Did you think a good cup of coffee is the simple matter of taste? Hahahahaha… Ok, but then you haven’t talked to people who know about taste. We did. Meet Alexander and Pia Von der Lippe, and their trusted partner Erik Kaisen.
The symptoms are there. An overtone of bitterness, a lack of blooming aftertaste. After a while you get just the tiniest bit dizzy, and perhaps a bit too energetic. This is due to too much caffeine in an over extracted coffee, but you might not know this. You might think there is something wrong with you, because last time you drank this coffee, it tasted great. Perhaps you check by taking another sip. But before long, you are sure. This is not good coffee!
The easy solution is to throw it away, but if you paid good money for your coffee, you are not likely to be happy with this solution. Besides, the big question remains. Why? It tasted just fine last time?
– The first things to check is the date of your coffee, is it fresh? If yes, then you should consider your grind, and try to go coarser. If it´s still bad, it could be the roast, it could be the filter or it could be the water. Or it could be all of them. Or it could just be bad coffee.
Erik Kaisen knows he has given an impossible answer, but his knowledge of coffee doesn’t allow for easy or approximate ones. His job at Lippe kaffe, one of the first independent coffee roasteries in Norway, is to diagnose coffee. Well, it is more than that. Erik tastes and develops coffees, together with Alexander and Pia von der Lippe – the owners. For this trio, good – or bad, as the case may be – coffee is a question of honor. It is their reputation, pride and livelihood. They don’t take it lightly, in other words.
Erik loves taste. He started out in the restaurant business, and pretty soon made his way into wine. From there he got into coffee, and today his main vision is to educate coffee drinkers into connoisseurs. He thinks everybody should know that the taste of coffee is every bit as complicated, delicate and variable as the taste of wine. And every bit as hard to diagnose.
– I want everyone involved in the coffee industry to feel proud of coffee, from the people who pick the beans, to the guy who serves it in a cup. Every small step in the process has impact on the final result. Just like with wine, the farm, the soil, the air, temperature and altitude – all these factors will have impact on the taste of coffee, even if the type of bean stays the same. Then comes the picking process, where the level of ripeness, for instance, will affect the final result. The handling after picking is also really important, where you dry it, how long it dries and in what temperature, and so on!
And so on. There are huge numbers of deliberate and accidental happenings that affect the tiny coffee bean (or not so tiny, depending on the type). So next time you take a sip and think “Blah! Awful!”, know that the answer to your problem is not simple. It is really complex, and you might need to speak to a professional to find the answer. Erik uses a device called a refractometer when he looks into coffee problems, or even just to test a new roast. This device measures the amount of coffee particles in coffee. Or rather, the percentage of totally dissolved solids in the brew. According to science, this will tell you how much of the bean is transferred into the finished coffee. Erik demonstrates:
He opens the lid and lifts a pipette with a filter screwed on, and presses a few drops of coffee on a steel plate with a small hole in the middle. It certainly looks … well, it looks geeky to be honest. After a few seconds he presses a button on the gadget, the screen blinks a few times and a number pops up: COFFEE % TDS. 1,54.
We are non the wiser. Is this good?
– Ideally the TDS should be somewhere below 2%, but it all depends on the degree of extraction, says Erik.
So he takes out his Samsung smart phone and opens an app, VST Coffee Tools for Android. He presses in some digits, the weight of water and the TDS%, and nods his head solemnly.
– 19%. Perfect.
So the theory goes. What matters, is how much coffee you have in your brew relative to the amount of ground coffee used, which is the percentage of extraction, which should be between 18-22 percent. Of course, it doesn’t stop there. The recommended amount of coffee used is not the same all over the world. In Norway, we tend to use between 60-70 grams coffee per liter of water. For darker roasts you can use less, in order to obtain a specific TDS, but then the degree of extraction would be higher.
– Taste is both individual, cultural and completely objective, says Erik.
We laugh, he doesn’t. Ok, but how is that possible?
– The refractometer can be 100 % objective. This is really helpful when we discuss taste, because: when the amount of coffee solids in the brew relative to the amount of ground coffee is measured to be between 18 and 22 precent, it means it is within the parameters of what coffee experts from all over the world will call good coffee. At the same time, it says nothing about the flavor. It could be the perfect amount of TDS from a really badly roasted coffee. And a bad roast will never make good coffee, no matter how perfectly brewed it is. The refractometer cannot say anything about personal or cultural preferences, either. Taste is a matter of habit. A person who has drunk an objectively speaking really bad coffee for decades, will love it, and this is their prerogative.
And thats that. Sometimes a bad cup of coffee is someones morning glory. Sometimes it is a problem that needs solving. And sometimes, it is just bad coffee. If this turns out to be the answer to your question, we have only one solution for you: buy better coffee.