Some of the worst coffee in the world is office coffee. You know what I’m talking about: little Hamilton Beach machines sitting in the corner of your bank, or those big vending machines that dispense java with a flavour that makes even convenience store coffee sound great.
But you’re fine with it, you say. You’re tough like a Viking; you can handle the awful stuff. But what if you have clients coming in? Customers? Employers? Sure, you’re swilling the bitter grog, putting manly hair on your chest, but what about the people you want to impress? Do you tear open a container of supermarket coffee and brew that?
No, of course not. You’re a grown-up working at a grown-up office. You should be drinking good coffee, and so should your clients. There’s a big, big difference between good, delicious coffee, and that bad, awful stuff, and here’s what it is.
Not all coffee is equal
Some of you might be scrunching up your faces right now, afraid that if you start thinking about what makes coffee “good”, you’ll turn into a pretentious coffee snob hipster rambling on about “body” and “ph levels” and “caramelization”.
If you’re scrunching up your face right now, go ahead and give yourself a slap. Done? Okay, good. There’s nothing wrong with demanding excellence from your coffee.
It’s like wine. You don’t need to know about fermentation processes and the differences between varietals to know you’d like good wine over, say, sauce distilled from raisins and strained through a pair of underwear, right?
So let’s talk about that cheap moonshine of coffees: Robusta coffee.
Robusta coffee is the reason you want to check on your coffin tin to see the words 100% Arabica.
Arabica coffee is the good stuff. The best varieties have to be grown at high altitudes, and in shade, because that slows the coffee’s growth (the slower the growing, better the flavour). That’s why top-tier beans like Jamaican Blue Mountain or Hawaiian Kona are so prized—they’re grown at extremely high points, in perfect conditions.
Robusta coffee, meanwhile, is the hardy little bruiser of the coffee world. It’s tough as hell, grown at low altitudes, and extremely cheap. It can grow practically anywhere, like potatoes. It’s so cheap and plentiful, in fact, that the Robusta industry has almost single-handedly collapsed the world’s coffee market, since small Arabica farmers can’t grow the same quantities for the same price.
So what’s the big deal? That should be awesome, a coffee that’s plentiful and cheap like borscht. Except, of course, for the fact that it tastes like garbage. Or, to be more specific, Robusta has the bitter, earthy-in-a-bad-way taste of bad coffee.
The only upside to Robusta is that it has twice the caffeine of Arabica coffees. It’s also the reason why supermarket coffee can be so cheap – it’s often cut with Robusta. That’s the point of the 100% Arabica tag.
But honestly, for really good coffee, you shouldn’t even be at the supermarket in the first place. That coffee’s stale as hell.
Stale Coffee Versus Freshly Roasted
I think it was Chris Onstad who once wrote that the reason a lot of us grow up thinking we don’t like fish is because we were fed those awful breaded freezer fishsticks as children, and so never learned what fresh salmon tastes like..
By the same token, a lot of us have been drinking stale coffee our whole lives. Diner coffee? Stale. Maxwell House? Stale. Those whole beans at the grocery store? Unless they’re refilling those machines every two weeks, those boys are stale, baby.
Those two weeks are important, because that’s when coffee starts to loses its freshness. Stale coffee isn’t bad, but it’s often bitter, and sometimes sour, depending on how roasted it is, and it’s not something you want to serve clients.
For freshly roasted coffee, it’s time to buy a burr coffee grinder for your office and get your beans directly from a local roastery. Not only will you get great, fresh flavour, and not only will you helping a small, locally owned business, but since small roasteries generally buy their raw coffee direct from coffee importers, you’ll be aiding small coffee farmers around the world.
That way, you’ll get great coffee and stick it to The Man.
But what coffee do I get?
We can liken coffee to wine in a lot of ways. When my colleague Meredith was writing her Wine 101 piece, she mentioned one of the hardest parts of writing the article was choose which wine to recommend, since taste is so subjective. As a question, “What wine should I get?” is practically meaningless. I don’t know, what wine do you like?
Coffee’s much the same way. Sumatran coffee tends to be low acid, and full bodied. Ethiopian coffee often has medium acidity, a wine-like flavour, and a lot of texture. Costa Rican coffee is delicious, but sometimes boring. It’s all about your taste.
But there are some guidelines, and they all have to do with the coffee’s roast.
Light Roast Versus Dark Roast
Here’s the general rule of thumb: the lighter the roast, the more flavour and brightness (acidity) the coffee will have; the darker the roast, the more heavy the coffee (full-bodied), but the less flavourful, and more burnt-tasting.
Maybe you’ve heard the dark roasts are supposedly “better” for espresso. That’s a myth, and I think that idea came from the fact that we, as human beings, are idiots.
But “Dark” Sounds So Cool!
We tend to pay more attention to how a word sounds than what a word means. When we’re given a choice between white and brown bread, we tend to automatically pick brown, not because we necessarily like the flavour, but because we’re trained to think brown bread = healthy, healthy = good.
Similarly, when confronted with a choice between light and dark roast, I think we often think light = weightless, weak, not as strong / dark = stronger, powerful, richer.
That’s not it at all. Light and dark refer to the bean’s colour, not the strength. The more you roast, the darker the beans get. Dark roasts actually have less caffeine and less flavour than light roasts, because the longer roasting times burn out the oils inside the bean.
But again, like wine, it’s a matter of taste and preference. The main objective is just to get good coffee.
Good coffee makes clients happy. The caffeine makes them happy and the flavour makes them happy, and that’s what you want. You don’t want them drinking bitter, grungy mud. After all, it’s the little things that matter.
So toss out that cup made from six-month-old vending machine grinds, and get some real coffee into you. Your tastebuds will thank you for it.