Seven commandments to help distinguish good coffee from bad

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‘Coffee that always tastes the same is boring. You drink it to wake up, not for enjoyment.’

How can we know if what we’ve just been served is proper coffee or dishwater? How can we justify the extra pennies we pay for that rich, thick expresso?

Carmen Callizo, founder of the Slo Mov coffee shop, is on the crest of the third wave of coffee culture. If the first was when bars brought in coffeemakers; and the second was the rise of the big-name chains; then the third is surely this: the future of coffee as a high-quality product provided with information designed to raise consumer awareness.

Carmen’s Barcelona-based coffee shop buys its produce from farms, roasts the beans to coax out the aromas, and then serves its customers an intense and exquisite cup of coffee. Slo Mov’s mission: direct trade, traceability, and kindling customers’ curiosity.

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‘As consumers, we’re very uncurious. We ask for very little information about what we buy. We seem to assume everything comes from the supermarket storeroom. But when you find out more about a product and the processes behind its production, it’s like “Wow! This was there all along and I never knew!”’

These seven commandments will help you discover how good that cup of coffee on the table in front of you really is:

  1. Good coffee is drunk without sugar

Coffee, which comes from the seed of berries of the Coffea plant, already has its own sugars. The sweetness of these sugars partly depends on factors such as altitude and exposure to the sun. But the grinding and roasting of the coffee beans is also very important; in fact, it has a 40% impact on the flavour, and can determine whether that first sip tastes of burnt rubber, causing you to tip the sugar bowl into the cup.

‘We don’t use sugar in Slow Mov. Sometimes people look at us like we’re about to throw them into the pool and they don’t know how to swim. But we encourage them to be brave and try the coffee without sweeteners which, though they can make bad coffee drinkable, also mask the flavours of good coffee,’ Carmen insists.

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Photo: Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza

  1. Good coffee should taste great even when it gets cold

Bad-quality coffee can sometimes hide behind a high temperature. ‘When coffee is really hot, you can’t taste it properly. But when bad coffee gets cold, it tastes awful.’ Carmen makes a case for filter coffee: it’s longer and less intense but still offers a variety of flavours that can surprise you if you’re trying it for the first time.

‘Filter coffee brewing needs less infrastructure to get right than expresso. It’s a coffee you can drink slowly, enjoying how it evolves as the minutes go by,’ the barista says.

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  1. You can’t buy good coffee at the supermarket

‘If you want to buy good coffee, go to a roaster. If you want to drink good coffee, get it prepared by a barista.’ A barista will make sure that the coffee has been recently roasted and ground, and that its aromas are preserved. ‘Once the coffee has been ground, it begins to lose its aroma. After a few hours, the quality will have reduced by 30%.’

After this test, you might want to put that $2 coffee you bought at the supermarket back on the shelf.

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  1. Good coffee is a little more expensive

Baristas understand the product they are working with. They know their way around the machines, and can control key factors such as temperature and pressure to extract the coffee with greater precision.  And, at the end of the process, should you be curious to know more, they’ll even be able to tell you about the coffee you’re drinking.

All these extra costs to the barista are obviously going to be reflected in the price. But at least you know that those extra cents are being invested in a process which respects the product. Micro roasters make a much smaller profit than big companies.

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  1. Good coffee can’t be concentrated in a capsule

Capsules contain around 0.18 ounces of coffee – insufficient for a decent extraction. ‘Capsules contain a bit of coffee plus lots of additives to boost the flavour and make up for the fact that the coffee was ground months ago. And of course, they always taste the same.’

If paying more for good coffee seems expensive to us, why are we willing to pay out for capsules? According to Carmen’s calculations, specialty coffee costs around $15 per pound of coffee, while coffee in capsules is sold for $35 a pound.

What might at first seem the height of convenience, ends up being rather costly. And in more ways than one: ‘traces of aluminium end up in your cup, and you’re left with an environmentally unfriendly piece of plastic at the end.”

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  1. Good coffee is specialty coffee

‘We’re in direct contact with the producer and we know where the product is grown and in what conditions.’ In addition, direct trade supports the local economy and makes it less dependent on large-scale industrial production.

Behind specialty coffee is a mighty investment of time and effort, Carmen says. ‘We defend the slow process as a method of guaranteeing the quality of the product. And who respects the slow process? Those with the patience to produce a lower quantity but better quality of coffee. Those whose objective isn’t just economic optimisation.’

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  1. Good coffee doesn’t always taste the same

Coffee should be hand-harvested to ensure its maturity. When sold, it should not be mixed with grains of different origins. Big companies do this all the time, and then they over-roast the grains to unify the flavour.

‘Coffee that always tastes the same is boring. You drink it to wake up, not for enjoyment. Let’s start enjoying coffee. It’s a true luxury,’ concludes the barista.

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