It ain’t all that easy to know what the difference is between good and bad coffee. Particularly if you’re a beginner, it’s easy to think that coffee is just a bitter brown drink that you put cream and sugar in to taste nice!
Well, that used to be me, and now I sup on straight black coffee practically every time. I’ve had to learn everything about coffee on the way to make it nice enough that I don’t need all the milky sweet rubbish to make it palatable.
Oh, and when you make coffee that nice? You’ll want to drink it black.
So what’s the difference between good coffee and bad coffee?
For me, there are six main differences…
In short, good coffee will (1) be fresh and recently roasted, (2) be ground just before the brew, (3) be made with ratios and measuring, (4) made with high quality coffee beans, (5) have a grind size that is consistent and (6) be of a medium or light roast.
Now if you want the reasons that back up those statements then follow me, I’ll also give you some tips on how to improve your own coffee making in these areas.
1. The Coffee Is Fresh And Not Stale
I’m constantly astounded by the amount of coffee that is bought, brewed and sold that is not fresh. Step into a Starbucks (or any major commercial chain) and order a Latte and you’ll be buying coffee that is brewed with stale beans, amazing as that sounds.
For reference, when coffee beans are roasted they have an incredible aroma and are filled with amazing and powerful tastes that go away quite quickly.
The best time to drink coffee is within 15 days of the roast date and there will be a significant decline more than 30 days after. This is not to say that you can’t drink coffee after this date, it is simply stale and tastes poor in comparison.
Actually, the idea that coffee should be drunk within days of roasting has only been popularized since the Third Wave of coffee in the 2000s.
So the first difference between good and bad coffee? Good coffee is brewed from coffee beans that have been roasted within the last 15 days.
Quick Tip: If you want to check whether a bag of coffee beans that you want to buy is fresh or not, simply look for a roast date. If there is no roast date anywhere on the bag then it’s likely been sat in a warehouse or shipping container for several months. And yes, this does mean that the coffee at your grocery store is probably stale…
2. The Coffee Is Ground Fresh
So if we’ve established that those coffee beans you buy are going to lose flavor aroma beginning at around 15 days after the roast, what do you think happens when you grind them all up and leave them for a day or two?
It is unfortunate that when you grind coffee the flavor disappears very quickly. In my experience, you will notice a severe drop in quality after just a day. And if you buy preground from the packet like at a grocery store? It’s gone stale before it even got onto the shelf.
The second difference between good and bad coffee? Good coffee is made with coffee beans that are ground up for the occasion, not with preground coffee that has been in a vacuum sealed packet for months.
Quick Tip: Get yourself a grinder. This is the big investment most people need to make during their coffee brewing coffee and I strongly recommend you don’t cheap out for reasons that are outlined a little later in this article.
3. You Use Exact Ratios For Your Brew
Brewing a good cup of coffee is a fine balancing act. You have to factor in the coffee to water ratio, brewing technique, grind size and consistency, water temperature and other variables.
All of which can drastically affect the strength and extraction of the coffee with even the slightest of changes.
This is why when you look at anyone who knows anything about coffee make a brew, they will be recording the conditions they use so they know how it will turn out.
It also makes it easy to adjust the brew for next time if things turn out a little sour or bitter or any number of undesirable flavors.
Here’s a glance at the text document I use to records my brews. You can see I’ve got 17g of coffee to 272g of water, that’s a 1:16 ratio which is pretty standard and gives a medium strength brew. I’m using a ‘Clever’ coffee maker and I’m recording the grind size I’m using (1+6) and the brew time that I’m giving it and also the temperature (because I’ve got a snazzy kettle that tells me that!)
The third difference between good and bad coffee? Good coffee is made with an eye kept on certain variables that can affect the flavor where bad coffee is often just done by ‘eyeballing’ amounts and estimating times.
Quick Tip: Start recording what you do for each brew you make. When you taste each brew, look for flavors that are undesirable like the coffee tasting thin, sour, bitter… Here’s a great webpage to help you, called the Coffee Compass and guides the tastes you notice to what you should do to fix it. It goes along the line of…
Too bitter –> Your coffee is overextracted. Lower the brew time or make the grind size more coarse.
Too sour –> Your coffee is underextracted. Increase the brew time or make the grind size more fine.
4. The Coffee Beans Are Of A High Quality
Like a 3 Michelin star chef will only use the finest cuts of meat, the quality of your coffee depends greatly on the quality of your ingredients. Cheap coffee like the Robusta that is heavily produced in Vietnam is not the direction you want to go in for ‘good coffee’.
The best coffee is produced all over the world, but typically on smaller farms or even ‘microlots’. This is because rather than the mass farmed rubbish, a smaller amount can have greater care taken of it.
The shade, sunlight, rainfall and how the coffee is grown, picked, dried and peeled all make a big difference to the final taste.
You might have heard the term ‘Single Origin’? This refers to coffee that is grown in one small farm or region. As well as producing more pronounced flavors and tasting notes, these coffees are often held up as excellent examples of high-quality coffee due to the better nurturing.
The fourth difference between good and bad coffee? Good coffee uses high-quality coffee beans that come from farms that place a great emphasis on the care of their crops.
Quick Tip: Buy your coffee beans from specialty roasters rather than a grocery store or major chain like Starbucks. If a coffee shop roasts their own coffee or its a dedicated roaster, you can usually rely on them to have done the due diligence on the coffee they buy wholesale. Many even take trips out to the farms, too!
Yes this will cost a little more but there’s no escaping from it if you’re truly serious abuot making good coffee.
