• QA 125
    What makes a fine coffee?
    What are the vital criteria to consider when choosing a fine coffee to be enjoyed on its own?
    Asked by:
    Student - France

    In short: quality! However, there are many differing views as to what constitutes 'quality', just as there are about beauty… 

    Briefly, coffee quality comes from a combination of the botanical variety, topography, climate, and the care taken during growing, harvesting and processing.  Variety and topographic conditions are constants and therefore dominate the basic or inherent character of a coffee. Climate is variable and cannot be controlled, resulting in fluctuating quality from one season to another. The level of care is variable as well but can be influenced: it depends on the motivation of those responsible for growing, harvesting and processing.

    The criteria that must be satisfied to make a 'fine' coffee are twofold: the quality must generally be acknowledged as 'fine' by coffee connoisseurs, but at the same time that quality must appeal to the intended end-user! 

    The interesting thing about 'coffee quality' is that what some consider top quality can mean almost the exact opposite for others. An example is the acidity that is found in some coffees, for example from Kenya. This is highly appreciated in some markets but not so in others: Northern Europe mostly yes but, Southern Europe mostly no. The coffee may be exceptional but this doesn't help if the taste characteristics do not suit the intended end-user. However…

    Fine coffees offer well-matched body and flavour, coupled with a certain degree of acidity that mostly depends on the variety. There will be lingering after-tastes that are both pleasant and complex, inviting the taster to return for more… The roasted bean appearance of such a coffee will be good looking, wholesome and nicely presented.  Of course the taste experience also depends on the degree and method of roasting: the darker one roasts the more one loses the most delicate taste aspects. And finally, the taste experience must be constant, i.e. it should not fluctuate between different batches.

    All truly fine coffees usually are of somewhat limited availability; they come from known and identified geographic locations; and they have their own individual characteristics. Determining which coffee suits which end-user is therefore a matter of experience, gained through trial and error. Just as one learns which wines to choose so it is with fine coffees: the criteria are the same! 

    Coffee 'quality' is a huge subject and we invite you to carefully read the entire chapter 11 of the Coffee Guide. Should further questions arise then feel free to contact us again.

    Posted 27 November 2006

    Related chapter(s):
    Related Q & A:
    Q&A 026, 083, 096, 110 and 114.