Last month, we published a story about specialty coffee and gentrification in which we referred to an espresso being “over-extracted.” In response, one of our readers wandered, “What does it mean when an espresso is over-extracted?” Well, dear reader, this month’s A Basic Bitch’s Guide is for you. But, before we get to espresso, let’s back up a second and talk about coffee in general.
Perhaps the biggest question that any basic bitch worth her basic-ness may be asking about coffee is: Why should I pay so much money for a fancy cup of coffee from a pretentious coffee place when I can get a bottomless cup of basic coffee for $1.50 at the diner down the street? Isn’t coffee just coffee?
Much like wine, the process of getting coffee from the ground and into your cup is pretty involved and labor-intensive. But, unlike wine, the majority of coffee-producing countries are post-colonial places (check out Robert Thurston’s piece in the new long-form coffee magazine, Longberry, for a recent analysis of coffee and colonialism). Coffee producing regions are still subject to neocolonial economic relations that vastly undervalue the labor of coffee growers and pickers, a great many of whom are women. When you stop for a moment and really think about the amount of labor it takes just to grow, pick, and process coffee beans, there is some pretty compelling evidence that we probably all should be paying more for our coffee before it even gets to the roasting and preparation phase.
Once we get to the roasting and preparation, you have even more people putting work and thought into the finished product that ends up as a delicious beverage in your mug. But, of course, the quality of the thought and labor put into each coffee beverage varies drastically and that is where we can really begin to separate the pulp from the coffee cherry in terms of coffee quality.
Here are some things to consider about each stage of the process of growing and making coffee when you’re evaluating whether your coffee is worth the extra beans.
How much information is provided to you about where your coffee beans came from? Does the packaging, or can the barista, tell you if the coffee came from a particular single origin farm or micro-lot on that farm? Is the coffee direct trade, that is, fairly purchased straight from the farm by the roasters with no intermediaries? In general, these are all signs that the quality of these beans is going to be better and that the labor/trade was a bit fairer.
Again, like wine, coffee comes in a lot of different types, y’all. Not all coffee plants are the same and thus not all the beans that come from those plants are the same. The most basic differentiation is between Robusta and Arabica plants, and in general, Arabica beans are of higher quality and most specialty coffee shops will be serving some type of Arabica. There is incredible variation in size, smell, and taste between varietals, and the best coffee shops will have lots of information about the bean varietals they have on offer and the types of flavors and qualities you can expect from each varietal. You should expect to pay more for this knowledge and expertise about the beans and you should try lots of different kinds of coffees to see which ones suit your own personal taste the best.
After coffee is picked, but before it can be roasted, it has to be processed and there are a lot of different ways this can be done. Each method of processing emphasizes certain flavors and qualities of particular beans. Some processes are more labor-intensive than others or require expensive processing machinery, which will drive up the price. I tend to love pulp natural (also called “Honey” or “Miel,” “Semi-Washed” or “Semi-Lavado”) processed coffees because of their wonderful mouthfeel. Again, you should figure out which types you like best for yourself.
This is where shit gets really real. Because of all the cultural associations between coffee and masculinity and virility and strength and caffeine and other dude-bro stuff, people often think that the best and strongest coffee is the darkest roast possible. The going knowledge these days is that this isn’t true, and, in fact, over-roasting a coffee is often a way to mask its inferior quality by burning it to a crisp. (This is similar to the reason that many people will advise you against salted butter; the salt can be used to cover up an inferior product.) While there are some beans that taste best when they are roasted to be dark brown or black and oily, this can often actually diminish acidity and mask unique flavors inherent to the varietal and highlighted during the processing phase.
When people say they want their coffee to taste “like a plain cup of coffee” they generally mean they want it roasted in a way that hides the wonderful variety inherent to coffee. There is nothing wrong with liking or wanting this type of one-size-fits-all coffee, but just recognize that what is being served up at many coffee shops these days is not this type of coffee; it’s the type processed and roasted to bring out unique flavors meant to be appreciated by you, the consumer, and if you want the pleasure of appreciating those flavors, expect to pay a bit more. If you don’t give a fuck, then go to Denny’s and get your basic on, girl. No shame. (Order me some French fries. I’ll meet you there in 10.)
