Release Date: Nov 27, 2015
Coffee is the most consumed beverage on the planet, with millions of people enjoying the brew each and every day. If you ask each one of those millions of coffee drinkers what makes for a great cup of coffee, you can bet you’re going to get millions of different answers. Being the director of Kurasu, an online store providing Japanese coffee equipment worldwide, I have had the chance to immerse myself in the culture surrounding coffee the past few months. Visiting cafes around the world, interacting with baristas and coffee maker employees, and tasting amazing brews. This incredible experience got me thinking: how do I personally define good coffee?
Good coffee is subjective, and there’s nothing wrong with that
Is it the source of the beans? The roasting technique used? The grind? Extraction methods? When I think about the question, I first imagine these points as they are generally the variables considered by fine coffee establishments. A top-quality roaster or cafe will typically take pride in the processes involved well before the finished brew touches the customer’s lips. Sourcing, roasting, and extracting all come into play in this journey that’s called “from seed to cup” – a journey of great importance to specialty coffee roasters.
But can you find the perfect brew simply by judging the quality of the coffee itself? Chances are that the definition of good coffee entails much more than just the seed-to-cup journey. The truth is that “good coffee” is an extremely subject concept. It includes not only the quality of the roast, but the flavors that touch your tongue, and the whole experience of ordering, purchasing, and drinking – as well as the interactions you have with the surroundings while you enjoy your cup.
Let’s start with flavor, because it’s the heart of the experience in so many ways. If we don’t enjoy the taste of our brew, then little else matters, after all. There are actually methods by which the flavor of coffees are graded, and these methods are used in auctions and competitions such as the Cup of Excellence.
Now, personally, I’m not a coffee critic. I’m certainly a coffee lover, but to call oneself a critic is an entirely different matter. That being said, I don’t base much of my decision on those coffee scores and grades. They may be a good base point for making my own judgment call, but I think it’s essential to remember just how subjective and personal the drinking experience really is.
Think about this: there have been numerous studies that show wine scores – issued by specially-trained judges – often contradict. They contradict themselves, each other, and most importantly, they will often show no correlation to the wines that people actually enjoy drinking! Further evidence to just how subjective taste truly is.
Can this same idea be applied to coffee? I believe so to a point, and that’s why I place only a limited emphasis on scores or grades as I don’t want it to dictate my thoughts or have preconceptions. What matters in the end is how the flavors play on my tongue, and how much I enjoy drinking it. And that experience – my experience – is something that can’t be defined or completely expressed to anyone else.
We bend and make concessions to subjectivity in the food world as well. I absolutely hate natto, Japanese fermented soybeans. I think they smell terrible and taste just as bad . . . and the slimy texture is, I dare to say to my fellow Japanese friends, disgusting. That’s my opinion of natto, but to the Japanese, it’s a staple, beloved in many households and enjoyed as a Japanese soul food. A majority of Japanese people, including my wife who is Korean but lived in Japan when she was young, adore natto. It’s a love that can’t be explained – especially to me – but that makes it no less real to the people who eat it with a smile on their face.
As we would with wine and food, we each determine for ourselves what constitutes “good coffee.” Some of us prefer dark roasts, some light. Some folks drink espresso straight, some with milk, and some prefer filtered coffee above all others. And I can’t begrudge anyone who defines good coffee as a mocha frappe.
What I can and always try to do, however, is encourage them to give quality brews a try. It’s easy to find out about upcoming cupping sessions at your local specialty roaster, and participating in such a tasting is a beautiful experience. There’s no better way to experience the different, subtle tastes that are available, and to see the attention to detail that’s put into each brew from seed to cup.
And if someone experiences all of that and still prefers a blender drink from Starbucks, then that’s their personal decision – more power to them!
Good coffee is about the experience as much as it’s about the flavors
Not long ago, I posted something on our Kurasu Facebook page about our new monthly coffee subscription service. We’ve teamed up with Good Coffee to provide coffee beans worldwide from specialty Japanese roasters all around Japan – a new concept not done by anyone else, and which we’re extremely proud of.
I was a bit shocked however when I read one of the first comments on our post. An Australian women commented: “Coffee in Japan is horrible. Am I missing something?” Needless to say, she wasn’t one of our followers (yet.)
At first, I was completely taken aback when I read the comment. Then I thought about it for a moment and remembered that every taste is different, and a person’s experiences can factor in as well. There are quite a few reasons why she may have had a bad experience that had nothing to do with the quality of the coffee itself.
First off, she might not be fond of filter coffee – the focus in Japan. Perhaps she prefers espresso, which is a bit more difficult to find in the cafes in Japan. Or maybe the language barrier itself posed a problem, preventing her from ordering exactly what she wanted. Maybe it was the cafe itself.
This made me think of my last trip to Japan, taken back in October. I had a chance to visit over 20 coffee venues during that trip. Most of the places that I visited were incredible and I really loved experiencing all of those amazing cups of coffee. But I still had my favorites, so I asked myself why I preferred some over the others.
What I found was that it was the cafe or roaster itself that made the difference. The experience that I had there, the first impression, my interactions with the barista – all of these things played into my determination of a “favorite” coffee. During that trip, I learned about one roaster who had been in the business for 30 years, always striving to find the perfect brew to serve their customers. I also met a barista who’d quit his corporate job to pursue something he was truly passionate about – he loved coffee, and he loved every minute of his work after donning the apron. Being from a corporate environment myself, I could absolutely relate to that. Those interactions were the moments that sparkled.
I’ve also had horrible encounters in the cafes in Japan, of course. I’ve been in a cafe where the coffee may have been excellent, and the barista’s skills were likely solid, but their bad attitude spoiled the entire experience. No matter how good the coffee tastes, I can’t rank it as “good coffee” if the barista was being condescending to customers or to their fellows.
Those memories made me think that maybe that’s what the Australian woman had experienced in Japan. Her opinion of the coffee may have been soiled by the balance of the experience.
And that’s where the importance of the venue plays heavily into what we each deem the “best” cup of coffee. What do the baristas stand for? What about the owner? What are their stories and what do they want to achieve in their presentation of a finely-crafted brew? As a customer, you can sense when the staff is passionate about their work. You can tell when that beverage, no matter how small, is something of importance to the person crafting it. And that all adds (or subtracts) from the experience.
There’s no such thing as too many good choices
There was a day when you could easily name the best place to get good coffee because they were likely the sole location who concerned themselves with quality. It’s not so simple any more.
With the third wave coffee movement taking over, there are scores of specialty coffee roasters out there, each providing amazing quality and consistency in their respective corner of the world. Even big brands like Starbucks are starting to invest heavily on specialty and reserve coffees. This means that it’s actually getting harder to define a good cup of coffee, because there are so many great brews to be had. This is certainly not a bad thing for coffee drinkers!
This is precisely why the bond and relationship between the roaster and the customer is becoming such a huge part of the selection process. High quality coffee is readily available, so I believe now the difference is in the rest of the experience.
What is “good coffee”? It’s the cafe that serves you amazing coffee with attention to detail, but it’s also about the attention they give the customer. It’s about the passion they have for the work and the product. Good coffee, for me, is about the love that’s put into brewing the cup and the interactions and connections that happen along the way.
Photography by Nik van der Giesen