De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est

In real life ― that is, when I’m not writing articles about coffee ― I used to spend time trying to teach Latin to junior high school students. There is a famous Latin saying: de gustibus non disputandum est. As a Latin teacher I really appreciate the way that phrase illustrates a neat little grammatical construction that doesn’t really translate well into English. (None of my students ever appreciate it the way I do.)

At any rate, the saying loosely means “there is no disputing about taste,” as in: you can’t convince me to like broccoli, and I can’t argue you into believing that Renoir is the best painter ever to live. We can’t logically explain or defend our opinion on the matter, or convince others to like something they don’t. Saying, “Well, I don’t particularly like that,” usually puts an end to serious discussion. We like what we like, and that’s the end of it.

Well, we all like coffee, don’t we? You wouldn’t be on this particular blog, subjecting yourself to my drivel, if you didn’t. The question for today is, “Why?” Why do we like coffee? Well, that one’s answered easily enough: because it’s good. And therein lies the real question, the question of taste, about which there can be no disputing: why is coffee good?

What makes a cup of coffee good? Spend twenty minutes on the internet and the answer will become pretty clear. You’ll find tips for brewing great coffee all over the place, brewing appliances that will revolutionize your morning, beans and blends from all over the planet to raise your worship of the dark god to heights you never knew existed. What it boils down to (if you’ll pardon the pun ― we all know you’re never supposed to boil coffee) is probably one word: fresh.

“Fresh roast” has become a watchword in coffee, and with good reason: roasted coffee loses much of its flavor after about a week. “Freshly ground” is a must: the first appliance most people buy after a coffee pot is their own grinder, because even the most undiscerning coffee drinker can tell the difference between coffee that was ground thirty seconds ago and the stuff that came out of the bottom of the can that’s been open in their cupboard for the last six weeks.

After brewing, “fresh” is still the most important word in coffee quality. We’ve all had coffee that’s been on the burner too long, and it tastes as bad as it smells. Even green coffee roasters are usually encouraged to use freshly harvested beans, because green coffee can start to get “baggy” after a year or two.

Beyond the “fresh” requirement, the internet will tell you all kinds of other things about coffee quality. Good beans (usually the beans sold by the person hosting the website) are key. Good water is a must ― coffee being something like 99% water, if your water isn’t good how good will your coffee be? Brewing methods, extraction temperatures, even serving vessels can affect how good your coffee is. And I’m not even going to talk about espresso…

But my point, for now, is this: there are ways to help make sure you get a really good cup of coffee. There are things you can do to make your cup of coffee objectively better than the standard-issue mug of diner joe. No one in their right mind can drink a cup of coffee brewed four hours ago in a gas station and say it’s as good as coffee made from freshly-roasted Yemeni beans in a press pot right in front of their eyes. They just can’t. There are objective standards of quality in coffee, and there are even organizations dedicated to the recognition, understanding, and implementation of these standards for the good of us all.

However, back to the original question: what makes a cup of coffee good? Spend twenty minutes in a coffee shop, gathered around mugs of good coffee, asking the passing coffee aficionados that question, and the answers you get may surprise you. You’ll probably hear many of the same things you got on the internet, as people trot out their favorite beans and machines. You’ll hear about this guy’s water filter and that one’s vacuum brewer. You’ll hear how home-roasted is the Way and that corporate chains are Evil. Coffee drinkers are full of opinions, and most of them have never heard that the Romans said not to argue about them.

But after the standard responses have been aired, the answers might start to get a little more vague. Things like the atmosphere. The company. The ambience. The theme music. Your mood. Your desperation level. People with the time and inclination to pull up a chair and chat with you will probably thank you for asking the question and making them think. They will wax poetic about their first cup of coffee, or a particularly memorable one. Someone will probably remember a scene from a book in which the main character receives some huge revelation over a cup of coffee. They will start a little sidebar conversation about the definition of good.

After a half-hour or so, things will start to get even more subjective. Brewing temperatures and roasting times will have given way to anecdotes and remember-whens. Instead of the perfect brewing method, you’ll hear about these really cool mugs they have at this one shop, and that cool chick with the guitar that plays on Friday nights over at what’s-that-place-called.

So what makes a cup of coffee good? Is the goodness of coffee objective and definable, or is it, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?

There are certain standards that a coffee place has to meet before it even deserves to be called a coffee place. Most of those standards are measurable and quantifiable and most of them take place inside of the cup. But some of them aren’t, and don’t. Some are like the smile on the face of the person who hands you your mug. Some are like the mug itself, which isn’t a paper cup held between your knees as you steer through morning traffic. Some are like the couch you can sink into, and the coffee table you can put your feet up on, and the journal, left behind by customers who came before you to read while you’re waiting for your date to get out of the bathroom. And all of these things are part of the equation, part and parcel of your decision on whether or not to call this particular cup of coffee good.

So what makes a cup of coffee good?

Well, in a way, it’s all good. The cup of coffee that I brew for myself and my best friends on a camping trip in the middle of winter probably tastes like crap compared to the stuff that comes out of a high-end espresso machine at the hand of a world-class barista, but quite frankly my friends don’t care and I’ll probably get more thank-yous from them than will the barista from all of his business suit-clad trendy upscale downtown clientele. The cup of coffee that I buy at a gas station in the middle of the night on a road trip might objectively be swill, but if it gets me home awake and in one piece to spend Christmas morning with my family, then I guess that’s a pretty good cup of coffee too.

So what makes a cup of coffee good?

Is good coffee really all about the people with whom you drink it? Is it really all about the atmosphere in which you enjoy your coffee and your friends? Is it really that social?
Is good coffee really all about flavor essences and accurate extraction times and proper grinding technique and artesian well water? Is it really all about varietal distinctiveness and SCAA cupping scores and fifteen-seconds-into-second-crack? Is it really that technical?

I hope you said “no” to both of the above tirades. If you did, then you’ve just found yourself in the same boat I’m in: A virtual lifetime spent drinking coffee, and I’m still not entirely sure what makes it good.

I just spent three pages asking and then trying to answer my own question, and in doing so proved that, once again, the Romans were right. De gustibus non disputandum est. Maybe by my next article I’ll have come a little closer to an answer about what makes a cup of coffee good. For now, though, I’m off to do some “research”…