Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Why some coffee tastes good and some doesn't

A perfect cup is a combination of key factors

Taste in coffee – like taste in art – is subjective. It’s the result of a mash-up of personal preferences, and is probably influenced by the environment in which it’s enjoyed, too.

Dominic Ries (Cooking ’89) recalls hearing about one “best cup ever” as having been sipped leisurely in Paris on the storied Avenue des Champs-Élysées. As co-owner of Catfish Coffee Roasters with his wife Tracy Caron, he knows he can’t fulfill a request for a similar brew, even if the flavour is accurately recalled.

“We have to stop and smile and say, ‘Maybe it was the coffee and the view and the experience.’”

Nevertheless, there’s an art to making the most of a cup of coffee – a blend of roasting, storing, brewing and more. Recently, we asked Ries to help explain why one cup (regardless of where it’s drunk) is the stuff of pleasant memories while another is all too hard to forget.

Point of origin

Coffee bears nuances of where – and when – it was grown. Since it’s grown around the world (in countries along the equator) those nuances can vary greatly. Peruvian coffee, Ries points out, may be sweet and fruity, while Sumatran is heavy and earthy, and Brazilian is smooth and lacking acidity. Palates can become accustomed to places.

Even so, adds Ries, “It’s never going to be the same as it was last year.” Weather conditions and pests can affect coffee crops and therefore the quality and character of a cup. Like wine, there can be good years and bad.

map of world in coffee beansRoasting

A good roaster assesses each batch of beans and roasts accordingly.

In this case, that’s Caron (“her palate is way better than mine,” admits Ries), who reacts to the state of new arrivals, which Catfish receives roughly every 6 weeks. A new shipment of Guatemalan, for example, might have a higher water content than the last, requiring tweaks to the approach she took to roasting the previous beans from the Central American country.

“It’s no different than trying a new recipe,” says Ries.

Roasting method also makes a difference. Though faster, using a rotating drum exposed to an open flame can cause beans to chip and shatter, says Ries, or to burn or cook unevenly. Catfish uses infrared heat instead, which takes about 22 minutes, or roughly 4 times as long as using a flame.

"I liken it to microwaving a steak and barbecuing a steak"

“There’s a reason for that,” says Ries of the choice to use infrared. "I liken it to microwaving a steak and barbecuing a steak. Microwaving works and it will get it hot, but it’s not going to do the same thing.”

Storage

“A lot of people say, ‘We put it in the freezer,’” says Ries. “Coffee is like an oil product. As soon as you put it into the freezer, it’s never going to reconstitute very well.” Over time, it can also absorb smells.

If you plan to store beans for up to a month, keep them in an airtight container at room temperature. This will trap the CO2 they naturally release, and which naturally preserves them. Alternatively, buy small batches of coffee more frequently – about half a pound a week per person.

As for keeping a brewed pot fresh, Ries uses insulated thermal carafes when offering samples at the Catfish Coffee table at the weekly Old Strathcona Farmers Market. A burner tray will cause evaporation, changing the concentration and flavour.

Dominc Ries of Catfish Coffee RoastersBrewing

There are myriad ways to brew, Ries (at left) points out, with one not necessarily being better than another. The key is to match the grind with the method.

For a French press, for example, use a coarse grind, given the longer time water stays in contact with the coffee. Limit that to about 3 minutes, says Ries. To prevent unexpected bitterness, let the boiled water cool slightly before adding.

For most other coffeemakers – even a reusable “K-cup,” says Ries (use about a tablespoon of coffee) – a medium grind will do. Consult the instructions or, if your roasters are local, ask them how long to steep their beans. “There’s a lot of science and thinking that went into that contact time,” says Ries.

Where to catch Catfish Coffee

If you’re in Edmonton, look for Catfish Coffee at

If you’re not in Edmonton (like one regular customer in Serbia), order Catfish Coffee online.



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