Why do people drink black coffee anyway? You may not believe it if you’re not yet a black coffee drinker, but it’s because people love it! You can too…
Black coffee has long enjoyed a reputation in that it’s meant to be drunk by burly men, and that it will put hair on your chest. It’s often the holy grail of the coffee lover, to drink black coffee and enjoy it. But the reality is that most people just don’t like the way that it tastes. Why is this? Can black coffee truly taste good? Can you develop a taste for black coffee? The answer is a resounding “Yes”! Here we will teach you some background knowledge in what it takes to make a good black coffee, and 9 steps you can put into practice so that even you can learn to love it.
Much like a fine wine, black coffee can taste amazing and it can also be arguably not so great in other cases. Let’s have a look at why.
It’s often heard, “Black coffee is bitter, or sour” is a common expression heard by individuals attempting it for the first time. This can be, in fact, true. However, quality black coffee, perfectly roasted, and delivered to your cup should not be bitter at all. It should produce an inspiring, curious range of flavors like fruit, nut, red wine, chocolate and other flavors, and then leave a pleasant aftertaste that may deliver unexpected flavors at the end. It’s very akin to wine tasting.
There can be quite the adventure in every cup, as you can taste the unique characteristics of each region of the world in each coffee. It can even vary from farm to farm. For example, Colombia generally features a more light-weight “body” (think a bit tea-like) feel in the mouth, featuring delicate floral & fruit flavors. This can often be called a breakfast coffee as it’s lightweight and easy to consume in the morning. Many Guatemalan coffees in general produce a heavier body (heavier, thicker mouth-feel), sometimes strongly favoring cacao, and nut flavors, which goes nicely as an evening, soothing, dessert coffee. I’ve tried Guatemalan coffees so chocolaty that you would swear someone literally put chocolate in it. Many African coffees have curious notes of red wine, cherry and other interesting flavors.
This is truly the grand, world-exploring, adventure you’re missing when you don’t give that black coffee a shot. Choosing a good coffee for your first black coffee experience is the most important step. If you attempt black coffee with a bad or average coffee to begin your adventures with, then with good reason, you may end up hating it. If you’re a cream and sugar user, you’ll cover over all of those interesting aspects of the coffee with artificial flavors, creams, and liquors, and you effectively can miss everything great about it. On the flip-side however, once you’ve learned to appreciate black coffee, and should you then encounter a bad coffee, honestly the cream and sugar is about all you can do it make it tolerable. So what is it that makes a coffee bad and intolerable, or smooth, interesting and delightful? Let’s keep exploring!
Unfortunately, there’s also a gamut of errors that can occur during the entire process of delivering the coffee to your cup that can contribute to a poorly tasting cup. So many individuals only experience a poor, black cup of coffee for the first time and are forever turned against it, and honestly with good reason. Let’s see how the black coffee experience can be not just good but great. Then we’re going to show you how to do it properly and then how to learn to appreciate that cup of black.
The way that a coffee tastes is the product of every step that goes into the production and supply chain, right up to the point where you take the first sip. You can actually do a poor job of brewing and negatively impact the flavor of a world-class coffee. At any point, the coffee can become tainted and extreme care must go into every step in order to deliver that perfect cup to your lips. In fact, some say that a perfect cup of coffee should taste like that aroma of coffee you smell when you open the bag for the first time that almost everyone loves. That’s what everyone strives for in any case.
Coffee is much like a fine wine. You need to understand the process, or in the very least, understand what goes into making a great cup. This should give you an idea of just how difficult it can be to get that perfect black coffee to your cup, and why so many cheap coffees just don’t taste good. Like anything else, it’s a lot about profits, and minimizing expenses. Coffee is one of the most expensive drinks in the world to produce, so naturally the cheapest stuff out there probably just isn’t going to taste good. Especially black. So what’s the best way to get that great cup of coffee, that can convert even the most staunch cream and sugar user? Stay tuned for some precise steps that will get you on your way to loving black coffee. Let’s learn quickly some of the steps that can negatively impact or positively impact the quality of your cup. These are factors that you can taste.