5. Avoiding The Trap Of Inconsistent Grind size
The biggest obstacle people have in making good coffee at home is that they think a $20 POS coffee grinder is good enough.
A guy I worked with used to say this all the time, and you know what? He’s right.
Commercial coffee shop have two pieces of equipment that they can’t cheap out on, the espresso machine and the grinder. It’s true that part of the cost is down to the fact that they need them both to be reliable and to be able to be used several times an hour but they also need the coffee beans to be ground into evenly sized chunks or powder. Some places spend several thousands of $$$ on a grinder!
Your coffee has a certain amount of time for all the compounds and oils and everything it is that turns hot water into coffee.
Now if you have some big chunks and some fine powder all mixed together – dust and boulders – then you have a problem.
The big chunks will underextract, meaning you won’t fully get all the stuff out and it will produce too much of the early extracting sour compounds and can make your brew taste thin and grassy. The fine powder will extract too quickly and will leave your drink with lots of the later extracting bitter compounds.
The fact is, if you haven’t got a good grinder you aren’t making good coffee.
The fifth difference between good and bad coffee? An even grind consistency is crucial to avoiding undesirable flavors like acidity and bitterness in your coffee, so good coffee is typically made with something with a very good coffee grinder.
Quick Tip: The simple solution is to invest in a quality grinder. You’re looking at $100 for the go-to automatic beginner grinder and more like $150 for my choice for a solid hand grinder. Here’s the links to my articles on what I think are the best choices in those categories.
The hand grinders will give you a bit more bang for your buck as they don’t have to worry about the cost of the motor or electric and can concetrate on engineering some damn good burrs.
6. The Beans Are Not Over-Roasted
You know that charry, smoky, burnt taste that you get when you drink a cup of the good stuff? Isn’t that great?
Well, the answer is: not really. Sure, if you like those flavors in your dark roasted coffee them more power to you, but it’s like having a steak well done, the inherent flavors of the bean are burnt away and you are left with something that maybe tastes good, but is generic and not what good coffee is all about.
How about instead of the burntness, you had notes of licorice and blackcurrant
Not an infusion or anything, just subtle but undeniable flavors of licorice and blackcurrant that dance around on your tongue.
That’s what us snobs are talking about when we talk about ‘good’ coffee and I brought up those particular flavors because they came from a Kenya AA that I absolutely loved. Yes, they really tasted like that.
To access this world of amazing flavor you need to be buying medium or lightly roasted coffee. It’s like having your steak rare, the flavors have not been cooked away.
(And coffee roasting is basically the same as cooking in a lot of ways).
The sixth difference between good and bad coffee? Good coffee is usually medium or lightly roasted to accentuate the gorgeous flavors of top-tier coffee beans, bad coffee is burnt to a crisp and sold as a dark roast.
Quick Tip: If you’re following my other advice which is basically: BUY GOOD COFFEE BEANS FROM A DEDICATED ROASTER! Then it’s likely you will not see many dark roasted coffee beans, perhaps outside of a few espresso blends. Those dudes know what they’re doing, and in fact they’re great to chat to usually if you wanna learn more.
How To Taste The Difference Between Good And Bad Coffee?
Once you begin following the tips in this article, your next port of call is going to be in understanding and actually tasting the difference in good coffee. It’s actually not as easy as you might think to get to grips with.
The step that you absolutely must take is to tone down the embellishments you add to your coffee. Sugar, milk, cream, cinnamon, pineapple (?!). Whatever it is that takes your fancy is masking the flavor of the coffee.
When your coffee is mediocre, that’s great, it turns an average tasting drink into something palatable.
But when you’re coffee is good, it drowns out all that amazing flavor and turns it into a nice tasting but generic cup of joe that ain’t all that dissimilar from something you’d make with bad coffee.
Do you need to drink it black? I would say at first that’s not a requirement. I know how off putting that is for people who are not used to it. In fact, my own journey with coffee did not start with drinking black coffee straight away.
What happened was I really thought I needed a little milk in every cup just to offset the inherent bitterness of the drink. Over time, I began to need less and less and started to appreciate the coffee more without it.
Eventually, I just started drinking it black and didn’t notice those bitter flavors any more. Of course, it helped I was following every rule in this article and making pretty great coffee.
How To Taste Blueberry And Jasmine In Your Coffee
So know you’re all ‘au fait’ with good coffee making and you’ve lessened the 10oz of cream and sugar that used to make up your drink, well done you. The next step is to really dive into exploring amazing coffee by noticing the inherent tastes.
These flavors will be more pronounced the less milk or whatever else you use, being at its most noticeable with black coffee. With good coffee beans that are prepared well, the flavors should be subtle but unmistakeable.
So for example, I had a Costa Rican which blew my socks off a few weeks back. It had tasting notes of ‘green apple’ and ‘dark chocolate’. Focusing on these tastes while I was drinking really helped them to light up on my tongue and made the coffee taste fantastic.
I do find it more difficult to describe the tastes without reading about it beforehand though, then it feels more like a general fruitiness or sweetness. So I do recommend reading all that shiz first.
Does that all seem like a lot to take in? I’ll bet it does. There’s a reason that people spend years working as baristas and still feel like they don’t know everything. And a reason why there are global competitions for the best brewer of espresso or Aeropress coffee or whatever else.
If it seems like there’s too much to do all at once then don’t worry, even taking small steps towards improving your coffee is a good thing.
And a lot of coffee shops don’t follow all this advice (sadly).
I’ve numbered them in order of importance (in my opinion anyway), and you can get started pretty easily by just buying some quality coffee from a good local roaster or somewhere online. Do that and you’re making better coffee than 95% of people already, I’d say.