Becoming a Coffee Snob

Breaking ranks with the rest of the tech industry, I must admit that I have never been a huge coffee fan. I know. Sacrilege. The truth is that hot drinks in general have never really been my cup of tea (pun very much intended). Sure, I was partial to an iced latte, and the elaborate glass Chemex contraptions of the faithful were intriguing, but I just never really got it. I could easily have dismissed such geekery, but in actuality I was always a bit jealous. As someone partial to a wee dram, I know how amazing it is when you get past the initial stages of “this all tastes the same”, and can discover the variety and depth involved in something new.

Recently, I had come across a local hipster coffee shop which clearly took themselves very seriously, but for the first time I got a glimpse of the promised land. Much like the first time I actually tasted cherries in a red wine (no, not the Tonic), the coffee that these folks were serving tasted incredible. Rather than just being another cup of burned dirt water, it somehow tasted of caramel and raspberries – without any addition of sugar or syrups.

This damascus moment led to an insatiable craving, desperate to relive that delirious caffeinated experience time and again. It wasn’t long until I bankrupted myself and was in the process of selling all of my worldly possessions to return to that cafe every day and get my fix… until I realised that if they could serve something that good, perhaps I should do a bit of investigation into recreating it at home.

What I learned

In a very short space of time, I not only discovered the price of a semi-decent espresso machine, but I also realised that almost everything I thought I knew about coffee was wrong. I still know basically nothing, but here is what I’ve gleaned over the past wee while:

1. Buying ‘better’ coffee isn’t the answer

In my previous attempts to have better tasting coffee, I just assumed I could pick up a more expensive bag from the supermarket (you know, the ‘taste the difference’ stuff that comes in that tempting black bag), and that would be half the battle. However, that isn’t the case. Of course the way you brew it matters, but there’s far more to it than that. Wayyyy more than I expected.

2. Coffee goes stale. Quickly.

Coffee basically never goes out of date, right? Of course not. They’re just beans. Well… yes… but apparently to really get the most out of it, you have to drink it within about 30 days of when it was roasted. If you pick up a fancy bag of beans from a local roaster but don’t get round to drinking them for a month or two, you’re far less likely to taste all of the exciting flavours that the coffee has to offer. Note that supermarket coffee almost never has a roasting date, and you can begin to piece together why it all might just taste the same – even if you do buy the fancy black bags.

3. Different ages of coffee are better for different types

Not only does the date that the coffee was roasted matter, but the type of drink you make with it at what stage of its life-cycle within the 30 day golden period also makes a difference. I won’t claim to know the reasons behind why, but an espresso will supposedly taste better made with beans that were roasted between 12 and 30 days prior – whereas beans which were roasted between 6 and 12 days will be more suited for filter coffee.

4. Storage is important

What do you mean I can’t just fold the bag over and stick a peg on it?! Oxygen, light, and moisture all contribute to coffee losing their freshness quicker. If you want to get the best out of that expensive bag you picked up from the floppy haired barista who told you the beans were foraged in the foothills of Botswana by a rare breed of hogs… you need to put a bit of effort into storing them properly. That means using some kind of contraption that will keep oxygen out, but also allow the CO2 that the beans give off to escape. The protips I’ve found involve using specially designed vacum sealed coffee boxes, along with oxygen absorber pads.

5. Freezing is fine

This is a controversial one, but if you buy a whole pile of coffee at once without realising that you would need to drink it within 30 days (ahem), then freezing the beans will help keep them fresher for longer. The caveat here is that you need to ensure that they are stored in an airtight container before freezing. Using some kind of vacuum sealed bag with an oxygen absorption pad should do the trick. If you are taking beans out from the freezer to use immediately, give the bag 10-15 minutes to acclimatise to room temperature before opening it and re-sealing once done to help prevent moisture building up.

6. Not all grinders were created equal

I had a coffee grinder. A good one, so I thought. It cost me £20 damnit! But, apparently it’s pish. Totally worthless. Why? Because it doesn’t allow you to properly control the size of the grind, or manage the consistency. That matters as you will want a different consistency of coffee depending on what kind you are brewing. For espresso, a fine grind is desirable, whereas French press requires a coarser grind.

7. You’ll need a new kettle

Okay, maybe this isn’t strictly the case, but if you want to get into the world of fancy pour-over coffee (and at this stage I’m fully committed to this madness), you will probably need to use one of those gooseneck kettles that looks like something out of a Wes Anderson film. To be honest, they look so cool that I would want one even if I never drank coffee again.

The road ahead

Even from a brief foray into this highly caffeinated world, I can see why so many people are so religious about it. For me, I’m not sure what the future holds. It’s been a while since I had an entirely new area to get excited learning about though, and I’ll hopefully be able to at least enjoy the journey. At least until I get addicted to caffeine and curse this entire experience.