The Science Behind a Great Cup of Coffee

Coffee Science Barista Underground

Science may have been your favorite subject in school and coffee might still be the one thing that gets you through the morning, but have you ever considered the science that goes into making a cup of Joe? Coffee has a distinct scent, flavor, and sensation. Quite a few chemical reactions occur to create the experience you know and love. Like wine enthusiasts, coffee drinkers can detect subtle nodes that contribute to the overall flavor.


In addition to the flavor, texture, roast, and freshness of the drink play a part in the taster’s experience. On top of these elements, the amount of caffeine in the coffee has its own role. These factors come together to form not only the coffee taste and experience you’re accustomed to but also the health benefits that come with every cup of coffee. Whether you’ve always been interested in the chemistry of coffee or you are suddenly curious about why this drink a great choice, keep reading for a quick look at the science behind a great cup of coffee.


What Makes Coffee Great?

Usually, the average coffee drinker sticks to a coffee flavor they know and like. Critics, however, explore various flavors to determine which coffee is truly great. A great cup of coffee is masterfully brewed and served fresh; it delivers a reliably satisfying taste and texture. If you’re not familiar with the process, or if you’re not a pro critic, here’s some insight as to how your local shop manages to nail it every time.


  • Quality — If you start with low-quality coffee, no brewing technique is going to make it taste amazing. A great cup of coffee starts with quality coffee beans, which are rated on a scale from 1 to 100.
  • Bitterness — Much of the bitterness in coffee comes from chlorogenic acids, which are released from the beans when they’re roasted. The bitterness you taste in lighter and medium brews are due primarily to these acids, but darker brews get their extra bitterness from phenylindanes, which are breakdown products of those same acids.
  • Roast — Roasting is one of the more complex parts of making coffee, and it’s a crucial step. This is the part where you can really draw out the flavors in the coffee, but if you do it wrong, you can yourself squashing them instead. A good roast extracts the natural tastes and fills out the flavor profile.
  • Freshness — No customer wants to come in and buy an old cup of coffee, but there’s more to freshness than filling up a new pot when the last one goes stale. A great cup of coffee is made with fresh ingredients. From the coffee beans themselves to the flavoring ingredients and garnish, everything should be fresh from the start. Consider buying seasonally or striking up a relationship with a roaster for ultimate freshness.
  • Brewing — Like roasting, brewing is an important step towards pouring a great cup of coffee. Coffee must be ground up evenly and filtered water must be used to wash out the chlorine and minerals. In terms of temperature, the sweet spot for coffee water is about 200℉.

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    Caffeinated Consciousness

    It might be the smell of the fresh pot that wakes you up in the morning, but it’s more likely the caffeine that makes a cup of coffee such a necessary part of your day. The amount of caffeine in a given cup of coffee varies greatly, and even decaf options still have a small amount of caffeine, although typically not enough to have an effect. The blend, the grounds, and the brewing process all impact the caffeine concentration and the kick you get out of your java.


    You’re a scientist now, and the quest for knowledge comes with responsibility. People handle caffeine differently, and if you start experiencing side effects, it’s time to adjust your coffee intake. If you need a certain amount of cups every day, try drinking different styles of coffee or limiting caffeine with different brewing techniques. Drinking coffee has tons of benefits, but you can’t ignore the warning signs if you want to keep your habit healthy.


    Let’s Talk Coffee Freshness

    Freshness is on the list of elements that make coffee great, but it’s a concept that we don’t fully understand. There are different ways to determine freshness, and just like other aspects of the coffee experience, it’s influenced by the taster’s subjective perception. It also helps to get the facts straight before you hop on the bandwagon, as some of today’s trends could leave you with a subpar cup of Joe.

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    Determining Coffee Freshness

    Coffee is a complex beverage thanks to its changing makeup, but it ages based on a predictable timeline. When measuring freshness, there are two criterias to consider:


    • Aroma — The coffee experience wouldn’t be quite the same without the characteristic aroma, and this is one aspect we can use to determine freshness. Keeping a nostril on the roasting process lets you gauge the freshness of your beans, and the difference could be significant over the course of just one or a few days.
    • CO2 — Like aroma, carbon dioxide is part of the roasting process. Coffee degasses after it’s roasted and loses its CO2 over time; it starts giving off its distinct aroma and losing carbon dioxide once it’s done roasting, which is necessary because too much CO2 affects extraction and brewing. This means that the level of CO2 should still be relatively high at the end of the roasting period and come down gradually thereafter, meaning it’s not technically losing freshness during this time. After this necessary window however, a loss of aroma and CO2 may be seen as a loss of freshness.

    Freezing Coffee for Freshness: Good or Bad?

    Every cup of coffee you drink goes through chemical and physical changes to get from seed to brew, and its complexion continues to change even as you drink it. You can slow down these changes by putting your coffee in the freezer.


    Freezing coffee is an effective way to slow down the aging process, but there’s a big caveat to consider. When you take the coffee bag out of the freezer to make a pot, you’ll introduce the frozen coffee to warm air and ultimately sacrifice aroma and structure. This means that although your coffee was preserved in the freezer, it loses a significant amount of freshness and quality the instant you open it.


    Unless you plan to open, make, and enjoy your freezer-kept coffee in a cold environment, the heat from the air will immediately create condensation once it comes in contact with the cooled coffee. This is bad news for freshness and will change the composition of the coffee, and it’s an extra risky venture with specialty coffee beans. Any freshness you retained by freezing the coffee will just be lost (and then some) when you prepare it, so it’s best to enjoy yours sooner rather than colder.

    May 10, 2019 by Staff @ BaristaUnderground
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