There are soooooooo many ways to make a cup of coffee (drip, pour-over, French press, AeroPress, siphon) and then there are all the espresso-based beverages (cappuccino, latte, macchiato, etc.). What you really need to know about this is that you should probably never pay very much money for a cup of basic drip coffee, but all other preparation methods can be used to make your coffee the best coffee it can be. Depending on how much labor and expertise is involved in the process, the price will rise. You’re going to have to pay more for the expertise of an informed and talented barista who knows which method of preparation works best with each coffee. It’s up to you to decide how much you’re ultimately willing to pay.
In general, espresso shots should be pulled “ristretto” for all espresso-based beverages, but this is really where barista expertise comes in to play. They should know how long to pull each shot of espresso to make it taste just right. An “over-extracted” shot has had too much steam forced through the espresso grinds and is overly-watery and often bitter tasting. Look for a shot of espresso that has unique flavors expressed (stone fruit, chocolate, salt, caramel, cherry, the list goes on and on). It should also have a thin layer of slightly foamy, pale or reddish crema sitting on the top of it, indicating that the shot has been pulled correctly to bring out the coffee oils.
Once the shot is pulled, a variety of things can happen to it. You can just drink it and enjoy. If you add hot water to it, it becomes an Americano. You can also add varying amount of milks to make different espresso-based beverages. Milk should be steamed to a “micro-foam” and not big and fluffy and burnt tasting. It should also be cool enough to drink immediately when the beverage is served but still taste warm. You should drink your beverage when it is served to you. Letting it sit too long changes the composition of the steamed milk and you’ll lose the correct texture and proportions of your drink (not to mention it will get cold quickly if it is the right temperature to begin with).
If you add a small amount of steamed milk with a little foam you have a cappuccino (the entire beverage should be about 3 oz). If you add a lot more steamed milk, you have a latte. A touch of steamed milk on the top of a shot is a macchiato. These sizes and proportions are pretty standard. If you go to a place and they ask you if you want your cappuccino small, medium, or large, don’t give them very much of your money. In turn, please don’t ever order a large cappuccino. Ever. If you want a lot of milk, get a large latte. You can add flavorings like chocolate (a mocha) or vanilla, but beware that these flavorings can either complement or detract from the espresso, depending.
Service and Presentation:
Here is my biggest advice: make friends with your barista. Now, I know that a lot of baristas may seem like assholes at first. Some of them are really assholes. And there is a certain amount of cultural prestige that comes with working at a fancy coffee place in some neighborhoods that turns nice people into assholes (but also, service work can do this, too, so cut folks some slack). A good barista is there to answer YOUR questions about coffee. I asked several baristas what one thing they’d like a basic bitch to know about coffee and they basically all said that they wanted the opportunity to teach you about coffee. Don’t be afraid to march right into the coffee shop and admit you don’t really know what you want because you’re not sure what all the options are. Don’t ask your barista to recommend something based on what THEY like, use them as a resource to figure out what it is YOU like. If you normally go to Sbucks and order a triple caramel frap, say it loud, say it proud, and then let the barista help you pick something else you might enjoy that is on their menu. Be open-minded.
Any barista that is good at their job is going to be excited to work with someone who is curious, willing to ask them questions, and try putting new things in their mouth. Don’t feel like you need to know anything in advance, despite the pressure you might feel to seem cool or in the know. Your beverage should be presented to you with care and be nice to look at in addition to being very tasty. Over time, you can work up really lovely relationships with your baristas that will transcend coffee drinking. One final note: always, always, always tip at least a buck for any cup of coffee that isn’t already prepared when you walk in the door at any specialty coffee shop. A basic bitch knows how to appreciate.