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Understanding Coffee

Coffee can seem complicated. Innumerable factors influence the aromas, tastes, and structure in a cup before it’s even roasted. Our goal is always to make you smarter about coffee and help you choose coffees that you will actually enjoy drinking.

Where do you even start with choosing a coffee?

Coffee roasting at JJ Bean Powell

Roast colour (or profile) is where most people start when differentiating between coffees. At JJ Bean we offer the three basic roast colours.

Light - Inherent flavours produced by the varieties, terroir, and processing method are distinct. Perceived acidity is higher, while body is lighter than darker roasts. Our single origins roasted for brewed coffee are all light roasts.

Medium - Inherent flavours are balanced with caramel and chocolate notes produced by the roast. This is the sweet spot for espresso, with body emphasized and acidity dialed down. JJ, Eastside, single origin espressos, and Decaf are all medium roasts. 

Dark - Inherent flavours are eclipsed by smoky flavours produced by the roast. Body reigns and acidity is a distant memory. Railtown, our one and only dark roast, is a take on a traditional West Coast "French Roast."

Choosing between seasonal single origin coffees or blends comes next. 

Guatemala Terroir

From one farm or co-operative within one specific growing region, single origin coffees express terroir, the many factors in the growing environment (elevation, soil type, climate, etc.) that produce aromas and flavours unique to the place wherein the coffee is grown. A wondrous variety throughout the year, they are best experienced in-season like local strawberries. With many exceptions, here are some very general hints for the adventurous coffee drinker:

  • Latin America
    • Guatemala: cocoa, subtle fruit
    • El Salvador: toasty, cedar
    • Colombia: caramel, subtle fruit
    • Brazil: mild, nutty
  • Africa
    • Kenya: tart, berries
    • Ethiopia: floral, delicate (washed), or berries, wild (natural)
    • Rwanda and Burundi: spicy, subtle fruit
  • Asia
    • Indonesia: earthy, full

With a flavour profile in mind, blends make use of different coffees through the year to maintain that profile and offer consistent, reliable coffees year round. With JJ Bean's espresso blends, for example, JJ is always classic and caramelized and Eastside is always fruity and complex. Creatures of habit often gravitate toward blends to ensure their coffee tastes the same every morning.

Coffee is the seed of a fruit. How the seed is removed impacts the final flavour. We call this the processing method, and there are three main categories.

Coffee picked drying

Washed (AKA Wet) - Coffee cherry skins are removed and the seeds are fermented in the fruit’s slimy flesh (mucilage), then washed to remove the mucilage and dried on a patio or raised bed. Most of the world’s specialty coffees are washed. Taste: showcases the inherent varietal and terroir characteristics of a coffee.

Semi-washed (AKA Pulped natural, honey) - The mucilage is left on the coffee as it is dried, rounding off acidity and imparting body. Taste: usually exhibits a mellow roundness and possibly some dried fruit characteristics.

Natural (AKA Dry) - The coffee is dried as a whole cherry with the fruit and skin on and intact. Taste: in many cases, wild with berry-like aromas.

Like apples or grapes, coffee subspecies are called varieties and each has its own characteristic properties. Here are a few of the most prominent. 

Bourbon: Natural mutation of Typica with excellent cup quality.
Catuai: A productive and sturdy dwarf hybrid of Caturra and Mondo Novo.
Caturra: Dwarf natural mutation of Bourbon with similar cup quality with higher yields.
Ethiopian Heirloom: Some of the most aromatically amazing coffees ever. Often floral and lemony, especially in Yirgacheffe.
Geisha: Ethiopian variety made famous in Panama for its floral and citrusy characteristics. Very pricy because of rarity.
Maragogype: Massive size. Can be fruity.
Mondo Novo: Natural Brazilian cross of Typica and Bourbon with high yields.
Pacas: Natural mutation of Bourbon. A classic of El Salvador.
Pacamara: Large-size hybrid of Maragogype and Pacas with creamy body and lovely fruity characteristics.
SL-28: Excellent, distinctively fruity/winy variety produced by Scott Laboratories in Kenya.
SL-34: More disease resistant than SL-28 but perhaps not as high in cup quality.
Typica: The OG coffee variety and the mother of many, taken from Yemen and spread the world over. Low yields but high quality.
Villa Sarchi: Dwarf mutation of Bourbon first grown in Costa Rica.

How to taste coffee

Our guiding principle is “the best taste wins.” But when we taste coffee, what are we tasting for? There’s plenty of jargon in coffee tasting, but these basics help discern what you want and what you don’t. Tasting is all about figuring out what coffees you like. Ultimately you have to decide whether you enjoy a coffee or not.

Before you begin: flavours emerge from a coffee as it cools, so we always give a coffee a few minutes in the cup after brewing before evaluating it and continue tasting as it continues to cool… it also helps avoid burnt tongues.

ACIDITY - Acidity is the perceived tartness of a coffee, not the actual pH (coffee is around 5, nerds!). A coffee without acidity is like an orange without acidity: it just ain’t right. Too much becomes sour, overwhelming other characteristics in the coffee, but everyone has different thresholds for pleasant liveliness. We describe acidity with words like bright, juicy, and tangy. If that sounds like your cup of coffee, gravitate towards lighter roasts from Kenya, Colombia, and high-altitude Central America.

BODY - Body is the perceived weight of the coffee in your mouth: full-bodied, thin, or somewhere in the middle? Body is difficult to determine when starting to taste coffee. Cream is heavy or full-bodied, while non-fat milk is thin or light-bodied. In general, lighter roast coffees are thinner in body, while darker roast coffees are heavier in body. But brewing methods also contribute to perceived body as well. French press, for example, will feel heavier while filtered drip absorbs more undissolved solids resulting in a lighter mouthfeel. Try medium-dark or dark roasts, and coffees from Brazil or Indonesia.

FINISH - Finish is coffee jargon for “aftertaste.” How quickly did the coffee leave your tongue? If the flavour lingers on your palate long after the coffee is swallowed (or expectorated!), it’s called a long finish. If the flavour drifts off quickly, the finish is short. Some coffees have flavours that aren’t initially perceived but develop in the finish.

AROMA - Aroma is how brewed coffee smells. Simple, right? Coffee contains more than 800 aromatic compounds. Enjoy yourself and don’t worry if you can’t smell that obscure subspecies of white peach. We think that finding the subtle aromatics enhances the pleasure of drinking coffee. Some primary aroma categories are fruity, floral, chocolate, sugar-browning, nutty, earthy, spicy, and herbal.

FLAVOUR - Flavour is the fusion of aromatic and structural elements in your mouth. Sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and body are tastes we detect with the tongue. Aside from these, everything else we taste in coffee is aromatic, or detected by the nose. The broad flavour categories often found in coffee include sugar browning (toasty, caramel, etc.), nuts, chocolate, fruit, floral, earthy, herbal, and smoky.