with different origins, document your results and identify your own flavour notes.
Should you Buy Ground or Whole Bean?
This might just be the shortest section of this whole guide. The answer is always whole bean, where possible. This is because once a coffee is ground, it begins to degrade and stale rapidly - drastically reducing its life span. We understand though that not everyone has access to a grinder, so if you are buying pre-ground, make sure you're buying little and often so your coffee is as fresh as possible.
Can you Freeze Coffee?
YES you can! Freezing coffee is a great way to preserve it, especially if you feel like you're not going to finish the bag. You should only freeze coffee if it is whole bean, and we would recommend pre-dosing it before doing so.
How Fresh is too Fresh?
It's true! There is such a thing as coffee that is too fresh. We know that sounds weird, but when we roast coffee we add lots of carbon dioxide to it. This carbon dioxide can translate to unpleasant flavours in the cup. As a rule, we'd always recommend waiting until around one week after roast date for best brewing results, especially when you're brewing espresso.
All About the Storage
How should you store those delicious coffee beans? If our online store is to be believed, it would seem that the industry is moving toward vacuum storage as a standard, but do you really need to spend £30 on a Fellow Atmos? There's no doubt that keeping your coffee in a vacuum sealed container can prolong its life by around 1-2 weeks, but that doesn't mean it is a necessity. Storing in the bag is also perfectly fine, as long as you ensure to reseal the bag, minimising the airspace in doing so and store in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.
Which Brew Method is Best?
There's no right or wrong answer on what brew method works best, because this all comes down to personal preference. The most accessible way to begin brewing great coffee at home is using a Cafetière, V60 or Aeropress. It's possible to pick these up at a good price, compared to the higher entry point of a home espresso sert up. If home espresso is your game, then Sage offer great entry point machines, offering a compact footprint and a built-in grinder which keeps your overall investment lower.
What is the Shelf Life of Speciality Coffee?
If you're buying your coffee from an independent roastery, the chances are that the bag will have a roast date on it. A use-by date is not always as obvious, but generally speaking you should aim to use your whole bean coffee between 4-6 weeks after roast date. For ground coffee we'd recommend no longer than a week, this is because ground coffee stales much faster.
So there you have it, our top tips for navigating your way around the wonderful world of speciality coffee. Have we missed anything? Let us know!
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