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7 Factors That Influence Coffee Flavour

As coffee lovers, we know that there is a really broad range of characteristics that you can find in coffee. From earthy tones to sweet fruit flavours, to floral and tea-like aromatics, there's an incredible spectrum of taste experiences to be had through our beloved beverage. But what is it that determines which of these characteristics will be found in your cup?

Counter Culture Flavour Wheel

Unfortunately, there isn't a simple answer to that question. The science behind coffee flavour is still in its early stages and we're only just beginning to understand what is happening at the chemical level. There may be factors we're not yet aware of, and nobody is yet certain of exactly how much each step in the coffee supply chain influences the final product. Nevertheless, we do now know what some of the most important factors are.

Most coffee lovers can probably name a few of these flavour-influencing factors off the top of their heads. Everyone knows that roast profile matters, and most of our customers tend to think about origin as well, but in this blog post, we'd like to go back to the very beginning of the coffee production process and highlight some of the important steps along the way that determine what you'll taste in your carefully brewed cup of coffee.

1) Variety

Even before the plant that bears the coffee fruit has begun to grow, there's a very important factor that will influence the crop - the variety. It's not as simple as Arabica vs. Robusta (we'd generally recommend staying away from the latter). Within the species Arabica, there are dozens of known varieties and more being discovered and created with time.

Wine lovers will tell you that variety has a big impact on the flavour of what's in the glass. A Cabernet Sauvignon has very different characteristics from a Cinsault, or a Riesling. Similarly in coffee, which variety (or combination thereof) is in your coffee will have a big influence on your experience as the drinker.

As Jono from Rosetta Roastery pointed out in the recent Coffee Brewmance podcast episode, many coffee lovers probably don't think about and talk about this important factor quite enough.

Additional resources

If you want to learn more about variety, here are some great online resources:

2) Terroir

Whether you're talking about wine or coffee, terroir is one of those lofty terms that can alienate some people, but really, terroir is just influence of where the coffee is grown. We all know that coffees from Kenya generally taste pretty different to coffees from Brazil. We also know that coffees from nearby areas can have similarities. These are the results of the influences of terroir.

Of course the specific elements of a terroir that are responsible for the impact on coffee flavour are numerous and complex, but here are some of the important ones:

  • Altitude
  • Climate
  • Soil type
  • Soil micro-biome
  • Topography

We're certainly not suggesting that you need to understand every element of the terroir of every coffee you drink, but paying attention to where your coffee comes from, and what some of the defining characteristics of that terroir are, is helpful if you want to understand your coffee better.

3) Farming Practices

Perhaps one of the most important and probably one of the most difficult factors to grasp as the final consumer, the practices of the farm where the coffee is grown will have a huge impact on the taste of the coffee you drink. Everything from the use of chemicals to planting patterns & pruning regimen are ultimately going to affect the nature of the crop.

One particularly important farming practice is picking. Much as with other agricultural crops, coffee is best when it is picked at optimal ripeness, but of course, coffee cherries don't ripen at a uniform rate. This means that for the best results, cherries must be picked by hand, by labourers who are trained to pay attention to the ripeness of the fruit they are harvesting.

Commercial-grade coffee is often strip-picked (i.e. whole clusters of fruit are picked at once) or machine-picked, which means that the final product is a combination of ripe and unripe fruit. While this is less expensive, it does not yield top quality coffee!

Additional resources:

    4) Processing

    Once a coffee cherry is picked, the coffee seed has to be dried before being transported and eventually roasted by your local artisan roaster. The ways that this is done can vary widely and can have a huge influence on what the coffee finally tastes like. While this is a complicated topic in and of itself, here are a couple of categories to look out for:

    Coffee Cherries

    Natural or dry-processed coffees

    Natural/dry is the traditional African method of processing coffees. In this method, the coffee is actually dried while still in its fruit. This has the benefit of not requiring large amounts of running water and also allows more of the natural sugars of the coffee cherry to wind up in the bean that gets roasted. Natural processed coffees tend to have fruity flavours, and low acidity though sometimes they're also found to have lower clarity.

    While this method of processing can be more economical in its execution, it runs a higher risk of crop spoilage and the cherries must be manually turned frequently to minimise this risk.

    Washed or wet-processed coffees

    This more modern style of processing involves briefly fermenting the coffee cherries and then removing the seeds from the fruit or pulp - 'washing'. This method has an advantage in that with the outer, fruity layer, some of the risk of spoilage is removed.

    Washed coffees tend to have higher acidity and more clarity, characteristics that have made them very popular in coffee's third wave.

    Honey processing and everything in between

    Recognising that both wet & dry processing have their benefits, a third way, or collection of ways, of processing coffee have emerged that are meant to balance the benefits of both methods. In very simple terms, honey-processed coffees are dried with some but not all of the outer layer of the coffee cherry removed.

