Most great chefs are quite poor at even desserts— at least when compared to their hired gun pastry chefs, for example, they often reach for odd savoury creations given palates that are often clueless at how to deal with sweet. Thus it shouldn’t be of great surprise that most great chefs are outright lame when it comes to quality coffee. The continually sad state of restaurant coffee being additional supporting evidence.
So why does public perception seem convinced of the complete opposite?
In recent years, food has firmly become a form of entertainment, and the highest profile chefs have morphed into something strangely akin to lifestyle consultants. As the social status of celebrity chefs has risen, so has a sort of cultural belief that these chefs have come to represent all things fine dining and living — each of them harboring great secrets of a modern illuminati. So much so, today our popular culture is immersed in this mistaken fantasy that chefs always eat out better than you, eat at home better than you, and even vacation better than you.
The reality is that even the best chefs often have terrible diets, have no time to eat well, chain smoke, marinate themselves in hard alcohol, and even shoot up with a little smack or crank now and then. And yet consumers seem overly willing to make a misguided mental leap: that just because someone is qualified to make a meal for King Louis XIV, they must therefore eat and live it up like King Louis XIV.
Coffee Myths – what is good coffee?
I felt compelled to write this article because of a number of stories I have read over the last couple of months about what good coffee actually is. It got me thinking about what has been marketed to people as good coffee and the complete load of nonsense the coffee drinking public have been fed. It seems people know as much about the coffee they are drinking, as they do about what’s going into their food ordered out.
So what is good coffee? Well let’s start by ending a few myths here and now.
Myth 1 – Italian anything is good.
Wrong. Italians do many things very well. Make good coffee is not one of them. This so called “Italian roast” is nonsense designed to infuse every cup of steaming creosote with a hint of Milan. An Italian roast is just another way of saying burnt bean flavour, yet many coffee chains use this marketing to attract customers. Caffe Nero with their “The best espresso this side of Milan” and Costa Coffee with their Mocha Italia blend, and pictures of Italy hung from every wall. They even have a head taster called Gennaro. This Italian myth has carried far, but the Italians don’t have a good history with coffee. They even mixed it with chicory during the War to bulk it out and the taste people came to expect remained.
As a result Italian roast is just another way of saying burnt coffee. Do you eat burnt food? So why drink burnt coffee?
Myth 2 – The darker the roast the better.
Wrong. Just like Italian roasts when you roast beans to the point where they are covered in oil – they are too heavily roasted. Coffee drinkers have been told that the “richer” the flavour, the better the bean. What they are actually trying to say is the more bitter and vile the coffee, the more you should pretend to like it for fear of being accused of not knowing anything about coffee. Each coffee is unique and simply roasting it to a particular colour roast is a ham-fisted way of roasting. Some coffees taste better with lighter roasting, some with slightly darker, but all coffee will taste bad when it is oozing oil and tar black.
Myth 3 – The second ‘crack’ is a good sign.
Starbucks often said this. “We roast to the second crack”. I ask this, does Starbucks taste good? This relates to Myth 2 above. All coffee chains are roasting to the second crack. What this means is that they are roasting to the point where the beans are fully ‘blown out’ from the heat. When you roast coffee it goes through a period where it cracks, much like popcorn. After the beans crack, which you can hear as a slight popping noise, the beans will usually have increased in size slightly and will be a browner colour. It is between this first crack and the upcoming second crack where coffee should usually stop roasting. If you leave the beans in longer you will get a second crack where the structure of the bean is fully expanded. However, by the time you get to this point almost always, the bean is over roasted. The trick is knowing when to stop between the first and second crack. So next time someone says ‘we roast to the second crack’ have a look at the beans, they will be almost black and covered in oil.
Myth 4 – Choosing your roast.
There have been a number of suppliers who have recently started offering roasting services. You pick the bean and the roast, and they roast it there and then for you. Whilst this is considerably better than large scale commercial roasting because you will usually have an expert able to guide you on the best roast, it unfortunately does not stop some people from over roasting beans. I once witnessed someone at one of these shops ask for a Brazil Bourbon and a Blue Mountain, both roasted extra dark. I watched in agony as these beans (very good ones at that) were turned to cinder.
In every case, each batch of beans will have an optimal roast. This will be where the sugars in the beans are properly caramalised, and the bean is roasted just enough to extract the best aroma and flavour. This optimal roast will vary with size of bean, origin, density, humidity levels, sugars, roaster, etc. It is the job of a good roaster to be able to identify that perfect roast level and advise his/her clients accordingly. A top quality coffee producer should only ever agree to sell coffee at this optimal roast to protect its name and ensure that you taste the flavours of the bean, and not the roast given to it.
Myth 5 – Pre-grind your coffee for the week or month.
Wrong. You should only be grinding coffee as you need it. Pre-ground coffee starts to go stale quickly, and will continue to do so in one of those sealable coffee cans, albeit very slightly slower. Keep your coffee in bean form until you are ready to use it, then grind. It will make a fresher, better tasting cup every time.
Myth 6 – Richer is always better.
Wrong. Not all coffee is “rich”. Should all wine be dry? or all whiskey woody? Just like wine and whiskey, coffee is a natural product that will carry variation caused by the soil, sun, climate, altitude, processing, etc. These variations are what make coffee so interesting. It does not all taste the same and ‘richness’ is certainly not a sign of quality. Sure, some coffees will taste richer with hints of chocolate, treacle, and raisins, but other equally good or better coffees may taste of lemon, wild flower, and raspberries. Richness does not define the quality of coffee.
Myth 7 – You can freeze ground coffee to preserve it.
Well yes and no. Freezing will indeed slow the process of oxidation (going stale), but it will also adversely affect the chemicals and compounds in the coffee resulting in a flatter taste. There are some who have experimented with keeping coffee longer than normal, but this has been with green beans in deep freeze (-30 to -50). Once roasted, it needs to sit for between 3-7 days, and then be drunk in about 2 weeks, 3 weeks at most.
Myth 8 – Blends are the ones to go for.
Wrong. I think the ‘blend’ description took off because it sounds good; like you are mixing something wonderful in a big vat of wonderfulness. I often explain it this way. Blended coffee is like blended whiskey, not as good as single malt, or to put it in coffee terms a blend it not as good as a single estate coffee. Blended is just another way of saying beans from all sources have been thrown together to produce a bag of coffee that will exhibit none of the signs of each individual coffee. Certainly, some expertly crafted blends could be very good, but they are not common, and you aren’t going to find them in a supermarket.
Hopefully this has shed at least some light on the most common coffee myths. If you can think of others or have questions please feel free to post in the comments below. Ultimately, it is about personal taste, but far too much of personal taste has been dictated to by the flood of over roasted charcoal from high street chains. Sure there is an element of snobbishness about top end coffee and I have always said on this blog that you should always drink what you enjoy, but I have also maintained that you need to know about your coffee. Blindly following the marketing has resulted in a lot of sub-standard coffee being sold to people and a lot of ‘coffee snobs’ drinking something best left to the local greasy spoon.