Coffee doesn’t always taste like the bitter, chocolate-y coffee we grew up drinking. We may add sugar, milk or sweetening syrups, trying to recreate the ice cream “flavor” of coffee. The truth is coffee has so many more unique characteristics than those broad descriptors and can exhibit different flavors depending on its temperature.
What gives coffee different flavors? Everything from the soil content of the coffee plants, the weather patterns the plant went through, how ripe the cherries were when they were picked and the altitude where the coffee was grown. The sorting, washing, fermenting, and drying of the coffee as well as the roasting, the water chemistry of the brewing water, the filter media, the grind size, the contact time with the water, AND SO MANY MORE FACTORS affect how coffee tastes. Certain farming practices, roasting styles, and origins can be named just by the flavor of the coffee. Did I lose anyone yet?
This all sounds exhausting, over the top, and extremely niche, but it doesn’t have to be. Ask a barista for their recommendation, keep track of what you tried and what you tasted, and you’ll begin to make connections. A great place to start is Ethiopia. Try a washed Ethiopian coffee and a natural Ethiopian coffee, and you can begin to understand the role processing plays in how your coffee tastes – this admittedly led me to my own “Aha!” moment in coffee.
When coffee cherries are picked, washed in water troughs, hulled (the process of removing the meat of the fruit and leaving the seed) and then dried – they are called washed coffees. This is a very traditional method. Most, if not all, coffee you’ve tried is a washed coffee. Natural coffees, on the other hand, are processed by having the coffee cherries picked, rotated in the sun to dry, and then hulled. The resulting taste can be confusing the first time you try it as Ethiopian naturals have distinct blueberry pie, grape juice and jam characteristics. “Are you sure this is coffee?” and “why does it taste like fruit?” are common questions. Washed Ethiopians have floral, citrus and chocolate qualities, and are probably my favorite style of coffee.
How can all of this inform which coffee is best for cold brew? When you understand the different qualities of each coffee growing region, you’ll have a better understanding of which coffee to use for which preparation. I’ve had incredible Kenyan cold brews; reminding me of chocolate and bright raspberry jam. I’ve also had Guatemalan cold brews that are sweet and reminiscent of a chocolate milkshake. Do you want that afternoon cold brew with the fruity, refreshing sweetness? If so, grab an African coffee (i.e., Kenya, Ethiopia, Burundi), and you’ll be surprised how tea-like and floral they can become in cold brew. If you’re having a delicious brunch, and you want a splash of cream and some sugar in your cold brew, you’ll want to go for a Central or South American coffee (i.e., Guatemala, Brazil, El Salvador). This will give you that background note of chocolate and nutty creaminess to accent the milk and sugar.
And for pour over? Same idea. Sometimes you want to add cream or sugar, and sometimes you want it to remind you of a nice wine; nuanced, fruity, and floral. When I want that super smooth, heavy bodied, malty cup of coffee, I’ll use those Central and South American coffees. When I want to enjoy it slowly, noticing how sweet it becomes as it cools, experiencing explosive tart fruit qualities, I’ll stick with Ethiopia, Colombia, Panama, and Kenyan coffees.