    There are many different styles of coffee processing, often referred to by the colour of the final dried crop (yellow, red, black) and for the most part, they just entail removal of different amounts of the outer mucilage.

    Note, not all processing methods fall neatly into these categories - see the additional resources below

    Additional resources

    Processing is a factor that is getting a lot of attention in the world of coffee these days. What you'll read above is the most simplistic explanation of the types of processing possible. We'd highly recommend you dive deeper on this topic if it's of any interest. Have a look at:

    Let's Pause & Reflect

    This is a good moment to pause and reflect on the myriad of influences on the coffee in your cup. One important thing to point out is that we've gone through more than half of the list, and we haven't even come to the point where a roaster has had any contact with the coffee.

    That isn't to say that what the roasters do isn't important. On the contrary, the point that is worth reflecting on is that, beyond the literal implication of their titles, your coffee roasters are also undertaking the challenging task of understanding all these influences on coffee flavour for you when they source the green.

    It's also worth noting that each of the steps we've covered so far will have a significant impact on the cost of the coffee. This translates into the price that the coffee roaster pays for the green beans. So when you wonder why one coffee may cost much more than another, you probably need to look to these pre-roasting steps in the process. 

    5) Roast Profile

    We may be getting into more familiar territory here, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't reflect carefully on the impact of roast profile on flavour. Not even the most talented roaster can take poor quality green and make it taste delicious, but an un-skilled roaster can certainly ruin a great lot.

    After sourcing and selection, the roaster helps to realise the full potential of the coffee by carefully crafting a roast profile that will suit that set of beans. This isn't as simple as light or dark - on the contrary, roast colour can be pretty misleading. The roaster has to fine tune variables like roast time, charge temperature, rate of rise, drum speed, air flow & cooling speed, while responding to data like temperature logs, first and second crack timing, and most importantly sensory experience.

    Jorge from Origin Coffee Roasting

    This process takes time and is costly, particularly since several batches have to be roasted before the coffee can be sold. But, once this process has been completed, a well roasted coffee isn't just pleasant to drink, it's also distinctive. It helps us to experience the influences of all the steps that came before that roast.

    6) Blending

    Most of the coffee that the world drank a few decades ago was blended. While that's still probably true across the coffee industry as a whole, in the speciality segment, single origins are becoming increasingly popular. That is most probably because they allow the drinker to experience the fruits of the coffee farmer's labour (quite literally).

    Nevertheless, blending can be a masterful craft in its own right. In its basic forms, it can ensure a more consistent flavour experience throughout the year as the inputs to that blend change with the season. At its best, a blend can be a unique taste experience, whose flavour is more than just a sum of those of its component parts.

    Additional thoughts on blending

    After receiving some consistent feedback from a few coffee professionals that we really respect on this particular point, we felt compelled to add a couple of thoughts to this section on blending.

    1. It's worth acknowledging that one of the primary reasons that some roasters blend is not necessarily to create a better flavour experience but to create a decent one at a lower cost. By combining high quality and lower quality components, you can produce something very drinkable at a much lower cost per kg.
    2. One probably needs be careful about overstating the consistency that can be achieved through blending. After all, if you're changing components of a coffee, and we understand that all the steps prior to blending alter the flavours of those components, you can't create a truly consistent flavour experience over a significant time span and with different ingredients. This might be why we see more and more seasonal blends, that fully embrace the reality that consistency year round is impossible and rather seek to create a series of unique flavour experiences depending on the components available at that time.

    7) Brewing

    Last but certainly not least, brewing is the final stage in the process from soil to palate, which can also have an important influence on coffee flavour. One mistake that new coffee lovers make is assuming that the exact same brewing parameters will bring out the best in every coffee. "What's your Aeropress recipe?" is certainly a common question among new aficionados.

    Any barista will tell you, your brewing variables need to match the coffee your brewing as well as the brew method. In the case of espresso, they may even need to be tweaked to respond to ambient conditions like heat, humidity and altitude. Even in a simple manual brew method, changes in brewing variables can be the difference between a decent and a delicious cup.

    Some important variables are:

    • Brew ratio (water to coffee)
    • Grind size (and uniformity)
    • Extraction time
    • Water temperature

    This is where you can take part in the coffee flavour's journey, so if you're brewing for yourself (which you should be at least some of the time), we'd encourage you to challenge yourself to bring the best out of every bag of beans you buy. If you're not experimenting and tweaking, you may be missing out on the best your coffee can be.

