By Elise Becker, Crown Barista
COVID-19 has changed many things about how we go about our day-to day. In fact, it’s why I’m writing articles and recipes instead of serving drinks. So many brewing guidelines are floating around right now, and people who are used to picking up coffee from their local shops or drinking whatever they can make in a rush before work are suddenly taking the time to revise the way they make coffee at home. Even before the pandemic shut many doors, I had guests asking many questions about what they could do to make their coffee better – asking “what is the right way”?
So what does “good coffee” even mean?
I’m going to state clearly up front: this article is not a piece designed to teach you about TDS, or extraction percentages, or manipulation of your daily recipes. I’m not here to convince you to change anything about what you are already doing (or not doing) to your coffee. There are plenty of great educational articles and recipes around that do just that, both here on Royal Coffee’s blog and elsewhere. What you will find in this piece is not the discipline of coffee, but rather its soul. It’s about what I think is often lost when we get into technical discussions about brewing and tasting.
I feel strange writing this right now, because there are so many things happening in the world that feel like they deserve more attention than anything I could possibly have to say. There is a global pandemic raging that has taken more than 100,000 lives here in the US alone. We are experiencing an unprecedented economic recession. We’re in the midst of the biggest (and severely overdue) civil rights movement in recent history. Global climate change is bringing our environment closer and closer to collapse. I have been struggling with intense waves of anxiety and depression, and I know I’m not alone in that. And yet, we each keep on keeping on, doing the best we can each day. Many of us, it seems, continue to draw energy, focus, and comfort from coffee. So here we are.
Numerous opinions exist, praising or punishing certain methods— be they for roasting, or brewing, or even drinking. Many of the loudest opinions claim the use of various science to tout themselves as hard facts and declare their way to be the best and only one. This is all hogwash. It’s simply not true that there’s any right or wrong way (except maybe a way that will hurt you, please be careful) to enjoy your coffee!
There are myriad ways to make and appreciate coffee, and among those there are certainly ways to make your coffee taste better. To you. That’s right, your taste buds are actually your best tool for making your at-home-coffee taste better. Any recipe out there is only helpful insofar as it tastes good to you. Pseudo-science be damned!
I’ve met so many people who have told me they think they have a bad palate, or who are anxious that they are doing their coffee “wrong.” I’ve been guilty of it myself when cupping in groups, worried that I’m not competent enough to say what I taste and what I like (or don’t) about it. The truth is, there’s no such thing as outright wrong when it comes to what you taste and what flavors feel good to you. So trust your taste buds and your gut, I say, and let that lead your questions. “Good coffee” is a matter of opinion.
But is that opinion just about taste? Or is it something more?
I have my own thoughts, but I wanted others to weigh in, too. To begin my investigation, I asked a few non-industry friends (four folx total folx: three of them identify as women, two are poc, and more than one identify as queer, so while a small group, it’s still a relatively diverse one) to answer a series of light questions about how they enjoy coffee:
Q: What if anything is your fondest coffee memory?
C: I used to meet with my neighbors and friends every morning at a café in Sebastopol. I could go there any morning and there was always someone there that I knew, to talk to and hang out with.
D: I have really fond memories of going to coffee shops in Chicago during wintertime. There was this one shop called Caffé Streets. It’s really cold in Chicago in the winter, and the moment of stepping into a café with the windows fogged up and then shedding all your winter layers to sit down and reading with a hot pourover just sits really well in my brain.
V: Going to get coffee on the way to being dropped off at school by my Mom. At 711. Which was like, the worst coffee, but my sisters didn’t drink coffee, and it was like my special few minutes with my Mom. So it was also the BEST coffee.
N: Oooh. I would have to say it would probably be when my friend became a part of the industry and started making me really good cups. It made her happy and also sparked an interest in me. It changed it from something that I did every morning like a habit to something that really meant something to me, something to learn more about.
Q: When did you start drinking coffee? Why?
C: I don’t know. When I was…13, probably? My mom’s a coffee drinker, and I’d drink it with her.
D: Probably about 15. I’d go to coffee shops with my older brother Michael, who was an avid coffee drinker, so I kind of followed suit. I also just thought coffee shops were cool and wanted to have a real reason to go into them.
V: I’ve probably had a cup of coffee every day since I was 10. My mom was a coffee addict, so it started as a way to taste different flavors of coffee creamer, but I don’t love sweet things really and graduated quickly to drinking it black. It was a way to connect with my mom.
N: I started either freshmen or sophomore year of high school because it was “cool” and that’s what the cool kids did, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I just remember it being something that felt grown up, even if what that looked like was getting a latte at the Barnes and Noble café haha.
Q: What do you like about coffee? Caffeine? Taste?
C: I like the caffeine. I like the flavor. I like having a warm drink.
