Gourmet coffee: what's the difference?

Why does Starbucks serve 33 million customers a week but Folger's supermarket revenues have dropped 15% in the past decade?

Because Gourmet Coffee rocks.

The best part of waking up used to be Folger's in your cup. Or Chock Full O'Nuts. Or Maxwell House. Not anymore. Over the past 15 years, Gourmet Coffee has grown tremendously because it just tastes better.

Counter Culture Coffee is gourmetAnd a lot of people figure that anything that they're drinking 2, 3 or more cups of every day ought to taste as good as possible. That's what explains the big boom of Starbucks, Peet's Coffee, and any of hundreds of local coffee micro-roasters and artisanal roasters around the US.

What distinguishes gourmet coffee? More than you think.

You've probably already heard about the usual distinction between Robusta beans (ordinary cheap coffee served at the Gas Station) and Arabica beans (gourmet coffee beans). But there is much more.

A gourmet roaster in Seattle

Gourmet coffee is high-quality coffee from top-quality beans that have been expertly roasted to provide the best taste. It is as distinct from supermarket tin can coffee as fine wine is distinguished from MD 20/20.

The cherries (the fruit containing the coffee beans) were picked at peak ripeness from well-tended trees. The beans were carefully selected with the small or imperfect beans removed. This is actually a key differentiator because even a few low-quality beans in your roast can ruin the flavor. And it requires extra handling and inspection. The green beans are expertly roasted, usually in small batches, and served usually within 5-10 days of roasting to ensure freshness. Plus they're usually a lighter roast than tin-can coffees like Folgers. (More on this later.)

Gourmet coffee roasters hand pick their coffees either through a premium importer like Origens or by traveling themselves to Colombia, Guatemala, Kenya, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, or other coffee meccas. It is a badge of honor for gourmet roasters such as CounterCulture, Gimme!Coffee, and Terroir Coffee to travel to specific countries and build relationships with local growers (some of whom they keep secret) from whom they purchase beans year after year. Some call themselves micro-roasters or artisanal roasters. Their coffee tastes a world apart from Maxwell House.

Gourmet coffee in New York City

Just like wine connoisseurs like to try wines from specific regions, towns and vineyards, gourmet coffee fans often like to try single-origin coffees from specific coffee farms. There are also roasts from well-known farm cooperatives (very popular among Kenyan coffees) or a region such as the Popayan, Cauca region in Colombia. Coffee mixes like a house blend or morning blend can mix coffees from several countries and regions, and that's not a bad thing. That can ensure consistent quality. If they're composed of gourmet coffee they will still be excellent because the beans are consistent, high-quality, and expertly roasted. You'll taste the difference.

More now about the degree of coffee roasting.

Your basic supermarket tin can coffees like Folgers, Maxwell House and Chock Full O'Nuts can talk up their coffees all they want with elaborate marketing pitches (see video below).

But to create a consistent taste across millions of cans they have to mix coffees from many different countries and they have to over-roast the beans. Over-roasting coffee beans removes the unique character of each farm, region, or country of origin. It leaves you with bitterness. A dirty-like flavor. A simple taste without any details or complexity. All the stuff we don't want is there, in the name of ensuring a consistent cup.

Gourmet coffee is usually more mellow, flavorful, and complex because the beans are usually some version of a City Roast. That is a degree of roasting prior to espresso roast that preserves much more of the flavor.

Which brings us back to Starbucks. I like Starbucks, but like everyone else I complain that it is bitter. That's the result of over-roasting. And I think that Starbucks can't do anything about it. They have to over-roast their coffees to create a consistent flavor across 33 million customers every week.

This is also the reason why Starbucks encourages people to purchase Espresso drinks. Their espresso coffee is dark roasted to the point where much of the local flavor is lost. It's the best way for Starbucks to ensure a consistent flavor despite different countries of origin with strongly different tastes (Another method is to add mocha peppermint vanilla frappe flavor -- or a lot of whipped milk to dilute the coffee taste). There is a bigger difference between say a Colombian coffee and a Kenyan coffee when it is a light city roast than when it is an espresso roast.

For a tutorial with photographs of beans about different types of roasts ranging from light city roast to Viennese roast, see this Roasting Visual Guide from Sweet Maria'swebsite. Sweet Maria's sells green beans from around the world.

Explore the world of gourmet coffee. Pick which region you like best. Pick the type of roast the you prefer. There is a world of options!

Follow this link for our article on The World’s Main Single Origin Coffees.

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