I Logged All the Coffee Beans I Tried Last Year and It Changed My Life
Like most Americans, I drink a lot of coffee—somewhere in the neighborhood of the three cups average U.S. coffee drinkers down each day. Unlike most Americans, however, I work from home, meaning I am solely responsible for the purchasing and preparation of every single one of those cups. When I was younger, I gravitated towards darker roasts—“Italian” always seemed to work—and was happy with flavors like chocolate and caramel. But about a decade ago, a friend turned me on to third-wave roasters and single origin coffees, and, now, the tasting notes I seek are grapefruit, blueberry, and, my absolute favorite, tomato.
But navigating the world of single origin coffee isn’t easy. Think of it this way: Wrapping my head around California wine wasn’t too tricky because I’ve lived in the state; I know where Paso Robles is. But French wine has a steeper learning curve because I’ve never intuitively known where Cahors is on a map. Now, compare that to the world’s best coffee growing regions: How familiar are most people with the intricacies of Honduras, Bolivia, or Kenya?
What followed was a frustrating confluence of trying to find amazing coffees and an inability to properly retain the information. I’m not looking to become a coffee industry professional, but if I am going to pay a premium for single origin beans, it’d be nice to know whether I have a preference for Kiruga AA or Kagumoini AB, right?
And that’s just the beginning of the equation: The abilities of a roaster can elevate or destroy any beans—and as is the case with most artisan products these days, the number of independent roasters has skyrocketed. Then, once you have a bag in hand, many of those roasters provide you with all sorts of additional details: What variety are the beans? How many miles above sea level were they grown? Washed or natural? Meanwhile, it’s also important to take into account more basic factors like when the beans were roasted compared to when you brewed your cup.
So in an effort to make sense of this equation, I turned to a tried and true mathematical aid: a spreadsheet. Yes, it sounds a bit anal-retentive—and admittedly it is—but after what felt like years of stabbing in the dark and drinking more unenjoyable cups of coffee than I’d like to admit, this past April, I decided it was time to take control of my daily coffee drinking routine.
As a result, I’ve never been happier with my morning joe. I almost immediately weeded out the roasters that simply aren’t up to snuff. (That alone was worth the effort.) I quickly honed in on which countries are more likely to produce beans to my liking. (Turns out I am not as opposed to Central America as I thought.) And without much effort other than typing out some basics, I absorbed more knowledge about coffee in nine months than I had in the previous ten years.
Plus, as an unexpectedly amazing bonus, even those terrible cups of coffee have become more worthwhile: I engage in them more analytically and accept them as a necessary part of the larger puzzle. And guess what, I still get my caffeine buzz from them all the same.
So how can you go about following in my footsteps? My primary recommendation is to keep things simple. Admittedly, logging information can quickly become tedious, even if it is a labor of love, and plenty of times I’m simply not feeling up to it. (The good news is that a bag of beans always lasts a least a few days, giving you multiple opportunities to summon up the willpower.)
Here are the four pieces of info I consider a must: The roaster, the name of the beans, their country of origin, and the all-important “buy again?” column. Keep that one simple as well: yes, maybe, or no. These details alone will be enough to remember which roasters you like and tease apart your Guji beans from your Gidey ones.
Personally, I think it’s worth having a column dedicated to your own tasting notes as well, if only to jog your memory. My spreadsheet filled up quickly—nearly 30 different beans in under a year—and it’s nice to be able to see which coffees offered “huge strawberry” versus “black tea” notes.
Any additional columns are up to you. If you’re cost conscious about your coffee, a column for price can help you sort out the best bargains. I keep columns on what city the roaster is located in and where I got the beans from to make repurchasing a breeze. I also keep two columns of dates—the roasting date and the drinking date—as a way to double check that the beans aren’t too old. I also dedicate a column to transcribing the roaster’s notes from the bag: To be honest, I’m not too concerned with memorizing different bean varietals or farms yet, but if my obsession progresses, I’m ready.
In the end, keep in mind that a coffee spreadsheet isn’t supposed to be work: Its job is to make your coffee drinking experience more enjoyable. So make the entire experience more enjoyable: Go out and find different independent roasters you’ve never tried before (sticking to my neurotic personality, I like targeting them in groups by city and having bags shipped to my door), try beans that might seem outside your comfort zone (Indian beans? Why not?), and always be striving to find your Holy Grail of cups of coffee.
For the majority of Americans, coffee breaks are a regular part of the day. Those beans traveled a long way to get to your cup: Why not dream of making those breaks as pleasurable as possible and embrace letting them teleport you off to another part of the world with every cup?