D: Taste, for sure. Caffeine’s never really been the thing – I usually just wake up and am ready to go anyway.
V: At this point, definitely the flavor. It’s really interesting to taste different varieties and see the differences in flavor. And I like the flavor of coffee itself. As in, it definitely has different notes, but also has different profiles. So, it’s just cool to see the structure of it all.
N: Well, I do like the taste. I don’t understand people who drink it but don’t like the taste. It’s definitely been an acquired taste, but I think it’s less about caffeine for me now, because there are other ways I can get energized and other things I drink to get caffeine. But there’s something special about coffee. There’s something about the ritual and routine of it. Smelling and brewing it first thing in the morning is such an important part of my routine that the day almost doesn’t feel right without it.
Q: Do you have a favorite coffee shop?
C: Hardcore Espresso. They don’t serve brewed coffee, just espresso. They had fire pits and just lots of hippies smoking weed and playing hacky sack, and everyone was really friendly – no small talk, just lots of deep conversations about existence. There were lots of plants, they sold crystals, and there was a free bin of stuff you could add to or take from. They also had trivia questions on a whiteboard every day. It was fun, a really nice community spot.
D: That’s a hard question. But probably the Andytown in the Outer Sunset, just from the sheer number of times I’ve been there in the past few years and lots of memories. It was the first café I went to when I moved to SF. I had no idea then how many times I’d go there or what that place and that neighborhood would mean to me. There’s a lot of nostalgia to me, and it’s cool to have that kind of connection to a place. But I love a lot of shops! Piccino in the Dog Patch, Metric Coffee House in Chicago, Elm Coffee Roasters…so many! I love talking to baristas about what they’re up to and learning more about coffee.
V: Not to sound like a suck-up, but The Crown! It’s got a great atmosphere. The people working are really friendly, and very down to chat. It’s also just a very airy and bright space, and it doesn’t feel like a crammed coffee shop like a Starbucks where people are trying to get their mocha whip and sit with their laptop and ignore the world. The Crown has a real community vibe, and I always feel like I’m meeting interesting people there rather than a place to do work.
N: Of all time? Oooh that’s tough. I think then, the Casbah Café in Silverlake. I don’t think it’s even there anymore, unfortunately. It was just a very inviting place to spend time, with really nice ownership and good vibes. They had a really amazing selection of both coffee and tea, and also really good local food. It just felt like part of the community. That neighborhood was changing so much during the time I lived there, with people getting pushed out from rising prices and such, and it felt like a space that welcomed everyone and wanted people to feel safe.
Q: Do you like to visit coffee shops when you travel? Do you have a favorite one that you’ve visited?
C: No. I like going to coffee shops, but they aren’t really a destination for me. I go for the caffeine boost when I’m traveling, or because my girlfriend (a barista) drags me there.
D: Yes! That’s how I get to know new cities! My favorite that I’ve visited is probably Sey Coffee in Brooklyn. It’s beautiful, and the coffee is amazing, and it’s in Brooklyn and I love that place! It’s not a flashy neighborhood, it’s on a random street, and it’s just really good. It feels almost like a reason enough to go to Brooklyn. A destination that became part of who I am and I loved learning more about that community and the people there. It’s just really stuck with me.
V: I always try to visit coffee shops when I travel. I try to avoid places like Starbucks because they don’t really describe the coffee culture of a place. My favorite spot traveling was this little café in Bordeaux called Café Piha. They roasted their own beans and talked about the different coffees. They served these delicious little apricot scones with mascarpone on the side, and the café was so open and airy with these giant windows.
N: I do like to visit coffee spots when I travel, but I don’t treat them like destinations. I don’t really have a favorite. Although, when I was in Colorado there was a spot called The Trident that was actually a bookstore, but they had a café space and it felt really inviting. It definitely felt like a neighborhood spot, and they had one of the best American-made, spicy chais. I just remember feeling cozy and like, wow, this is the best chai that me or another Indian person didn’t make that I’ve ever had haha.
Q: What kind of drink do you like to order when you’re out at a café? What’s the go-to?
C: A hot latte, but it depends where I go. I don’t think iced drinks jazz me up as much. Probably because there’s ice taking up all the caffeine space. Mocha Madness in Cotati has the BEST mochas, so I always order that when I’m there.
D: Probably either a cappuccino or pourover. When I go to a new shop, I normally order a shot of espresso – I like to see if I like their espresso. Espresso cups are also so fun. I’m a big fan of small things! Haha.
V: If I don’t know the coffee shop, the go-to is a cappuccino. Although, if I know they have them I like to order cortados. Actually, a cappuccino tells you a lot about a place. If they’re serving a really big cappuccino, I know it’s not really legit. I like the ratio of milk to coffee in a cortado. And I also like the temperature – ready to drink, ready to sip immediately. And cappuccinos are hard to mess up, so...
