One Bean, Four Ways
Words Erin Meister
Really top-notch coffees get compared to wine all the time, with regard to the nuance expressed in their flavors, the effect that terroir has on a profile, even the language we use to describe them, saying what we find “on the nose” and talking about “mouthfeel” and “acidity.”
Honestly, though, when you get right down to it, coffee is actually more complex and versatile than wine. After all, once you open a bottle of wine, every glass (ideally) tastes the same. Though you might switch up your drinking vessels for a different experience, there’s no real way to manipulate the characteristics of the taste without adding something to make the change.
Coffee allows us more opportunities to play, experiment, and fine-tune every brew to meet our needs and fulfill our caffeinated dreams. In fact, brewing one single type of coffee multiple ways offers a range of tactile and sensorial interpretations of a coffee’s inherent profile, showcasing the different aspects that make a coffee taste or feel special to our palate.
Some coffees lend themselves to this diversity of flavor than others. Typically, the more complex and nuanced a coffee’s description, the more variation you’ll find when you present it through different styles of brew. Lower-altitude or very chocolaty/nutty coffees with less fruitiness—Brazils, for instance, or coffees from Nicaragua, Hawaii and even Indonesia— will tend to show less nuance from method to method. Instead, choose a coffee that has a range of tasting notes something that combines sugars (caramel, toffee, molasses) with notes of stone fruit or citrus, and which also has a little something extra — tamarind, tropical fruit, floral characteristics, even a little bit of herbaceousness — to create a little depth to the profile. Colombian coffees from Huila, Cauca, or Nariño are great; Kenyans that skew toward tropical fruit or currants, too.
Generally speaking, here are some guidelines for a few different brews, as well as what you can expect to experience in the cup. Why stop at one? Try all four and compare flavor notes—you’ll never bother with a wine tasting ever again. (Ok, that’s probably not true. But it will jazz up your morning routine a little bit.)
How’s it different: The long steep time with coarse coffee and cool water will mute the beans’ natural fruit flavor or “brightness,” which simply means the tartness that’s inherent in coffees from certain places in the world, such as Kenya, and some parts of Colombia. This is why cold-brews are typically described as being “lower acid” coffees.” (Ethiopian beans are really wonderful in this presentation, because the brew gives their floral notes a little chocolate base to layer on top of.)
Recipe ratio: 280 grams coffee to 40 ounces of water — coarsest grind
How it’s different: Press pots, like cold brew, are full-immersion extraction methods, which means that the water and coffee are in full contact for the entire duration of the process. A French press, with its hot-water steep and metal-mesh filter, will allow more of the coffee’s natural oils to extract and wind up in the cup, resulting in a heavier-bodied, you might even say “bolder” brew. Pressed coffees tend to be somewhat muddled, flavor-wise, but in a pleasant way when they’re done right: They are the coffee equivalent of a warm blanket on a cold morning.
Recipe ratio: 25 grams of coffee to 16 ounces — coarse grind just a hair finer than cold-brew
How it’s different: Hand-poured paper-filtered coffees are famous for their clarity of flavor, letting a coffee’s real colors shine, and giving them a clean, almost rarefied mouthfeel. Pour-over coffees are the industry standard for savoring the taste of a place in a selection of beans, and though they do seem more trouble because they command more active preparation, they are worth it when comparing notes from other types of preparation styles.
Recipe ratio: 30 grams coffee to 500 grams water (or 15-20 ounces) — medium-fine grind
Electric coffee makers
How they’re different: The uniform distribution of evenly heated water that an automatic brewer contributes to the process tends to be the most meet-me-in-the-middle of methods. You’ll still taste some of the snappy fruit flavors that a complex coffee offers, but you’ll likely find that the chocolate, nuts, spice, or earthiness that makes up the profile’s rhythm section will offer more balance and structure to the finished product, creating a well-rounded, easy-drinking coffee that’s perfect for when you honestly just need a coffee-flavored coffee right now. You’ll still taste the quality of the finest beans, but their punchiness will be muted.
Recipe ratio: 85–95 grams coffee to 64–72 ounces of water (8–9 cups) — medium-coarse grind