The Specialty Coffee Association of America (https://sca.coffee/) has a 5 category criteria for grading raw green coffees. The worst category represents 86 or more defective beans within just 300 grams of coffee. Have a look at what raw green coffee looks like. On top we have a poor quality coffee and below a high-grade coffee
Many of the cheaper coffees that you buy at the grocery store, or in large volume cans can offer you this cheaper cost only because the quality of coffee you start with is rather poor. This can actually be tasted in the coffee as sourness, bitterness and other unsavory flavors.
Believe it or not, green coffee is like a sponge and absorbs whatever odors that come into contact with it. It’s not unheard of to have coffee taste like diesel exhaust or livestock because of how it was transported. This can be tasted in the cup. One technique is to take this poor quality coffee and roast it dark to hide the poor flavors and taints in the coffee. From this perspective, burnt coffee is always better than cattle flavored coffee.
Next, throw millions of dollars into marketing, half a cup of cream, lots of sugar and whipped cream into it, and nearly everyone thinks they’re drinking a great milkshake….er…coffee. Except they’re not.
If you’re looking to try black coffee, the best store-bought option is a specialty coffee from a local roastery, or at least a higher-end coffee (i.e. Peet’s or Barney’s coffee). Many supposedly higher-end coffees, including Starbucks really aren’t the best examples of quality coffee and quality roasts. Many of these chains will buy cheap coffee and roast it dark to hide the taints in the coffee.
Look for a small roastery in your area, and preferrably a micro-roaster that can supply you with truly fresh, high-grade coffee. This alone will make an incredible difference in the cup. Your local micro-roaster will also likely have prices comparable to those of the higher quality coffees at your grocery store. So, it doesn’t have to be terribly expensive. When we fresh roast coffee, approximately 70% of the first time purchasers return back claiming “It’s the best coffee I’ve ever tasted”. Fresh-roasted coffee is a huge part of the formula.
Most people have never tasted truly fresh-roasted coffee, and the difference is simply profound and….dare I say, life-changing. Once you’ve tried fresh-roasted high-quality coffee, you’ll never want to go back to stale store coffee again. It’s a bit like getting that world’s best, fresh, swiss chocolate, and then trying to eat that Hershey’s kiss afterwards. It’s just not the same, and you can’t quite forget how good the other chocolate was. To make things worse, most store coffee can easily be 6 months old when you buy it. Even fresh roasted coffee begins to slowly deteriorate after just 48 hours after the roast. This is why it’s so important to get a fresh roast.
If you’re interested in learning more about coffee roasting, there are some methods to roast your own fresh coffee. Check out these really cool kits to roast coffee at home on the Barbecue Grill that you already own and enjoy truly fresh-roasted coffee every morning. Your taste buds will thank you.
Once you’ve chosen a coffee, and preferably fresh-roasted from a local or micro roaster, you’re ready to brew. If at all possible try to get your coffee right after it’s been roasted, or within 48 to 96 hours of the roast. This difference in quality and freshness can’t be underestimated.
Ideally, you’ll want to get whole bean coffee and then grind yourself. When you grind yourself, you effectively release all of the flavors and aromas trapped inside the bean. This makes a powerful difference in the flavor in the cup. Most coffee connoisseurs will want to use a burr-type grinder, but if you’re just getting started in coffee, you can use a common blade grinder from your local store, commonly around $15. You’ll want to grind, just before brewing.
The Chemex method is one of our favorite methods to brew coffee and produces a very smooth, balanced cup of coffee. Coffee comes out very clean, with no coffee residue coming through the filter. This produces one of the nicest cups of coffee anywhere.
The Chemex method can be done inexpensively. Larger pots can be had for $40 on Amazon or cheaper for smaller variants. If possible, get a stainless steel filter for the Chemex as it cannot leave any paper filter taste in the coffee.
This is one of the primary motivators against the old fashioned auto-drip, Mr. Coffee type coffee maker. First, you don’t really have good temperature control over your water, and second, you can taste the paper filter and plastic in the coffee.
The French Press brewing method is an older brewing method which allows more coffee particles to come through the screen and makes something of a meatier coffee if it can be described that way. It was invented in 1929 and is also called a coffee press, or a press pot. This method allows you to taste more of the bean directly.
Either of the two methods, the French Press or the Chemex are inexpensive and very effective ways to bring out the best out of any black coffee. The procedure is important, so please do read our above guides to perfect the technique. Remember, a great coffee can be turned into not-so-great coffee with poor brewing techniques, so be sure to follow the above guides.
