The sad fact is that most people drink terrible coffee.
Stale beans, burnt roasts, and poor brewing methods produce a bitter flavor; this bitterness stimulates stomach acid production which then leads to an unpleasant assortment of digestive discomforts affectionately termed ‘gut rot’ by the coffee community. Some bury the bitterness in cream and sugar; others stubbornly drink it black to prove their mettle.
Despite all this, many still enjoy coffee as a beverage. Whether because of emotional associations, cultural customs, or an acquired caffeine dependency, coffee is intricately stitched into our daily life. The good news is this: coffee does not have to taste terrible, nor does it have to make your stomach feel upset. Though the art of brewing requires a lifetime to master, I believe there are three basic coffee concepts that will spur novice coffee drinkers on to intrepid amateurs.
Coffee Concept #1: You cannot extract a high quality cup of coffee from a low quality bean.
Mass market coffee blends, pre-ground and sold in large tins at the grocery store, are problematic for several reasons, most prominently because they are sourced from so many locations. Some farms may have good crops, some poor, but inevitably the coffee quality falls to the lowest batch in the bin. Without getting too technical, high quality coffees are graded using a Q score; this standard, set out by the Coffee Quality Institute, is a grade out of 100 points. Any coffee rated 80 or above is considered specialty with a guaranteed baseline quality. Local and small batch roasters usually source their specialty coffee beans from a single origin; this means they can be confident of the quality of the whole batch because they bought their coffee from a specific farm. Therefore, it is important to purchase beans from a source that guarantees quality from the start. In most cases, your local coffee roaster is your best bet.
Concept #2: Even high quality coffee beans can be ruined with a poor roast.
Local coffee roasters are artisans of the highest degree and are constantly roasting fresh batches of coffee. The smaller scale of their operations actually allows them to hone the roast to perfection, whereas industrial roasting methods for mass market beans typically err on the side of being overdone or even burnt. Worse, fine grinds and long stretches of time spent in transit and sitting on the grocery store shelf exacerbates staleness. Local cafes can grind whole beans for you which should be brewed within two months of the roast date for optimal freshness. Explore local light, medium, and dark roasts to discover your preferred flavor profile.
Concept #3: Your brewing method either maximizes or minimizes a coffee’s potential.
Extraction is the process of dissolving the wide array of delicious flavor components out of the coffee bean and into water as it brews. Poorly extracted coffee is a tragedy; the excellent flavor and craftmanship of the perfectly roasted bean is left in the grinds as the taster gets a paltry shadow of what the coffee could truly be. Many modern brewing techniques help optimize extraction (a subject for future articles). If you’ve never heard of an Aeropress, the Japanese-designed Hario V60, or the Moka Pot, you might be surprised at the reasonable price-point for these options designed to optimize your extraction. Each requires a bit of practice and specific types of grinds, but the flavor difference is well worth the investment of time.
Coffee is a part of our culture, a daily ritual for some and a social rite for others. No matter when you drink your coffee, consider enriching your experience by employing these three essential coffee concepts. As always, travel safe and brew on!
For some, brewing and drinking coffee is a sacred solo ritual; for others, it is an essential element in the act of gathering. In either case the coffee experience is an intrinsic opening of the soul, like a prism bending light into its full spectrum of colours. Where we drink it, when we drink it, why we drink it all reflect who we are at our core. It offers a sense of place, grounding us as we greet the glow of dawn, as we face another turbulent hour, or as we ponder our day in the calm of dusk.
I truly believe that living local starts with coffee. More acutely, local coffee roasters and the cafes that grind, brew, and serve their coffee offer a vivid slice of local life unlike any other. The intensity of authentic experience at these community hubs is akin to a perfect shot of espresso, a shot that could not be drawn so perfectly any other place but there. Yet too many, whether long-time locals or welcome visitors, settle for stale coffee, sloppy brews, and generic coffee experiences identically replicated across the country like cheap plastic souvenirs. Coffee can be so much more.
The Vancouver Island Coffee Tour is a treasure map of sorts, a self-guided quest for seekers of flavour and meaning. Here you may discover cups of bliss in your local community that you never knew existed. Take it with you on your journeys up the wild coast or while island hopping through the Strait of Georgia. Support local roasters, share your experiences here, and rekindle a feeling of human connection with both your local community and those you visit. Most importantly, don’t settle for bad coffee; to do so is only to cheat yourself of all that the communities across this incredible island have to offer. Until our next meeting, travel safe and brew on.
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About the Curator
Joshua Gillingham is an author, board game designer, and coffee lover from Vancouver Island. He curates the Vancouver Island Coffee Tour. For questions or comments about VICT, map updates, or roaster openings and closures, send him a note via the community contact form.