How to Write About Coffee
Writing about coffee requires a few considerations and a specific attention to the different coffee cultures
How to tell a taste? A smell? A mouthfeel? How do you communicate what your taste buds are telling you to a person that is not with you, not even in your country or even on the same continent as you?
It appears to be impossible. And to actually describe what one’s tasting in all its complexity may well be impossible. But we try anyway.
Writing about coffee entails describing it. Making yourself understood by those who never tasted the same coffee as you. Perhaps some who have never had the chance to try even a similar coffee. Food writing and coffee in particular is a hard task. Coffee has plenty of different taste profiles, more so than wine; it goes without saying that the most difficult aspect of writing about coffee is making the taste profile comprehensible to the readers. But before this, it is important to clarify a few aspects of coffee and the coffee culture.
What’s “good coffee”?
Anybody from the multi billion company to your grandmother claims that they make “good coffee”. Some claim they make it “best”. But what does that mean?
Defining a “good coffee” is ridden with obstacles and misunderstandings. Unlike most other types of beverages, coffee has vast differences in the various cultures that have adopted it as a daily drink. What is considered a “good coffee” in Italy is wholly different from a “good coffee” in Seattle and the best cappuccino made in Barcelona may taste “bad” for a Canadian or a Chinese. Culture plays a huge role in the perception of what a good coffee is.
Therefore, one of the first tasks of a good coffee writer is to respect these differences and don’t claim that a specific coffee, brewed in a specific way for a specific public, is objectively better than another, brewed and tasted elsewhere. It depends. Which are two words that I personally hate but I admit that are needed on many occasions.
Coffee critics have their methods and classifications to decide what is a “good coffee”. They are trying to be scientific about it and any coffee drinker should respect their work in the field. But, as for wine or beer, what is considered by a critic a better coffee than what you’re drinking doesn’t mean that your coffee is distasteful and you should stop buying it. If it fits your tastes and your lifestyle, it is “good coffee” for you. And as a coffee writer, you should respect this as well.
To sum it up, there’s “good coffee” by some specific standards and a general agreement of some people, the experts. That definition may or may not match yours. Coffee writing is hard. You’ve been warned.
The essential components of a good cup of coffee
One thing we can all agree upon is that any type of coffee needs the best processing possible to express all its qualities and potential. That starts from the farming, where the soil, the climate and the care of the farmers play a huge role in the flavors that will be in the coffee cherries. Then in the processing of it, natural, washed and so on, but without forgetting the selection of the ripest cherries and how they are later stored and protected by external agents. Then the roasting, which should be respectful of the intrinsic qualities of the green coffee beans to exalt their taste, not just covering their defects.
And, ultimately but not least importantly, the work of the baristas in grinding, setting the right water temperature, choosing the right brewing method and putting it all together to create the “perfect” cup of coffee.
Coffee goes under so many processes, it is handled by so many different people and gets modified by at least 4 main events (the growing, the cherry to bean processing, the roasting and the actual brewing) that it is no wonder that the final aromatic profile of a specific bean can be so unlike any other, even within the same origin.
The point of a good barista or home brewer is to know this whole process and use it to make the right cup of coffee for the beans he/she has. These “components” are vital to be discussed by any coffee writer. Knowing is not enough, describing them and their potential effects on the coffee is of paramount importance to let the readers aware of why that particular coffee is “better” than another one. A good food writer has to be aware of all the processing that happens before a dish, as a coffee writer has to know all these components behind a great cup of coffee.
Obviously. It is only too easy to be focusing on the type of coffee and coffee drink that you like and forget about the others. It is an inherent issue of the various coffee cultures around the world that make their drinkers mostly aware of only them and ignoring the others.
An espresso lover that has been drinking it for decades will find a delicate pour over tasteless at first. A drip coffee enthusiast will find Turkish coffee undrinkable. It is not the fault of either. It is only a fault if you insist on drinking only what you like and don’t go out, exploring the possibilities that the coffee world has for you. Then you restrict your views to a specific field, which may well be what you want to, and reduce your experiences. You grow less as a coffee drinker and coffee writer.
