Serious Eats: Drinks
Can We Be Objective About Quality in Coffee?
Naturally humans are sort of selfish creatures: We have an inherently hard time separating our personal opinions from what may or may not be objectively true about certain things, most especially food and drinks. When we taste something we don't like, our immediate response is to scrunch our noses and push it away, not to mention possibly tell five of our closest friends to avoid that café or restaurant because the coffee or the burgers are bad.
This isn't necessarily a...well, a bad thing. Liking and not liking things, developing favorites and recognizing less-than-favorites when it comes to flavor makes life interesting, and gives us all clear objectives on menus, in supermarkets, and when designing our own dinners.
If preference is subjective, however, then how can we be objective about one of the most complex, disagreed-about, and opinion-burdened things humans bother to consume? How can we determine quality in coffee?
First, I think it's important to contextualize the many ways in which coffee's objective quality can be affected, improved, or diminished through the course of its lifetime, from farm to Frappuccino.
The Farm and the Mill
The land that coffee plants are planted in has some influence in the final quality of the bean. And that's just the start. Things like soil health, farm husbandry and a crop's exposure to disruptive weather, plus disease or pests, ripe picking, deft sorting, careful processing (removing the coffee 'bean' from its cherry-like fruit), and even the speed and efficiency of shipping the beans are all individual points on a coffee's potential quality timeline. Wrong moves and missteps along the way can undermine quality, but preference might be predetermined. (For instance, if you're inclined toward a classic nutty and citrusy Colombian flavor profile, those tropical-fruity, juicy Kenyan beans might not stand a chance no matter what.)
Of course, the coffee undergoes some semi-objective quality assessment along the way as well, in the form of cuppings: Before lots of green coffee are purchased by a roaster, they are tasted and evaluated for both the presence and/or absence of defects, as well as overall cup quality. While cupping always has a subjective element to it based on the cupper's preference (say, perhaps he likes Kenyan coffees more than Colombian coffees generally), the analysis is designed to give professionals a reliable way to grade quality using standards that are typically pretty calibrated industry-wide. (Note: Price doesn't always reflect quality, but it certainly can.)
Assuming all goes well at the coffee's country of origin and during its long journey to the roaster after it's been cupped and contracted, there's then the matter of the roaster's skill with his tools. Turning green beans brown is no easy task, as it can take multiple rounds of testing and tasting a particular lot of coffee before settling on the right roast profile to bring a coffee's best flavor to the fore. That said, good roasters are also typically pretty practiced cuppers, and are always trying to make their coffee taste as good as possible before bagging it up and shipping it out. (You'll probably never find a coffee roaster who isn't a coffee lover, too: They drink this stuff just like you do, and so are just as interested in putting deliciousness in the cup as you would be.
Does that mean there aren't unskilled roasters out there? No, absolutely not. But as with any craft someone works at that is outside of my professional wheelhouse, I like to be careful before I make declarations about whether they're 'good' or 'bad' at it.
Ah, now we come to the part of the quality vs. preference chain we're all intimately familiar with: The café. This is where our perceptions get tricky: They can either trip us up, or they can lead us to finding a new obsession.
How can you assess quality in a cafe? This isn't easy for everyone to do, because cafés can all look very much alike, and of course looks aren't everything. (At least I've been telling myself that for years.) There are a few ways to visually brace yourself for a quality problem before you even order, which can help you avoid categorically "bad" coffee so you can spend your time worrying about preference instead.
Are the coffee machines clean? (Check those steam wands.) Does the barista seem stressed? Like, really stressed, like the line is too much for him to handle? Watch how coffees get made: Is drip coffee being brewed from pre-ground beans that are portioned out into a container that makes it easier for the people behind the counter to push buttons and prepare the product mindlessly? Is the espresso coming out in a gush, or not coming out at all? Is there a lot of noise and a flurry of activity happening behind the counter that seems unnecessary? (Really skilled baristas are able to move very subtly and quietly, like coffee ninjas.)
If you notice obvious shortcuts that have been established for the staff—push-button superautomatic machines, pre-ground coffee, milk that's been steamed in large batches for use over many beverages—take them as a sign that quality might not be the name of the game here. If the baristas are calm, friendly, clean, at least a little quieter, and working with obviously fresh ingredients that maybe take a few extra steps to prepare, you might assume that quality is at least a priority, if not the end result.
Does this mean that you can't have a preference for the coffee at the joint using shortcuts? Absolutely not: Millions of people love that kind of environment. It's more or less predictable, reliable, fast, and often cheaper: All things that are actually pretty important when we're weighing what we want out of life. But is it objectively better than a café where the baristas take a longer time?
I've obviously gone on about this at length to make something of a point, and I can wrap it up and spare you any further scrolling: Basically I think we get hung up on "good" and "bad" without considering the much more important subjective idea of "I like it" or "I don't like it, because, to put it bluntly: Quality and preference don't always come as a package.
Nothing says summer to me like a huge iced coffee from Dunkin' Donuts, slurped through a massive straw while I'm reading Us Weekly on the train to the beach, but I'm not kidding myself about the inherent quality of that drink or that magazine.
Preference means that we're entitled to like what we like, regardless of what anyone else says. Whether you take your coffee with milk, or cream and Splenda, black, or with a pump of hazelnut and four sugars and whipped cream, you like what you like and that's great. Try new stuff if you want to, don't if you're perfectly content as is. But all of us could bear to remember that whenever any of us tries to impose our preferences as objective markers on anyone else—yes, perhaps even business owners—we all lose the snobbery game.
Do you prefer anything—coffee-related specifically, but also in general—even though you know there are "higher-quality" options out there? What keeps you coming back for more of your favorite stuff?