N: My basic go-to would just be whatever the house coffee at a cafe is, or I’ll ask a barista there what they recommend for a brewed cup. Or maybe a latte, I like lattes.
Q: How do you like to make coffee at home?
C: I make pourovers. It’s quick, easy, to the point.
D: Pourovers. They’re fun, and I like learning more about how to dial them in and get the most out of the coffee I bring home from roasters.
V: I do a pourover. I have a brewer that looks kind of like a Chemex, but it has a metal filter. And I hand grind with a Porlex. It’s become a morning ritual, and I really enjoy it.
N: Depends on the day. Over the week, drip coffee maker because it was the easiest way for me to get my coffee while getting ready before work. On the weekends I make a French press or a pourover in a Chemex. French press is probably my favorite though. It’s kind of like you’re doing a bit more to enjoy your coffee, and it feels classy, and I like to put on a jazz record and just feel snazzy. I actually bought my first French Press because I was taking a French class in college and all the girls in my class were saying that I should get one and it would taste so good. I even got French roast at the time. French roast in my French press to go to my French class. God, I’m such a dork haha.
Q: Do you put anything in your coffee?
C: Half and half. And Cinnamon. I put the cinnamon in when I’m brewing the pourover so it’s just in there.
D: No, I drink it black usually. Maybe half and half if it’s too too strong, but it’s not usual. I feel like if I have to put something in, I didn’t do a good job brewing.
V: Not usually, I drink it black, or with the steamed milk in the cappuccino or cortado. I prefer oat milk to regular milk.
N: Yeah! Usually cream and sugar or milk and sugar. But if I’m in the right mood or it’s the right coffee I’ll drink it black. Depending on the quality of milk, I actually prefer it to cream. That sounds like such an eyeroll thing to say but I really feel it. I really like Clover Organic milk, but anything like that – organic, or even raw milk that feels closer to the farm and just fresher.
Q: What does your favorite mug look like? Describe it! Why do you like it?
C: It’s a cream-colored, handmade ceramic mug that has a black, carved flower and snake design on it. And its big. She thicckkkk. One of my friends made it for me with lots of love. It’s cute, and it feels really good in my hands.
D: It’s small! It’s so small and cute. And it’s glazed blue handmade ceramic. I also have one I really like that has a climbing hold instead of a handle. Both were recent birthday presents from friends!
V: Ugh. I have to choose between two. Well…my friend made a mug with the most beautiful mug shape haha. It has a really large handle, and I love being able to wrap both of my hands around the mug and through the handle. It reminds me of Monterey, at the beach, when the waves wash over the rocks and there’s still sea foam on the rock and it is sparkling – it’s that color. But there’s also a mug that my friend and I bought at a gas station somewhere in Idaho, and it’s shaped like a cow, supported by its udders. It’s just so ridiculous and unique, and I actually broke it at one point and just cried and cried because I was so upset, and my ex did three days of internet digging and found me a new one of the same mug.
N: Damn. Ok. Um. The top dog, if you will? Oh god, now I have to take a gander at all of them… Ok this is really really difficult because I have a lot of REALLY good ones. If I have to choose just one though, “Eggs ‘n’ Things.” There are two diners in Thousand Oaks where I grew up, Eggs ‘n’ Things (est 1974) and Harold’s. But Eggs ‘n’ Things was closer to me geographically, and just means so much to me – it was such a part of my process of growing up. It’s like the place you’d go after sleepovers in your pajamas, and they give free Swedish pancakes if you order a breakfast item, and I just have a lot of sweet nostalgic memories there. You can ask anyone from Thousand Oaks, and everyone knows the place. What does the mug look like? It’s a classic white diner mug with the Eggs ‘n’ Things name and a chicken printed on it in red.
Q: What does “good coffee” mean to you?
C: High caffeine, tastes good? Tasting notes? Um…chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, cardamom. I don’t know, GOOD?
D: I think the best coffee I’ve had is coffee that doesn’t even taste like coffee. Something smooth and really flavorful and makes you feel like you’re drinking juice or something. I don’t really like bitter flavors. Even if I know it was brewed correctly, and it’s just naturally kind of bitter, I don’t like it as much. But if I’m drinking coffee and it just tastes like a piece of candy, I’m like, that’s INSANE, and I love it.
V: Good coffee to me is… I don’t know, flavorful coffee that is responsibly sourced. I feel like it’s something that’s well thought out. Good beans, from good people, brewed with care and attention.
