I’m not a coffee snob.
Make no mistake, I love my coffee. From the high-tech reliability of my Nespresso machine, to the aromatic simplicity of my French Press, to the sheer joy of exploring new coffee shops when travelling. Its just that I don’t have the innate level of refined, roasted persnicketiness that is required to take it to the full snob.
But it is good to impress our coffignorant friends with a just a little caffeinated superiority no?
Although we may not aspire to coffee snob, coffee smug is totally doable.
To appear as if we have some worldly gained coffee knowledge. Likely picked up during adventures abroad, in exotic locales they will think.
So. I’m not going to list every technical term in the C-snob vocabulary. There are many.
If you want to dive right into this I recommend the book ‘The Coffee Dictionary’ by Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood (the main reference of all the following info).
I’m just going to give you a few ABC’s and some key terms that you can throw out at the appropriate strategic times to impress and enlighten your fellow coffignorants.
Disclaimer: Impact impression may vary.
The acidity of coffee is considered by C-snobs as an important component of a good cup. Interestingly, the pH of a typical brew sits around 5, compared to the pH of 2 for a glass of wine. Acidity is said to enhance the natural sweetness and complexity of coffee and stop it tasting too bitter….if you think your coffee has a pleasing pH you can describe its brightness.
If not, you can say it has a sourness about it.
See? You sound like a C-snob already.
This is a device that looks like a, well… sorta like a combination syringe and breast pump.
It is becoming more popular among the C-snobs. The Aeropress presses hot water through both the coffee grinds and a filter paper directly into the cup.
You can impress your friends by telling them the Aeropress was invented by the same man who invented the Aerobie (Alan Adler), a Frisbee-like plastic ring that holds the world record for the furthest thrown object.
Basically, a marketing tool.
You see “100% Arabica” written on coffee beans everywhere as if it were some seal of superiority.
Coffea Arabica is the most widely grown coffee species in the world. Pretty much all commercially graded coffee is going to be Arabica or at least contain it.
Being 100% Arabica is no guarantee that the actual quality of the beans will be any good.
The name of the sieve-like device that holds the coffee grind when using an espresso machine. It sits in a handled holder known as a portafilter or braccio. Baskets come in a variety of sizes for single and double shots. The ground coffee is pressed down into the basket with a handle attached to a circular metal disk. This is known as tamping.
Another term you see a lot when buying coffee beans. “Special blend”, “master blend” etc
Most of the time this is a bit of coffee wankery used by roasters to mix-in poorer quality product, cover seasonal variations in flavour or just market themselves as the go-to alchemists of more interesting flavours.
The opposite of blended coffee is single source or single origin which means that the beans all originate from one country (eg Colombia, Brazil, Indonesia etc).
Technically, single origin may still contain blends of beans from different regions of that country (with different soils and climates) that have distinctly different properties.
The French word Terroir is used to refer to the multiple environmental (and human) factors that influence the flavour of any particular variety of coffee grown.
Uber C-snobs may search for single variety or micro lot beans to guarantee consistency from the same plantation or even the same plot. Wow.
When hot water hits the ground coffee in a pour-over (filter coffee) or French press, there is a rapid release of CO2. It causes a sort of molten bubbly froth on the top of the water referred to as the bloom.
The bloom is an important waypoint for the C-snobs. There is an art to pouring just enough water to get a bloom started and then just the right time to pause whilst the bloom expunges the optimum amount of CO2 before proceeding with the pour.
It all sounds like another dose of wankery, but it does seem important in that removing the CO2 also removes some undesired flavours, as well as allowing the water to better extract flavour from the coffee.
Experts do agree that a good bloom is an indicator of the freshness of the coffee.
And I say that it is the perfect time to pause and smell the aromatics of the coffee. The smell of fresh brewing coffee (wet aroma) or a just opened packet of coffee beans (dry aroma) are one of the joyful scintillations of life.
Like wine tasting, describing your coffee experience is subjective. Here are some words to help you express that experience. Remember, sound authoritative and confident when describing the brew and your coffignorant friends will be nodding their heads in agreement.
The body of a cup of coffee refers to how “big and heavy the coffee feels in your mouth”.
You can say it feels big or it feels light. You can say it feels sticky. You can say it feels juicy.
The thin layer of golden lava on the top of an espresso.
What you are looking for is a deep, reddish-hazelnut colour that , if you are lucky, may have a speckled patternation across the surface known as tiger stripes. When done to perfection a crema should be thick enough to hold a teaspoon of sugar for several seconds.
Like “100% Arabica” you are now likely to see some sort of Fairtrade Coffee labelling on much of the coffee you buy. The idea is that fair trade coffee meets standards set by a group of four Fairtrade organisations (known as FINE) to ensure transparency, respect and equity between coffee farmers, co-operatives and the retailers. The idea is that farmers get a fair price and that sustainable environmental farming practices and working conditions are enforced.
Again, there is some debate that the whole Fairtrade thing has now become little more than an augmented branding opportunity for the retailers, with complaints that FINE often fails to actually fine companies that do not meet the standards.
It is also pretty unclear if farmers really benefit from the Fairtrade system at all.
It is a complex situation. But the upshot is that supporting Fairtrade is probably a good thing.
A typical roasted coffee bean can contain more than 800 different chemical compounds. Each one contributes to the overall flavour and aroma. The simple trick is to use your own vocabulary to best describe what you are tasting.
Some basic options to get you started include:
Then to augment that you can throw down a few coffee-wheel descriptors.
Remember this whole aroma and flavour thing is very subjective. Thats why it is important we must hide behind the snobbery.
Er…I mean smuggery.
Finally, here is some useful advice from Jessica Easto:
I tried [some] coffee with the Turkish delight description. To me, it had the uncanny aroma of grape-flavoured cigarillos, something that brought me back to my days working as a cashier in a gas station. I have never had Turkish delight, and you might not know what a grape-flavoured cigarillo smells like, but they both have common denominators: sweetness, fruitiness, an earthy toastiness. Try to interpret the flavour notes that way, drawing from your own experience, rather than worrying about detecting specific notes written on the package.Jessica Easto.
The more coffee you taste, the more you’ll discover general preferences for broad categories of flavours, such as fruit, nuts or spices. You can also try to develop your palate a bit: when you smell and taste new foods, try to clock the nuances of flavour. When you try new coffee, taste it thoughtfully. Smell it. Hold a sip in your mouth. Slurp it to splash coffee on the back of your palate. Exhale as you swallow. See if the flavour conjures any memories or reminds you of something you’ve tasted before. This is one of the joys of high-quality coffee.
Photo credit: Gian Cescon