An experienced coffee writer will have tasted hundreds of different coffee, brewed with half a dozen, at least, of different devices throughout his/her career. A good coffee writer is allowed, even required perhaps, to have personal tastes and preferences. They can be shown in the way he/she reviews new coffee. But a coffee writer with no experience outside the cultural bubble he/she was grown up with is doing a disservice to the readers. At least they should be informed about your focus on your particular culture and way to drink coffee. Then they can judge themselves if you’re a reputable coffee writer or not.
Get as much experience as possible. That is incredibly important in food and coffee. A good food writer should be foremostly open-minded.
How I write about coffee
Personal takes here. Any coffee writer may disagree or discard any of these following points. Take them as a list of the valuations I make when tasting a coffee in order to review it, and may or may not end up in the final article. Yet they’re important points to make for a good coffee writer.
Coffee is inherently a bitter beverage. Some sweetness is welcomed, but a completely not bitter coffee can be taken as weird, “not coffee”. A mildly bitter coffee is to be preferred over a wildly acidic one that shows no signs of any bitterness. Exception being very light roasts that are made to shine in bright acidity.
As said above, acidity is more welcomed in pour overs or filter coffee than in espresso and espresso-based drinks. Acidity doesn’t marry well with milk and I’d consider a very high acidity coffee to be drunk only black. A brightly acidic espresso may work if it has some body too. Generally speaking, low to medium acidity levels are to be preferred over highly acidic ones, for most types of coffee drinks and drinkers. Coffee pundits may rage at this but the general public leans elsewhere.
Especially important in an espresso, check how it feels in the mouth: a syrupy or silky mouthfeel is better than a thin or watery one. Coffee has to have some thickness in the mouth, like a good red wine. It is not absolutely bad if it has a very low body but generally speaking I wouldn’t favor a coffee with no body over one with a dense mouthfeel.
Aromatic and flavor notes are to be welcomed. The more the better is a good rule here. Again, coffee is supposed to have lots of character and a too subtle aromatic profile isn’t an indication of a great coffee. Delicate flavors are clearly an exception here, as a tea-like coffee with plenty of florals is fine and not to be frowned upon. A coffee writer should be able to check the quantity of flavors and how they interact with each other and not think in terms of what they prefer. Unless marketing needs have the best of you.
Natural flavors, like floral, fruit, citrus, honey, chocolate and nuts are to be expected in coffee and an indication of beans that have correctly been developed from the farm to your cup. Too strong herbal, mustiness, fermented fruits and downright sourness are to be considered mistakes during the processing or simply bad beans. The difference at first isn’t easy to discern, but over time you’ll develop your senses and will be capable of knowing from the first sip if you’re dealing with a good, well-developed coffee or a mediocre one.
I’m in the camp that a good coffee has to have a strong and long-lasting aftertaste. It is not a critical factor, but it’s a clearly positive one if it is present. The reasoning behind this is the same as before: coffee is not a “weak” beverage and a good amount of aftertaste is normal.
Consider the intent of each coffee
Other than these specifically technical characteristics, I value the intent behind the coffee I’m tasting. A Robusta can work well if your intent is to have a bold, strong and heavy-bodied cup of coffee. The same beans will be reputed badly if your intent is to have a light, flavorful and low in caffeine cup. Personal preferences and culture play a huge role and an exceptionally-rated single origin can lose against a much lower valued, “average”, coffee blend if it is not brewed and tasted in the best way. A good coffee writer should know and keep in mind the intent behind the coffee that’s being tasted before making a judgment.
Writing about coffee isn’t simply judging it. That is the realm of coffee cuppers and critics. Writing about coffee is balancing the mostly objective views of them with the necessity of the companies of selling their coffee and the need of the general public to know which coffee to buy among thousands of choices. Coffee writing cannot be only a judgment of coffee but has to be a complex valuation of the intrinsic quality of the beans weighted against marketing requirements, presented in a comprehensible and engaging way for the consumers. As any food writer well knows, the target audience is extremely important and will vary from job to job.
Writing about coffee is a task that is not set in stone, with strong rules and a nearly scientific approach. It is an area of content writing that has truly few rules and high expectations. Satisfying them all is hard and takes years of practice. But when well done is invaluable, I dare say to society as a whole, not just marketing.