N: I think “good coffee” well, I know what I want to say but I don’t know how to not make it another eye-roll. Ugh. I can’t. Um… I think it’s better when it’s made with love. I think part of the reason “third wave coffee” is so popular is because you have people who really care about coffee, who are making the coffee from start to finish. Like, yes, there are good ingredients, but it just tastes better when you care about it. Like when I go to a friend’s house and they make some coffee for me because it’s part of caring for me, that’s gonna be a great cup. It’s about the moment and the person for me.
Are we getting somewhere? Are you thinking of your travels, fond memories, novelty mug collection, lazy eddies of cream and sugar dissolving in your cup, and stolen moments in the warmth of your favorite cafe? Have you decided what “good coffee” is yet?
My own answer has evolved over time, and has changed a great deal throughout my time working in the coffee industry. Before I became a barista, I’ll admit that I hadn’t really considered coffee beyond being a tasty way to stay awake through exams in college. I had fond childhood memories of sitting at the kitchen table with my Mom while she did the Sunday crossword and drank Mr. Coffee drip stirred with a swirl of half-and-half. Later, I would basically mainline the stuff to help me stay awake and focused late into the night while reading and writing papers. I had no idea how many working parts and people it took to for the drink to end up in my cup.
Beginning with my first job in the industry and continuing through the various positions I’ve worked since then, I’ve learned to think of coffee less as a ubiquitous and tasty energy drink, and more as the global community of workers that it is. Coffee passes through so many hands between its growth from seed to the mug you drink it from: farmers sprout and tend the plants as they bear fruit, pickers harvest ripe coffee cherries. Someone is there to process the coffee, wash the cherries, pulp and ferment them to remove the fruit, dry the seeds, grade them, ship them, unload them, sample them, roast them, taste for quality, put them in bags, ship them to you or to cafes, and baristas to brew them up for consumers. Technicians build and service coffee makers and grinders. Scientists work on new and improved cultivars that resist disease and produce tastier cups, improve soil, fertilizers, pest control, intercropping, and more. There are those who work to certify farms as organic, there are people working on separate processes such as decaffeination. And everything I’ve just named is by no means an exhaustive list of everyone who works to make sure drinkable coffee makes it to you.
So many steps, so many hands! I took coffee and the whole world it takes to bring it to me for granted before, the way I took many things for granted because I had only ever seen the finished product. But I digress. Are you still with me? I hope so!
As I said before, there are numerous resources that can teach you where your coffee comes from and how to brew it in new and exciting ways. And what I’ve come to know is that, plain and simple, the “best coffee” for drinking is the coffee you want to drink. Really. No matter what science or the peanut gallery has to say to you – about what beans you should try, what origins have the “best” flavors, what color your roast should be, what you should or should not add to you cup, etc. – if the end result doesn’t taste good to you, then what’s the point?
But let’s also take some time to consider that coffee is more than just a drink for our tasting pleasure. Coffee is part of a global system, and that system isn’t perfect. While the plant itself remains rather blameless, human intervention in the life of this fruiting shrub has been a mixed bag of ugliness and delight throughout the ages. It is important to me to remember and to remind others that we got coffee from Africa. This tremendous gift originally came to us from the mountains of Ethiopia, and spread out across the globe from there. Colonialism and capitalism hastened its wide dispersion and turned coffee’s history as red as its ripe cherries. The very people that first cultivated the shrub and brewed it with ceremony to be consumed were brutally subjugated and forced to churn it out for the casual pleasure of others. The legacy of this violent history remains to this day – the Black and Brown hands that make up the majority of the labor force responsible for tending the plants, picking the fruit, and preparing it for its life as a commodity the world over are the hands that collect the least amount of return for their efforts. And this is true too of baristas you see working behind the counter serving drinks, with Black baristas and other folx of color having to constantly work harder to be recognized for their expertise in a system that lacks inclusiveness and is often hostile to them.
There is beauty in coffee too, however, and reasons why we keep working to make it better. Beauty in the way it is truly global, known and enjoyed everywhere now. In the way it gives us a boost, the warm energy to continue functioning when we are stressed or tired. In the way it brings us together, huddled and chatting in break rooms or coffee shops. My biggest takeaway from my own experience – of finding a whole world of industry folks as well as a far-reaching consumer base, and from the conversations I’ve shared with you here – is that coffee is not just a tactile sensory pleasure to be manipulated at will, but also a community. The social aspect of it is what seems to lead us deeper and keeps us coming back for more.
Ultimately, it seems to like “good coffee” is about good and respectful community – knowing what works well and tastes good for you, and also recognizing that everyone has different experiences and that we can all learn to be better all the time. Starting this can be as simple as learning your barista’s name, as personal as knowing your own mind and body, or as economic a decision as being willing to pay more for a latte so that the money can trickle back to a fair wage for the farmer. Keep asking how to brew better, but also how to do better. Good coffee means keeping an open mind, having a willingness to listen as well as share, wanting to know more about where things come from, and desiring fair give and take.