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A 90-Point Brew It Is: The Coffee/Brew Quality Divide

First things first. It looks like I need to consider some new polling software. Mine doesn’t seem to allow me to present results in a fancy format. So until I can convince Richard Dawson to tell us what the survey said, some bullet points will have to announce the results of my little poll.

  • Those in favor of a 90 point coffee with an 80 point brew: 27%
  • Those in favor of an 80 point coffee with a 90 point brew: 73%

I will point out that voter turn-out wasn’t huge. Only 22 of you actually submitted a response, but since I was shooting for something closer to cocktail chatter than statistical significance, I think this limitation can be overlooked. What’s important to ponder are not just the results, but why I was asking this question in the first place.

This poll was motivated by some recently consumed sub-par cups of coffee. With each of these recent cups of coffee, the coffees used and the roasters that roasted them were highly reputable. The cups of coffee, however, were either underextracted and thin or otherwise bitter and off.  Similarly, I’ve heard from friends how their coffee at home isn’t quite as good as the same coffee when brewed at the shop. The story is the same in both cases. Good quality coffees have not been brewed in a way that releases their potential. I tend to side with the majority in the poll. A poorly brewed cup of high quality coffee is simply disappointing.

Results aside, though, the reason I posted this poll was to try and illustrate this divide between coffee quality and a quality cup of coffee. I admit, my thinking isn’t novel here. Many others have emphasized the importance of exploring brew methods and brewing technique elsewhere on the internet (even if reading these posts can have the nasty habit of sucking you into a trend instead of viewing a particular brew method with some perspective), brewing education classes have begun to expand, most packaging these days includes some limited brewing instructions, and there’s a strong movement to improve brew quality through the science of extraction using tools like refractometers and the ExtractMojo software. This combined element of craft (enhanced through science) is probably the most obvious place where the frequently employed wine/coffee analogy breaks down. You don’t have to brew a glass of wine.

But the split between coffee and brew quality becomes a bit more poignant when you consider that the coffee world lacks a good means for encapsulating key information about brew quality and brew type, both of which are implemented at the cafe and in the home, where consumers actually interact with coffee. That 100-point scale so frequently employed in evaluating coffees tells us essentially nothing about how to get a high quality cup of coffee. A 90+ coffee can still suck in the cup if brewed badly, and a phrase like “90 point brew” simply sounds silly, even if it ought to exist.

Furthermore, that 100-point scale only suggests what you might find for a given coffee if that coffee is brewed via a method similar to how that coffee was evaluated, i.e. through cupping. That 100-point scale is dependent on coffee as brewed in the cupping cup, a method no one actually uses when preparing coffee for consumption. A few brewing techniques, such as the French Press skim (1,2), and some brewing devices, such as the Eva Solo may get close to cupping, but they aren’t the same thing. I’m not here to denigrate cupping. I cup frequently and appreciate how it helps me better identify certain qualities of a coffee that other brewing methods can obscure. Still, that 100-point scale fails to recommend the brewing method most likely to achieve the best instantiation of that coffee.

In the end, I think I’m highlighting this coffee-brew distinction, and the failing of coffee quality metrics, for my sake as much as I am yours. As a blogger, reviewing coffee in a shop, you might think that I’m that much closer to the goal of reviewing the way a coffee is brewed as well as the quality of the coffee itself. The danger, though, is conflating these two separate pieces of the coffee quality puzzle. A bad brew, like I experienced recently, can easily be mistaken for a bad coffee.  That’s part of the reason I identify the roaster of the coffee and the coffee consumed since that information ought to provide you with some suggestion of the coffee quality as distinct from the brew quality. That’s why I also tend to experiment when I taste coffees at home, trying different brew methods until I find one that works best for a given coffee. Does this burden then fall on the critics, bloggers and reviewers of coffee?  It seems I have a topic for another poll.

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3 comments to A 90-Point Brew It Is: The Coffee/Brew Quality Divide

  • Tom Baker

    Such an interesting and appreciated post. I have been experimenting a lot lately with brew ratios. I do not own an extract mojo or refractometer, so my experiments are all based on taste, but using ratios helps me to mentally graph the performance of a coffee.

    It might be apparent to say, but my ratios are based on grams of coffee to grams (or milliliters) of water.

    When I bring a coffee home from work, we use a relatively higher ratio of 1/10. Other companies (based on their instructions on brewmethods.com) often use much lower ratios:
    barismo 1/14
    gimme 1/17
    terroir 1/17
    stumptown 1/13.5

    Knowing this, I usually start a coffee off from a different company at around 1/15, and move up and/or down until I think the coffee is performing at its full potential. I hope this becomes easier to explain to folks with time, because I definitely agree that too often harsh critiques of great coffee are the result of poor brews (and same for undeserved praise).

  • For a really good in-depth discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the 100-point scale, take a look at the current piece by Shawn Steiman and response by Ken Davids in Roast Magazine. http://roastmagazine.com/currentissue/pointsprinciple.html It still doesn’t address brewing, but points to a whole other realm of issues with subjectivity in reviewing.

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