Welcome to day 10 of 30. We are 1/3 of the way through now and I hope everything has been interesting, or at least entertaining, so far.
Today I want to talk about balance in coffee. This seems to be a concept that has been abandoned by many these days. My perspective on balance likely came from my “upbringing” in coffee at PT’s Coffee here in Kansas City. Or it could be simply what makes my mouth happy. Who knows…
Before I talk about what it is that makes coffee balanced, I want to say why it is important.
Balance in coffee is what creates a full experience when you drink it. In barista competitions we break the basic components of coffee into “Bitter, Acid, and Sweetness”, and while coffee is VASTLY more complex that those three components I do think that this can be a good basic way to look at coffee flavor. When something is balanced it means that there is not really something in proportion significantly higher than any others. When we talk about consumer preference, balance is also where the majority of people tend to find their preferred experience lies.
It seems common these days to expect that every coffee will have some unique and outstanding flavor that defines it. I find this mentality has lead to a trend of trying to make a coffee taste different (more special?) than it should be. We can discuss the nature of flavor in coffee in a later post, but right now let’s just talk about what makes specific coffee balanced. How do we find that golden little spot where a coffee is best represented?
In this concept it might be easy to say that as long as all components (bitter, acid, sweet) are equal, it is balanced. I actually find three versions of balance meet this criteria, and they ALL depend on sweetness. These three versions of balance are “full balance”, “balanced toward acidity”, and “balanced toward bitterness”. This means that there is in fact room for interpretation of flavor distinction, but without the sweetness component you are missing the mark.
Full balance is just what it sounds like. All components are equally represented, though potentially in different quantities. Together everything creates harmony that is simply easy to drink. Fully balanced coffees are the type that you may not notice drinking a considerable amount of, leading to unintentional over caffeination. I’ve done this with competition coffees more than I ever intended to.
The other two forms of balance are a bit more polarizing simply because they have more poking out. Balanced toward acidity coffees are typically low in bitterness, but high in acid and sweetness. The sweet/acid pairing leads to some dynamic flavor experiences that are often loved by industry professionals and coffee geeks. These tend to exemplify Specialty Coffee and are usually considered high in quality. For the everyday coffee drinker (or hell, even first thing in the morning) these might be too intense and explosive though.
Balanced toward bitterness coffees are quite the opposite from those balanced toward acidity. They have a distinct roast/smoke character but still have a high sweetness which makes them quite drinkable. I’m pretty certain most of you don’t care for these coffees, as they represent a bit of an old style of coffee. It can also be said that they don’t show off the origin character of the coffee. They are typically low in acid, which for many is the defining character of origin. The fact still remains though that a lot of people like these coffees. We’re not talking fully burnt coffee, but it does tend to be more roast than coffee professionals want.
When it comes to this type of coffee balance, I of course love full balance and acidity+ coffees. I have experienced a few darker roasts which were indeed balanced with sweetness and quite pleasant. It is important to recognize that finding balance in this way is mostly created in sourcing and roasting. The natural sweetness of the coffee and caramelization in roasting are what add sweetness to balance any cup of coffee. The barista must still extract properly in order to express this sweetness, but otherwise they really cannot add the sweetness component.
However, a great barista who knows what they are doing can manipulate their extraction in a way which highlights balance. This can be done by maximizing the sugar and organic acid portion of extraction, extracting enough of the grinds, or minimizing bitter components through faster extraction. The technique needed for balance is highly dependent on the coffee in question though.
Lastly, let’s look at what happens when sweetness is missing. When a coffee has high acid, or bitter, without sweetness it is actually very unpleasant. This is a key to note for coffee roasters in particular because as much as acidity can add to a sweet coffee, without that sweet component the coffee is basically undrinkable. In fact most consumers I know would rather have slightly darker(more bitter) roasted coffee than lighter(more acidic) roasted coffee for one very important reason. When the natural balance is missing a darker/bitter roast of coffee can be “fixed” by adding cream and sugar. But when a lighter/acidic coffee is missing sweetness there is only one option available.
Throw it in the trash.
I’m sorry to say this to you, but it is the simple truth. Highly acidic coffee with low sweetness cannot be fixed with cream and sugar. Adding those to the coffee can actually make it taste even worse. It is painful to say, but I have seen it time and time again.
So make sure sweetness is your priority and you will make everyone a better cup of coffee.
Thanks for reading today. If it hurt I apologize, but I hope it helps you make ever better coffee for the future.
Tomorrow I’ll be talking about refractometers, so stay tuned!