You walk into a café, and you order a coffee. It sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? But what’s the difference between a Kenyan bean and Columbian one? What does it mean if beans are “locally roasted”? And why are some customers standing around waiting around for a “pourover”? Here’s everything you need to know about the new joe.
As is true of bars, the world of cafés has transformed enormously over the last decade. Our options are now much more varied than “light, sweet, to go.” We reached out to coffee guru Erin Meister, who has written about and made coffee for nearly 20 years at places such as Counter Culture Coffee and is the author of the forthcoming book New York City Coffee: A Caffeinated History. Nowadays Meister is a content specialist for Café Imports, which specializes in “green”—unroasted—coffee. Here’s all the nerdery she had to send our way (leaving aside those frothy espresso drinks for a moment), edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s talk about drip coffee. It’s so different these days!
“You’re most likely to see a menu broken up into espresso drinks and non-espresso drinks, and the non-espresso drinks are drip coffee. Most quality-focused cafes will have a house coffee and a special coffee or a blend and a single origin. (Most often it’ll be a coffee from Kenya and one from Columbia.)”
What are the most popular coffee bean–growing nations?
“First, keep in mind that Columbia and Brazil [two of the most popular] taste very different, which is strange because they’re neighbors. Next you have Sumatra and Indonesia. And of African coffees, Kenyan and Ethiopian are most popular [and also very different from one another].”
Do some people think because countries are neighbors their beans taste the same?
“Yes. You’ll hear, ‘African coffee is African coffee,’ which is like saying, ‘Oh, European wine is European wine.’ You would never say that. Italy and France … proximity-wise, they’re close, but their wines taste very different. There are different varieties of fruit, altitude, and the way coffee is picked and processed.”
Do you have general tasting notes for the most common beans one might see?
“Columbian coffee has nine different growing regions. [Generally], a nice caramel for a base, a nutty sweetness with an interesting complex but not overwhelming acidity. Maybe a lime or apple acidity, but nothing mouth-puckering. Brazilian coffees are pretty close but very different, very nutty, chocolatey and maybe a little bit of that pulpy fruit. (That’s kind of the way we describe the actual flavor of coffee cherry, like a heavy berry, raisin, or dried fruit.) Sumatran coffee tends to be very earthy—almost vegetal, but in a really pleasant way. [Expect] really good dark roast coffees that are smoky, rich, and heavy-bodied with very little of what we consider acidity but [is actually] fruit flavor. Washed Ethiopian coffee is delicate, floral, and tea-like. (“Washed” means that the fruit has been removed from the bean within 24 hours of fruit being picked.) Natural Ethiopian tends to taste like blueberries. It’s crazy, really wild. Kenyan coffee is typically, I would say, the most complex profile. Those coffees tend to be really tart and tangy almost like a tomato, or tropical like a pineapple or winey like blackberries. They’re very highly fruity—what you might consider acidic, but that’s misleading, as they’re very bright-tasting.”
So when I think a coffee is very acidic, it’s actually not?
“Coffee has less acid than beer or seltzer water. If you’re sensitive to caffeine but you’re adding milk or sugar, those are probably the irritants.”
How do I know which bean I’ll like?
“Well, why are you drinking coffee? Are you really interested in the flavor of the coffee itself, do you want to wake up with it, or do you want something comforting and warm to savor? If you’re looking for something to really savor and really enjoy the flavors of it, the African coffees are probably the most interesting. If you’re looking for something to enjoy and wake up and have it be easy—Latin America. And if you want something warm and comforting like a hug, I’d go for Indonesia.”
Pourover, when a barista pours hot water over coffee grounds for a single serving: Is it worth the five-minute wait?
“When a barista is making a coffee individually by hand, they’re able to make tweaks to that coffee and dial it in to really highlight the best of what that coffee has to offer. It doesn’t mean coffees made other ways aren’t good, but… you get the attention of the barista to just your drink rather than the attention to 30 drinks. If you think about how hard it is to make the perfect poached egg, if [large-scale drip coffee] is scrambled eggs, pourover is the perfect poached egg.”
Why do people love it so much?
“The whole experience is more nuanced because you’re seeing it happen in front of you. The way that barista is crafting the drink … knowing that it’s just for you, there’s something about just feeling special for a moment.”
Is it like watching a bartender at a craft cocktail bar?
“Yes, or it’s like sitting at the sushi bar instead of just ordering rolls. You still have potential for a high-quality experience. The coffee is tailored for you and presented to you as though you were the most important thing in the café.”
Do I ruin a cup of pourover by adding milk and sugar?
“[Pourover is just a] fancier way of experiencing coffee with milk and sugar. I think everyone in the world is worth a pourover. You can still put ketchup on a poached egg if that’s what tastes good to you. Pourover offers more clarity of flavor of the coffee itself.”
What exactly does using a French press do to coffee?
“This is one of the older ways of making coffee and it really couldn’t be simpler; just coffee grounds and water mixed together and steeping for 4 to 5 minutes, the same amount of time as a pourover. The steeping makes the coffee very heavy-bodied, almost silty, but that will depend on how you make it. It tends to be rich and heavy. A French press will sometimes muddle flavors, so you won’t get the same kind of clarity [as pourover]. Because they tend to be so heavy and rich … [it] stands up to milk and sugar very well.”
Why does pressing at the right time (typically after about 4 minutes) matter?
“Before you press it the coffee’s still brewing. You don’t want it to brew too long or it will get bitter.”
Why are we so crazy about cold brew iced coffee?
“It’s so popular. The thing about it that people really like is that it doesn’t really bring out the fruity flavors—what people describe as acidity—because it tends to be very chocolatey and very, very sweet. It’s super pleasant because it’s very easy to drink. Depending on the concentration, it can be very caffeinated. You get that extra jolt of caffeine, it’s very easy to drink, especially with milk and sugar. It tends to be more expensive in a café because you have to make enough cold brew 24 hours in advance.”
What’s the story with Japanese and Kyoto iced coffee?
“A Kyoto dripper involves a slow drip through an elaborate machine for very expensive iced coffees. It’s just fancy cold brew. ‘Japanese-style’ iced coffee is usually flash-iced—or brewed double-strength over ice. You don’t have to steep it; it’s made-to-order iced coffee. If cold brew is the French press of iced coffee, Japanese is the pourover. It offers more clarity, it’s a little more delicate, lighter, fruitier. If you really like to taste the nuances of coffee, that’s the way to go.”
What does “locally roasted” mean?
“Coffee is almost always roasted in the United States. We only sell green coffee to companies [who roast it]. Small roasters are popping up everywhere. You have the potential to get fresher coffee if you get it closer to where it’s roasted; if you’re buying a bag, you want a recent roast date on it. Anybody can roast coffee, but not everybody can roast coffee well. There are small dedicated roasters, roasting in their garages, on tiny home units, and the potential for quality is definitely there, but I wouldn’t assume that something locally roasted is necessarily good any more than a restaurant that opened in your neighborhood is necessarily good.”
Any final encouragement on braving the new world of coffee?
"It doesn’t matter how good the coffee is if the service you get isn’t good. If you feel intimidated going into a coffee shop, it’s not the coffee shop for you. You can enjoy something without listing 15 tasting notes. You can’t do this wrong."
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.