Working in a café, you get to serve all sorts of characters. But regardless of how colourful someone’s personality may be, there are always common biases of human nature – from statements about the weather that we obviously weren’t aware of, to how busy we are if there happens to be a queue of people waiting to order. When it comes to ordering coffee however, there is one question that pops up on a daily basis: ‘Is your coffee strong?’.
I know how difficult it can be, especially when travelling, to find a cafe that makes coffee just the way you like it. With so many different blends, styles of roast, and ways a Barista can extract its flavour, it can be quite a stressful process trying to properly articulate your flavour needs. What the customer feels should be a simple request, gets met with a look of disdain and dissatisfaction by the Barista, and then the product comes out not quite as requested. It’s too milky, or the long black is too strong and bitter, or it’s overtly sour – are they messing with me? Understanding coffee strengths today will help a consumer get the coffee they want, as well as save the café staff a lot of time having to remake coffees.
Meeting unique needs
The first things we need to take into consideration are the origins of the coffee being used, and how the coffee roaster has chosen to roast these coffees.
A single variety of Arabica coffee can taste of anything from citrus and berries, to nuts and chocolate. Each one of these characteristics will taste better or worse with milk. A nutty, earthy Brazilian coffee for example, will generally compliment milk more than the wine/berry like acidities of a Kenyan coffee. Typically, the house blend of a cafe in Australia will be designed or composed of origins more suitable to complement a decent volume of milk.
Next, a coffee roaster will have different roast profiles to highlight different flavours in the coffee. With steak, there is a difference in flavour from rare to well done. If you’re buying a nicely aged and highly priced cut of meat, to really appreciate the quality of the flavour, you would typically have it rare or medium rare. Similarly, many coffee roasters buying small lots of expensive and high quality coffees try to do the same thing, by developing the coffee’s’ flavour just enough in the roaster to highlight that coffee’s unique characteristics. If it is roasted any longer, irrespective of the price and quality of the raw coffee, the flavours start to become homogeneous.
A helpful analogy of a style of roast is light, medium or dark. This by no means gives insight into the art and science of coffee roasting, just an aid to the general consumer as to why their coffee may taste a certain way.
The different styles of coffee
Lighter styles of roast will highlight the acidity of the coffee. With the addition of milk, many people will refer to this as mild or weak, sometimes nutty, yet smooth and very sweet. Just be cautious if you’re a strong coffee drinker – an extra shot, or less milk to coffee ratio can result in a highly sour product. I will explain this in more detail later.
Medium styles of roast seem to be the norm for a house blend in the average Australian café, but to be honest, this is a pretty broad term. By pushing the development of the coffee flavours a little longer in the roaster, you start to lower the perceived acidity and increase the bitterness. There will be a fuller, richer flavour in the milk compared with the lighter roasts. The bitterness is complimented by the sweet, rich milk, and you have less chance of any high acid origins of coffee becoming too sour when you order an extra shot.
Darker styles of roast are becoming less prevalent in our major cities. The same trending of flavour occurs when the coffee progresses even longer in the roaster – acids are perceived less, bitterness is perceived more. With milk, this will display more dark cocoa and bitter characters. Your classic ‘coffee’ flavoured coffee, with no other descriptors required.
If you like your coffee quite strong, it’s a good idea to first ask your Barista what style of roast their house blend is. As I mentioned above, if they are serving a lighter style roast, and you like a double shot, this will most likely make your coffee taste more sour and unbalanced. The medium roasts will typically meet your coffee strength satisfaction. If a lighter roast is the only option, you may find a happy medium by ordering your coffee ¾ full, instead of going for the double shot, or just let the Barista know you like it strong but not too sour, and see what they can do for you – they may have another option. Otherwise, be adventurous; try a long black or a filter coffee.
The espresso extraction
From here let’s look at the espresso extraction. You start with your ground coffee – it contains the flavour we are trying to extract. The more ground coffee we use, the more potential flavour we have to extract. Now we need to get just the right amount of flavour into an appropriate ratio of water. You know if a tea bag isn’t steeping in the water for very long, the tea will taste weak. On the other hand, we are all familiar with what happens when we put the teabag in the hot water, walk away, and forget about it. We come back, and not wanting to make another cup, we always taste to see just how bad it is, hoping that the laws of nature have changed momentarily, to be yet again disappointed with our strong, bitter and overly tannic brew. Just like the tea bag, if we extract too much flavour from the coffee, we will be contributing negative characteristics to the overall flavour. Also, if we brew up two cups of tea, for the same amount of time, if one cup happens to hold less volume of water than the other, the smaller cup will taste stronger.
Before a busy day of trade, a Barista tries to get these elements balanced as best they can. If you are using just one blend of coffee in your café, it can be quite challenging to find a balance of flavour for all the items on your coffee menu. This is because what tastes balanced as an espresso, may not be appropriately balanced when you add a certain amount and type of milk to the mix. More and more cafes are choosing to have multiple coffees on offer to better compensate for at least the milk and black coffee menu.
What is a ‘strong’ coffee?
When some people ask for a strong coffee, it can be hard to determine what the customer means. Some people will associate bitterness with strength, whereas some people will ask for the coffee strong, but not bitter. A common customer request is they would like a strong coffee, but they don’t want an extra shot – sometimes this is because they feel they shouldn’t have to pay the extra 50 cents. Unfortunately, as we discussed with the tea bag analogy, if we try to extract more flavour, we won’t be getting the good stuff. Further, for a Barista to use more ground coffee, it requires quite a lot of effort to adjust the espresso machine and grinder settings during service, and is ultimately wasteful and time consuming.
Sadly, even today with coffee education and information everywhere, the most common reason for a bad cup of coffee is a lack of routine cleaning of the espresso machine during service. There is a lot of hard work and good intentions that go into a bag of roasted coffee, and as a consumer you should be able to experience that in the quality of the flavour. It is upsetting for me when the only flavours you can taste in your coffee are of the built up residues of previously extracted coffees that go bad when they sit there for too long. It is just not good enough in this day and age to claim ignorance.
The perception of strength, as with many things in this world, is based on your relative experience of different coffees and what you personally have decided to associate the word with. There is no real way to put everyone on the same page when it comes to flavour, but I hope this has at least helped to bridge the gap.