If you make coffee at home, then there’s a pretty significant chance that you, dear friend, make bad coffee. But that, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing—bad coffee is better than no coffee, much in the same way that bad beer is better than no beer. And if it makes you feel any better, most of the world makes bad coffee, too.
What is called commodity-grade coffee—or simply commodity coffee—in the industry still brews up the bitter, slightly sweet beverage that drinks like a warm hug of nostalgia for a reasonable price. This is the kind of coffee I grew up with in the ’80s when my mom would let the last few ounces in the pot cool to a more reasonable temperature for my tender six-year-old mouth to handle—it came as nearly-black granules in a can with a plastic lid and a scoop. Popping the lid released the unmistakable aroma of caramelized sugar with a hint of char no matter how long it had been sitting in the cupboard. This was the way most coffee has been experienced at home since the introduction of what is called the first wave of coffee. In this day and age, with the proliferation coffee’s third wave, it is now easier and cheaper than ever to make better coffee.
Drinking coffee used to be quite an ordeal—it usually required families to travel to the nearest port and purchase green, unroasted coffee beans, go through the tedious process of roasting it in a cast iron pan, and grind the beans up in spice mills before brewing it. With technological advancements in the late 1800s, Folgers and Maxwell House saw an opportunity to provide the masses with easier access to the beverage, and the companies marketed commodity-grade, vacuum-sealed ground coffee that was easy to access and even easier to prepare. This was the catalyst of coffee’s first wave, and its tenets are still prominent today. While the rise of Starbucks and Peet’s led us into the second wave of coffee that focused on a more service-oriented, cafe-style approach, innovations like the Keurig single-cup brewing system have kept commodity coffee popular, with Folgers and Maxwell House earning a combined $1.5 billion in sales during 2019.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that coffee companies started looking at different ways of focusing on quality, sustainability, and traceability. Called specialty-grade coffee, or simply specialty coffee, this ideology focused on the top 80th percentile of quality coffee grown in the world, who grows it, and under what conditions it was grown. Coffee’s third wave enhances this by roasting the coffee with care and taking a very scientific approach when brewing to highlight some of the over 850 aromatic and flavor compounds naturally present in coffee to make it much more than simply a bitter, sightly sweet drink.
One of the first steps to making better coffee is to stop using bad coffee. Look for some means of traceability on retail packaging—a country of origin, like Colombia or Ethiopia, is a great start, but including the name of the farms (or fincas in Central/South America) is a much better sign of a third wave product. This sort of transparency is a practice that is common with wine, but it is also reminiscent of visiting a farmers’ market. And much like goods from the farmers’ market, coffee has a shelf life—whole bean coffee stays at peak freshness for about two weeks after it is roasted and gradually degrades afterward, but once the coffee has been ground, it starts to degrade even more quickly. Because of this, it is wise to select whole bean coffees that feature a roast date on the packaging and select something roasted relatively recently. Most companies that roast third wave coffee will mail coffee to your door within two to three days of the roast date, and specialty coffee retail operations will pull beans from their shelves once they are past their prime.
In the next chapter, I demystify the factors that go into making coffee, followed by how to harness them to make deliciously consistent coffee.