    Other factors

    These aren't the only factors that affect coffee flavour. In truth, we probably don't even know them all. While we felt the 7 above were the most important to talk about, here are a few others that at least deserve a mention:

    • Age of harvest (crop freshness)
    • Packaging (how did the green get from origin to roaster)
    • Age of roast (roasted bean freshness)
    • Storage (both pre and post roasting)

    Final thoughts

    Much of the content of this blog post necessarily involves drastic simplification (despite its length). The reality is that you could devote a good chunk of a lifetime to understanding any one of the 7 factors mentioned above in its greatest detail. Nevertheless, pursuing some understanding of each of these variables is an important part of the appreciation of coffee.

    Beyond reading everything you can, the best way to get a better understanding of all of these influences on coffee flavour is by talking to the people who work in coffee. Most of the information in this post has been gleaned through conversations with the roasters and other coffee professionals we work with. A special mention needs to go to our friends at Rosetta Roastery & Quaffee, who inspired this post with their talks at their recent coffee events.

    Many thanks also to Counter Culture Coffee who designed the flavour wheel at the top of this post and have made it publicly available! Get your copy here.

    5 Reasons To Love Manual Coffee Brewing

    Manual Coffee Makers

    There are a lot of different ways to make coffee. For hundreds of years, people have been brewing it simply by crushing beans with a mortar & pestle and combining them with water over a fire. While this is still common in some parts of the world, in many others, coffee brewing is inextricably linked with machinery now. From espresso machines in cafés to filter machines on kitchen counters, appliances play a big role in the coffee industry today.

    Given the ubiquity of electric coffee makers, it's probably understandable that we sometimes are asked why Cape Coffee Beans is so focused on manual coffee brewing. If you have a look at the coffee makers we sell, they're all manual in nature. Even in our collection of coffee grinders, there is only one electric model.

    The focus on manual coffee equipment is quite intentional. We have nothing against electric coffee makers. Some of them can produce truly exceptional coffee and, at some point in the future, we may add some to our range. However, we  have decided to concentrate on manual gear for now. In this blog post, we've outlined some of the most important reasons that we think manual coffee brewing is such a great choice for coffee lovers.

    1) Bang For Your Buck

    It's unfortunate but it's true. A good coffee machine, particularly a good espresso machine, is very expensive. While there is a constant supply of cheap new machines available every year, we've yet to see a cheap one that makes great coffee. At the end of the day, good machines are expensive to build, so if the price tag on an espresso machine is too good to be true, it probably is.

    Manual brewers on the other hand are inexpensive to make and so are much less expensive to purchase as well. More importantly, the quality of the coffee they can produce for the price tends to be leaps and bounds ahead of electric machines of any sort at a similar price point. So it's not just that manual brewers are more affordable - they also can produce a great cup of coffee without breaking the bank.

    2) Ease Of Use

    It's as important to the home barista as cost. If you're going to making coffee for yourself and your loved ones every day, your coffee maker needs to be relatively easy to use. People who really care about coffee aren't overly concerned about convenience (we know some of the dark paths that can lead down) but at the end of the day, an espresso machine is a complicated piece of machinery.

    You need many days of formal training and even more practical experience to master the espresso machine. While you do need to take some time to learn how to brew with an Aeropress or a pour-over well, you can still produce something pretty good with only a couple of hours of experience.

    3) Room For Creativity, Experimentation & Improvement

    Even though ease of use is important, you still don't want to completely remove skill from the process of brewing coffee. There are those machines that can grind your beans and make decent coffee with the the push of a button. The good ones also tend to be expensive but equally, they completely remove you - the coffee lover - from the process.

    Part of the fun of coffee is experimenting and seeing how minor tweaks in brewing can lead to changes in the flavour of your cup. Even though most manual coffee brewers are easy to use, they give you direct control of many of your brewing variables such as temperature, extraction time & brewing ratio. This means that you can get creative, experiment and constantly improve your coffee brewing skills.

    4) Portability

    Chances are that you enjoy coffee in lots of different places. You may drink coffee at home and at the office, on either end of your daily commute. You may even be a road warrior who doesn't know where the next cup of coffee is coming from. Either way, you may not want to leave the quality of your coffee to chance (or the purchasing manager) and you certainly aren't going to be lugging an espresso machine around with you.

    Manual coffee brewers have the massive advantage of being highly portable. They're light, compact and some, like the Aeropress, are pretty hard to break. That means that you can throw them in your bag or your car boot and take them with you. We know lots of customers who take their Aeropress & grinder to work with them, or even on a business trip. It's a much better option than drinking your typical office or hotel room coffee!

    5) Long Cups of Coffee

    This last point might not make sense right away but please, bear with us. It's a quirk of the contemporary coffee industry that most cafés and restaurants use an espresso machine to brew their coffee, but how many people actually drink espresso?

    Now, don't get us wrong, espresso is a WONDERFUL thing when it's made well but, like it or not, it's just not what most people drink. A huge chunk of the coffee-drinking population dilutes their espresso either with milk or with water. Some of this may be due to an aversion to the intense and concentrated flavours of espresso but we reckon that a lot of it may be due to the simple desire for a long coffee drink.

