The first sip of coffee in the morning should begin the day with the feeling of “ahhhhh, coffee.”
However, a good cup of coffee to the person who only drinks one cup or two a day may taste completely different to the coffee barista who has the palate to tell the difference between a very good cup of coffee from an “ok” cup of jo.
Here are some ways to help define what a good cup of coffee is supposed to taste like.
How to Tell Good Coffee from Bad
Coffee can expire, but it will become stale first. Avoid purchasing pre-ground beans and beans that have been exposed to the elements for the best results.
Fresh, Stale or Bad?
- Fresh coffee comes from beans that have been recently roasted, stored properly, and ground for use.
- Stale coffee comes from a supermarket. Stale coffee is over 3 weeks old for beans, or more than 30 minutes old after being ground.
- Bad coffee is moldy, or the oils have gone rancid.
In the shop
- Roasted on Date Fresh coffee was roasted less than 30 days
- Ground Coffee If it has been sitting on a store shelf it is no longer fresh. No exceptions.
- Whole Beans The whole bean is the best method for retaining the freshness of your coffee over time.
- Valve It’s important your beans can expel gasses after roasting to maintain their freshness. If the bag doesn’t have a valve, you should leave it on the shelf.
- Pre-Staled Coffee beans without a valve have been given time to expel the gasses from their fresh oils before being bagged. They’re stale before they even go in the bag!
- Whole Beans can remain fresh for two to three weeks, typically, as they are exposed to oxygen.
- Wait to grind until you’re ready to brew your cup. Remember, grind within 20 minutes for the freshest cup!
- Buy Regularly Don’t stock up on coffee and let it waste away into bitter flavorlessness in your cupboard. Buy your beans fresh, only as you need them.
You Can Smell Good Coffee
Much like tasting wine, tasting coffee also involves the sense of smell. Smell the grounds.
Smell the beans before the coffee is ground if you buy your coffee before it is made into ground coffee.
Smell the coffee more than one time. Let your nose tell you what you are smelling.
Take in the aroma of the coffee.
Then brew the coffee and smell the coffee as it is brewing. Coffee lovers love the smell of the coffee and the sound of coffee when it is brewing. The senses of sound and smell prepare you for the sense of taste.
So now let’s look at how coffee goes stale and talk about how that changes the smell and taste.
The Difference Between Fresh and Stale Coffee
Fresh coffee is the only coffee you should buy. Fresh coffee will not only give you the best bang for your buck, but you will also get the best cup of coffee from fresh beans.
Fresh beans should have a roast date less than 30 days prior to your purchase.
You should use up your fresh beans regularly and buy only enough coffee to last a week or two at a time.
Store your coffee beans properly, in a container that is airtight in a cool, dry, dark place.
Grind your coffee beans fresh for each use for the best flavor. Ground coffee starts to oxidize and become stale within 30 minutes.
Fresh coffee beans will bloom. This is one of the best indicators that your coffee is fresh.
Bloom occurs when you first begin to pour hot water over your freshly ground bean. If the bean begins to expand and bubble up, this is blooming, and this indicates a fresh bean which still contains trapped gasses. This bloom will contribute to the flavor of French Press coffee by allowing for proper immersion and dispersion of particles into the water.
Coffee goes stale when it has been exposed to oxygen, light, heat or moisture for too long. The period of time for exposure is short in coffee beans.
Once exposed, whole coffee beans may remain fresh for three weeks. After this time, they will begin to lose their freshness and flavor.
Ensuring your coffee is properly stored in the manner mentioned above will prevent your coffee from prematurely going stale and may extend the shelf life slightly.
The flavor profile will become a single bitter note as the bean stales.
You may notice that your beans don’t have much of a scent to them. This is a great indicator that your coffee beans have become stale.
If you pour hot water into pour coffee beans and they do not bubble and expand at all, they have reached staleness. There is no gas remaining within the beans from the roasting process as they have already been expelled.
Why does coffee go bad?
- Light can hasten the degradation of your coffee beans. It’s best to keep them in a dark place.
- Air or oxygen is your coffee’s main enemy. Oxidization changes the chemical makeup of the oils and this changes the taste of your coffee. Keeping it airtight will help to keep it fresh for longer.
- Heat will also begin to change the coffee’s composition and hurry the oxidation process.
- Moisture can lead to your coffee going truly bad prematurely. Moisture can encourage bacteria and mold growth on your coffee beans and allow them to truly expire.
But What Does Really Good Coffee Actually Taste Like?
Coffee should taste like a perfect balance between acidity, sweetness, and bitterness.
Coffee should never taste burned or so strong that the first reaction is ugh.
By the same token, coffee should not taste watery. Coffee should taste good.
The best coffee will remind you of where the coffee came from, the cherry from the coffee plant but it shouldn’t taste sour either. A fresh coffee bean will give you that acidic punch but will balance it out with the sugars and a bit of the bitters that come from even compound extraction.
These last bits are what give some coffees the caramelized back-end… but of course each bean and roast will differ slightly.
Channel Your Inner Barista
There is a Flavor Wheel for those who want to become true coffee experts of the different coffee flavors.
To perfect your coffee palate however, one just has to taste and try more coffee. If a person only drinks the same coffee every day from a Keurig, (nothing against a Keurig) for example, their palate is not going to be as much of a refined coffee palate as the person who grinds a variety of coffees and uses different methods to brew their coffees.
Another way to expand your coffee palate would be to visit different coffee shops and try select brews. Not the flavored and doctored mixes, but the brews the coffee shops are offering for their morning specialty cup of the day. This will give you an idea of how coffee is supposed to taste.
As your coffee palate becomes refined, you will be able to better judge when a cup of coffee is a really good cup of coffee, a ho hum cup of coffee, or something that should literally be thrown down the sink or out the door.
As you gain a broader understanding of how good coffee should taste, you will notice that you will start making better coffee in your home and drinking less coffee when you go certain places.
Even though you may have a sophisticated palate now and are sure of where the best coffee places are located, keep an open mind. There is always one more coffee to try and one more friend to make over a hot cup of delightful hot coffee.