Gourmet Specialty Coffee - how to find it, choose it and brew it.

coffee beans cooling after coming out of the roaster

One person’s cup of gourmet specialty coffee is another person’s cup of slop. In other words, when it comes to coffee, taste is a subjective preference.

But if you like the flavor of the coffees you buy in your local coffee shops, and want the same quality in the coffee you brew at home, follow these guidelines.

First, choose Arabica coffee beans

When you buy coffee at a coffee shop like Starbucks, or buy online from a reputable store like Green Mountain Coffee, you can be pretty sure you’re buying Arabica coffee beans.

However, if you buy from a deli, particularly an Italian deli, read the label and make sure it’s 100% Arabica, and not Robusta. The Italians have a thing for Robusta beans. This isn't because Italians don't like quality coffee, it's just that they love espresso, and many espresso blends include Robusta beans. Separately, in any supermarket, read the labels of some of the cheaper blends. They may well contain Robusts beans as well.

What’s wrong with Robusta coffee beans?

That’s what went into the coffee your grandfather used to brew on the stove, and it has a slightly bitter taste that most gourmet specialty coffee drinkers try to avoid. (But if you’re a real caffeine freak, you’ll be interested to know that Robusta beans have about twice the amount of caffeine as Arabica.)

Second, always buy whole coffee beans, not ground

Why? Because a lot of the flavor of a great cup of coffee comes from the oils in the bean. You may have noticed how dark roasted coffee beans can have an oily surface. This oil is volatile, and the moment it is exposed to oxygen, it starts to degrade.

So buy whole beans and make sure they are sealed in an airtight bag, preferably one that has a one-way valve.

When you buy ground coffee, some of those volatile oils will have evaporated during the grinding process.

Coffee Detective Tip: You know those coffee bean self-serve bins in the supermarket? They are definitely not airtight. And that means the finer flavors of those coffees have been quietly evaporating, sometimes for days and days.

Third, if you can, buy from a store that roasts its own beans

coffee roasting machine in store

Maybe you’ve been to a coffee shop that does its own roasting. If you have one close by, lucky you! Why? Because coffee beans begin to lose their flavor from the moment they come out of the roaster. (Those volatile oils begin to break down immediately.) So if you can buy beans that have just been roasted, you have a big advantage.

Do you like your coffee strong or mild?

This can get confusing, as the word “strong” can be interpreted in a number of different ways with coffee.

Here’s the simple and accurate answer...if you want a stronger cup of coffee, just increase the proportion of ground coffee to hot water. The more ground coffee, the stronger the results.

However, as you learn more about coffee and various coffee beans and blends, you will find that some beans have a “stronger” taste than others.

You’ll also find that the fineness or coarseness of the grind makes a difference too.

Enjoying gourmet specialty coffee is a journey...and in time you’ll come to discover all the different tastes you enjoy, from strong to mild and everything in between.

Are you ready to start brewing?

Not yet! Be sure to read the section on choosing the best coffee makers. Using the wrong coffee maker in the wrong way can reduce even the finest gourmet specialty coffee to a brew that will make you wince.

Also, if you want some help in finding a reputable web site where you can order your coffee online, follow the tips on our Online Coffee Store page.

Finally, if you want to dig a little deeper and find out more about gourmet coffee and some of the world's major growing regions, see below for links to some additional information.

About the author: Nick Usborne, aka Coffee Detective, is a writer and long-time coffee enthusiast. Read more…

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