While this article will focus on tasting your coffee, it’s interesting to note how coffee tasting is done professionally. Coffee tasting, professionally known as “Coffee Cupping” is a social activity where professionals, or simply anyone interested in learning to taste coffee can come and experiment with the different flavors, and objectively grade one coffee against another.
Typically several coffees will be roasted, then evenly spaced out onto a table with the coffee beans ground and available for view. It’s important to make note of which coffees are in which cups, possibly with index cards hidden under each cup. It’s also important for all involved not to know which coffees are which during the cupping process.
Furthermore, the beans themselves, raw or roasted should not be visible on the table as it’s very probable a taster will form an opinion about the beans, or knowing the region the beans come from, affix their preconceived notions, perceptions and opinions upon that coffee before you even taste it. It removes your objectivity. It’s a bit like tasting a food that you’re pretty sure you’re not going to like. Chances are you’re not going to like it because you’ve already predisposed yourself to the idea that you won’t like it. A taster may have had a bad experience with say, Salvadoran coffees in the past, and if he\she knew she were tasting a Salvadoran coffee, would almost certainly weight the scales against it before objectively trying it.
Tasters will then make their way around the table with a notepad, trying to understand the aromas present on each coffee being careful to notice which aroma notes and smells they most detect in the coffee, by careful contemplation and exploring their own thoughts and senses. Keep in mind, no person, ideally not even the host should know which coffee is which until the end, and the coffees are revealed. In other words complete objectivity should be maintained.
The same process will happen later with the taste test, tasting the coffee with a spoon, being careful to wash your mouth out before each tasting, making note of your observations on each coffee. What flavors do you taste, what notes can you detect, how is the aftertaste? If you’re interested in knowing more about the formal cupping process, check out this excellent guide at coffeegeek.com. For now, we’ll apply some of the same techniques to our taste test.
Applying some of the professional techniques, let’s keep it simple while utilizing sound, and tried-and-true methods.
At this point, we’ll assume you’ve found a great coffee to taste with. As always, we recommend using a coffee from a local roaster that has carefully roasted your coffee within 96 hours ideally, or at least the last couple of weeks. I can’t understate how important the freshness factor is.
If you really are interested in the freshest coffee available, you can roast your own coffee at home on your grill for the best possible experience, and freshest coffee in the world. Now hopefully, you’ve reviewed some of the good brewing methods above on either on the French Press, or on the Chemex coffee maker. We’re going to employ those now as we get to the heart of experiencing black coffee in all of its glory.
Remember, objectivity is important. Find a time to taste your coffee when distractions are at a minimum. You can’t focus on what you’re tasting or sensing if the kids are screaming around you, or if your environment is saturated with other odors and smells. Find a time and a place that offers peace where you can be alone with your thoughts and senses.
Make sure your coffee cup is free of odors or flavors. Make sure the anything you use is clean and odor free, including the room you’re sitting in. Some plastic cups have a plastic kind of odor that will truly influence your perception of the coffee. Place your coffee cup under your nose and see if you can detect any odors. Your nose is a huge part of the tasting process and it will influence your thoughts on everything.
If possible, you’ve chosen whole bean as opposed to ground, and you have a grinder available. This releases the chemical flavors and aromas right after you grind and maximizes the experience. Grind to the recommended grind size and amount of coffee based on our Chemex or French Press Guides above. Position your nose just above the grinds. Don’t actively inhale just yet. What odors do you detect just breathing normally? With very short 1/2 second gentle inhalations? Does any flavor jump out at you? Can you identify an aroma, something that triggers a memory, something you’ve smelled before? Have a look again at the flavor wheel. Any of these aromas jump out at you? Now inhale slowly. Did you pick up anything new? It might be good aromas or unsavory aromas, but it will enhance your skill if you can try to identify them. Try to be objective, a coffee may taste very different than it smells, so be open to anything and don’t let the aroma influence your thoughts on the rest of the process. Make mental or paper notes of anything you detect. Did you detect anything interesting or pleasing in the aroma?
Start your water to boil. While waiting, revisit your ground coffee a couple more times and see if you can pick up any new aromas. What do you like about it, what do you dislike? Back to the water. Remember you’ll want to pour your water at around 202F. This is approximately 10 degrees below boiling. You can roughly achieve this by waiting 25 seconds after you take it off the stove.
