Decoding Specialty Coffee Jargon: Brewing Up Knowledge

Decoding Specialty Coffee Jargon: Brewing Up Knowledge

Specialty coffee is everywhere. Once exclusive to the coastal elite, now even small town midwesterners have access to the good stuff. Specialty coffee has been captivating coffee enthusiasts with its exciting flavors, meticulous sourcing, and passionate craftsmanship. However, for newcomers to the world of specialty coffee, the plethora of jargon can be overwhelming. From single-origin and microlots to processing methods and cupping scores, the specialized terminology can leave just about anyone who doesn't make their living from coffee scratching their heads. Let's unravel the most confusing pieces of specialty coffee jargon, empowering you to navigate this exciting world with confidence and understanding.

bagged coffee beans

Single-Origin vs. Blends:
One of the fundamental terms in specialty coffee is "single-origin." It refers to coffee beans sourced from a specific region or farm, highlighting the unique characteristics of that particular area. Single-origin coffees allow the consumer to experience the terroir and distinct flavor profiles associated with different coffee-growing regions. On the other hand, "blends" combine beans from multiple origins to create a harmonious balance of flavors. Blends provide consistency and complexity, aiming to achieve a well-rounded taste experience that may not be tied to a specific geographic location.

Microlots and Small-Batch Roasting:
When exploring specialty coffee, you may come across the term "microlot." A microlot refers to a small, exclusive batch of coffee beans, typically harvested from a specific section of a farm or a single varietal. Microlots often showcase exceptional quality, as they are meticulously cultivated and selected. Similarly, "small-batch roasting" refers to the process of roasting coffee in limited quantities, allowing roasters to pay close attention to each batch and bring out the beans' unique characteristics. Both microlots and small-batch roasting emphasize quality, attention to detail, and a desire to highlight the best flavors the coffee has to offer.

Processing Methods:
Coffee beans undergo various processing methods after harvesting, which significantly influence the final flavor profile. "Washed" or "wet-processed" coffees involve removing the outer fruit layer before drying the beans. This process often results in a clean, bright cup with acidity and floral or fruity notes. In contrast, "natural" or "dry-processed" coffees are dried with the fruit intact, imparting intense fruitiness and sweetness but potentially leading to a heavier body.

Another processing method, "honey" or "pulped natural," combines elements of both washed and natural processes. The skin is removed from the coffee cherry, but some of the mucilage is left on during drying, resulting in a unique flavor profile. These processing methods offer a range of tastes, highlighting the incredible diversity within the world of coffee.

coffee cupping bowl

Cupping Scores and Flavor Notes:
Cupping scores are a standardized way of evaluating and rating coffee's quality. The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) developed a scale from 0 to 100 to assess attributes such as aroma, acidity, body, flavor, and aftertaste. A higher cupping score generally indicates a higher-quality coffee. However, it's important to note that taste is subjective, and personal preferences may differ. We use this similar system for evaluating our coffees during the roasting process or when doing public cupping events to teach patrons how to experience different coffees.

Flavor notes are a way to describe the specific aromas and tastes present in a coffee. They can range from fruity and floral to chocolatey and nutty, among others. These flavor notes are often mentioned on coffee packaging, in cafes, or during cupping sessions to guide consumers in their flavor selection.

Brewing Methods: Pour-Over, French Press, and Espresso:
Pour-over brewing is a popular method used by coffee enthusiasts that involves carefully pouring hot water over coffee grounds held in a paper or metal filter. This process allows for precise control over the brewing time, water temperature, and flow rate, resulting in a clean and nuanced cup of coffee. The V60, Chemex, and Kalita Wave are common pour-over devices.

The French press  is another beloved brewing method. Coarse coffee grounds steep in hot water before being pressed down with a plunger. This technique produces a full-bodied cup with robust flavors and a rich mouthfeel.

Espresso is a concentrated form of coffee achieved by forcing pressurized hot water through finely ground coffee. It forms the foundation for many specialty coffee drinks like cappuccinos and lattes. Espresso machines use high-pressure brewing to extract flavors quickly, resulting in a complex and intense beverage.

pour over coffee on yellow background

Extraction and Brew Ratios:
Extraction refers to the process of dissolving the soluble compounds in coffee beans by using water. Achieving the right extraction is crucial in specialty coffee, as it determines the balance of flavors in your cup. Under-extraction results in a sour and weak brew, while over-extraction leads to bitterness and astringency.

Brew ratios play a vital role in the extraction process. They define the ratio of coffee grounds to water used during brewing. For example, a common brew ratio is 1:16, meaning 1 part coffee to 16 parts water. Adjusting the brew ratio can affect the strength, body, and flavor intensity of your coffee. Experimenting with different ratios allows you to find your preferred balance.

Bloom, TDS, and Refractometer:
When brewing coffee using pour-over or espresso methods, you may encounter the term "bloom." The bloom refers to the initial stage of the brewing process when hot water is poured over the coffee grounds, causing them to release gases. This degassing process allows for better extraction and enhances the overall flavor.

TDS stands for Total Dissolved Solids and measures the concentration of dissolved coffee compounds in a brewed cup. It is often expressed as a percentage. TDS readings provide insights into the strength, body, and extraction of the coffee. Ideal TDS levels vary depending on personal preference and brewing method.

Refractometers are devices used to measure the TDS and extraction yield of coffee. By analyzing the light refracted through a brewed sample, baristas and coffee professionals can quantitatively assess the quality of their brews and make adjustments accordingly.

Understanding specialty coffee jargon, including brewing techniques, extraction, brew ratios, and measurement tools, can open up a world of possibilities for enjoying and appreciating coffee. Whether you prefer the delicate flavors of pour-over, the robustness of French press, or the concentrated intensity of espresso, these terms will guide you towards a more nuanced coffee experience. So, grab your favorite brewing equipment, explore the diverse brewing methods, and savor every sip of specialty coffee crafted with passion and precision.

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