    It's that preference for long drinks that brings us back to manual brewing. Most manual coffee makers only make long drinks and that's ok, because that's what most people drink! If you prefer espresso, then maybe you do need to invest in a proper espresso machine, build a relationship with your local barista or perhaps try to make something similar with your Aeropress. But if you like drinking long cups of coffee anyway, why brew a short one and then dilute. Instead, why not use a coffee maker that is designed to brew long cups?

     

    For those reasons (and a few others), we really do think manual coffee brewing is a great choice for most people, especially when you're just starting out. Whether you agree or disagree, we'd love to hear what you think!

    Why Would You Buy Your Coffee Beans Online?

    @ Coffee Symbol

    It's an obvious question and certainly one that I am asked fairly frequently. After all, it's a question that I need to be able to answer when explaining why I set up Cape Coffee Beans in the first place! So, in this first post for our newest blog, I thought I'd start by outlining why I think buying your coffee beans online is a good idea.

    I'd like to clarify up front that none of the points below are reasons not to buy directly from an artisanal roaster. If you're lucky enough to have one in your area, enjoy their coffees and want to support them, that's fantastic. Unfortunately most people in South Africa aren't so lucky, which is why Cape Coffee Beans was born. For all except those lucky few, here's why you should consider buying your coffee online.

    One quick side note - the Cape Coffee Blog is going to feature general posts and thoughts about coffee rather than brew guides or information about our roasters. We have blogs for each of those subjects as well!

    Freshness

    This is the most important point, and probably enough of a reason in itself to buy your coffee beans online. Coffee is a perishable product. While finding consensus on when coffee is at its best is difficult, everyone agrees that after a certain point, it will start to decline in quality. Many people are surprised by just how quickly that happens.

    Various factors including style of roast, packaging and environment will affect the timelines but most people say that coffee beans will "peak" (i.e. be at their absolute best flavour) 7-14 days after roast. Some recommend using your coffee beans within that 2 week window but many will say up to 4 weeks is perfectly fine - some even say up to 6 weeks is ok. I personally find that plenty of coffees still taste great at the 4 week mark - only a few do after 6 weeks (though some surprise you with their longevity).

    Perhaps more importantly, every roaster has their own ideal window during which they want their coffee to be consumed. They use this as a guideline when they plan their roasting schedule. When you buy your coffee online, you're getting the coffee at the same level of freshness that you would if you visited the roaster yourself, plus just a couple of days for delivery. Unfortunately that's not always true when you buy coffee beans off a shelf, particularly from mass market retailers.

    Support of local roasters

    It might surprise you a little to see a point about supporting local in a post about shopping online but please bear with me. Much to my surprise and chagrin, the majority of supermarket shelf space devoted to coffee in South Africa contains bags of beans roasted, not just in a different city or country, but on a different continent.

    The wisdom of this from a logistics perspective and certainly from a freshness perspective (see above) is questionable but all those points aside, why would you buy coffee beans roasted thousands of kilometres away when we have plenty of fantastic coffee roasters right here in SA? Unless you have a strong desire to destroy the environment or overpay for a product, it would seem that the rational choice would be to buy coffee roasted in this country.

    Note: Happily, some local roasters are also making it onto a few supermarket shelves now - that's a step in the right direction!

    Variety

    Some people like to drink the same coffee, day in and day out, and there's nothing wrong with that, but part of the fun of coffee for me is adventure. Exploring all the different flavours that the coffee world has to offer is a sincere pleasure and what makes it even more interesting is experiencing the variations on those flavours that a masterful roast can bring out.

    Some people don't appreciate that sourcing great beans is also a big part of the roaster's task. Here in South Africa, there are many coffees that you will only ever get to try from the one roaster who managed to secure some of it. For me, this is one among a number of great reasons to try out the beans that a variety of roasters have to offer. That's difficult to do via most other channels and is one of the great advantages of shopping for your coffee online.

    Convenience

    It may be an obvious point but that doesn't make it any less important. I think you need to invest time in your pursuit of coffee, particularly when it comes to learning about it and brewing it. Given that there are only so many hours in the day, you might as well save a bit of time on getting the coffee beans to you. If the added convenience of having fresh coffee delivered to your door prevents you having to make the choice between nothing and instant (I'd choose nothing), then it can't be a bad thing!

    The Bottom Line

    Having said all of this, shopping for your coffee beans online is a means to an end, and it's the end that is important: to drink high quality, fresh coffee, prepared by a local artisanal roaster. This business was launched to give more people the opportunity to do just that. But however you're sourcing your coffee beans, if you're supporting the South African speciality coffee industry, that's what's important!

    Happy Brewing,

    Phaedon
    Founder of Cape Coffee Beans