Pour your boiled water slowly and carefully over the grounds, carefully ensuring that all of your grounds are saturated. Take note of the pouring methods as described in the Chemex and French Press brewing guides. Start your stopwatch as we want the grounds to steep for 4 minutes. Lower your nose above the wet grounds. As before with the dry, ground coffee aroma, do note again what aromas you detect from the wet coffee. Also notice that if you have fresh roasted coffee, the coffee will bubble up with CO2 being released and it will look a bit like a brownie baking in the oven. A few weeks after the roast, the coffee will fail to bubble up and should indicate the coffee isn’t very fresh anymore. Breathe normally over the ground coffee. What odors do you detect? Is it different than from the dry coffee? What do you like, what do you dislike. Inhale slowly, do you detect anything new? Try inhaling with short, gentle 1/2 second inhalations. Make note of anything notable at all, good or less so. be sure to continue to follow the guide, continuously pouring over for example on the Chemex guide. If you want to take it a bit further, take a spoon, and break the crust of the grounds at the top with a spoon. Something like scooping ice cream. Waft the aromas towards your nose. You may detect new aromas at this point, do make note of them. See if you can find flavors on the flavor wheel at the top of this page.
Pour the coffee slowly and carefully into the cup, taking note of the aromas. As the coffee fills the cup you may be surprised to see that you can pick up on additional aromas as you pour. Don’t be afraid to get your nose near the coffee cup. Make mental or paper notes of the same.
Realize that different flavors can come out of the cup at different temperatures. It’s harder for the tongue to detect the delicate nuances in the coffee if it’s very hot. You might let it cool a bit before tasting. Sip some coffee into your mouth, be sure to slurp it just a bit to aereate the coffee, similar to wine tasting. Try and get the coffee to coat your entire tongue as different regions of the tongue can detect different flavors. While slurping, allow the aromas to enter your nose, and mouth. This aroma will enter your nasal passages as well and assist in getting the full aroma effect. Be careful to note what flavors your taste, what aromas do you pick up? If the coffee is good quality and fresh-roasted you should find a very nice bouquet of flavors and aromas. You may not love the flavor of black coffee at first, but try and see past that in this moment and make note of what flavors you do taste. Make note of them. Slowly swallow the coffee. Did the flavor change after swallowing? How is the aftertaste? Even if you don’t love the taste right off of the bat, try and be open-minded enough to enjoy the exploration of the different flavors that you experience within the roast. Try the above tasting process again as the coffee cools, and you may find that you can detect other aspects to the coffee as it cools. Now as you’ve made an objective go of the tasting process, pull up the flavor chart at the top of the page and see if it can trigger your mind into remembering any flavors you just couldn’t put your finger on. Some coffees can produce a range of natural flavors. Blueberry is quite fun.
Hopefully, after this, you’ll have tasted what truly good, fresh, well-brewed coffee tastes like. It very well could be the first time you’ve tried it under these conditions. You might not love it straight away, but many people we introduce to fresh black roast say,
“You know, it really wasn’t bad, maybe even good. Maybe I can get used to this.”
Regardless of your perception, it was quite a bit of fun, no? Contemplate the experience. Did you enjoy the ritual of it? Did you find it creative, amplifying of your senses? Each coffee literally is a different cup of adventure. Try different kinds of coffee, being sure to get fresh-roasted quality coffee. If you attempt to go back and drink black coffee with some off-the-shelf brand, you’ll finally taste how much worse it really is. You’ll realize that maybe you’ve had a bad perception of black coffee all along, because you never tried good coffee. Keep exploring. Keep trying, the more you try, the more your mind and senses will be opened up to it and you’ll appreciate the experience all the more. A bit like a fine wine taster, you’ll now be a coffee cupper. Before you know it, you’ll begin to crave that adventure in each cup, and want to experience the entire range of flavors that you’ve been missing up until now. You wouldn’t dream of ruining it with cream and sugar. And suddenly, you’ve gotten used to drinking black coffee. You’ll get bold looks from your host the next time you say, “I’ll take mine black”. Enjoy it. You’ll have earned it. Your eyes are opened.