Black coffee is like the little black dress of the beverage world: running from simple to sophisticated, it goes with everything– from shipping ports to boardrooms, academia to small-town diners, American cowboys to French models.
There are tons of great reasons to drink black coffee: the health benefits of cutting the dairy or sugar; Emersonian simplicity; a desire to learn more about the flavor nuances of coffee.
But, even before Starbucks cups became Pinterest-worthy fashion accessories, the sugary frappuccinos and syrupy flavored lattes cornered the market at converting young and old alike into the world of coffee. If you learned to love “coffee drinks”, it can be hard to break the added-flavor habit.
I began drinking coffee in college, where I would concoct a half-hot-chocolate half-instant-latte from the cafeteria coffee machine: creamy delicious, but about as far from black coffee as one can get. Upon moving to Seattle, I was excited about the land with a coffee shop on every corner, the land where the streets are paved with coffee beans. I remember taking a tour around the city tasting lattes. Being a “grande vanilla latte” type of girl, I couldn’t get over how all the espresso drinks in Seattle tasted so… espresso-y. I wrinkled my nose. I populated my purse with packets of Sugar in the Raw. At home, I rotated different flavors of nondairy flavored creamer through my fridge. Bailey’s Irish Cream. Coconut Delight. Mocha Madness.
And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I didn’t LIKE the unsweetened version. I felt that I should; that it would be somehow more “genuine” to drink coffee black.
Then something changed. It could have been any one of a dozen reasons. I took up running and found black coffee more compatible with my system during workouts. I grew older and my tastes tended towards the less sweet. I began to prefer my red wines oakier; my beer hoppier; my chocolate darker. What was happening to me??
A few years later, when I became involved in founding Bean Box, it was Game Over for sweetener. All of a sudden, we had the best roasters in the city (nay, the world) personally delivering us their freshly-roasted beans, and the true universe of coffee opened itself up to me:
— I learned that freshness makes a huge difference (I’d never had truly fresh coffee before).
— I learned that coffee doesn’t need flavoring to taste like nuts, or chocolate, or strawberries. In fact, pick a flavor, any flavor, that you love. We’ve tried coffee that tastes like enchilada sauce; butter cookies; tomato-basil; stout beer; french fries; lemon bars; gin and tonic; rose perfume. Black coffees. No flavorings. It’ll blow your mind.
— I learned that coffee has more flavonoids than wine so, all those weird tasting notes I listed above? They start to make sense.
— I learned that cream and sugar are often used to disguise the taste of old, cheap, poorly-roasted, or flavorless beans; conversely, I learned that some fresh coffee is enhanced by a splash of cream, because the oils in coffee bond with the oils in the dairy. That said, sugar rarely augments fresh coffee, so cream is better than sugar (but nothing is better than cream!).
— When you drink coffee black, you really begin to appreciate espresso. There’s just nothing like a beautiful shot of espresso to exhibit a roaster’s taste, talent, and dedication to the craft. For lots of reasons, getting espresso right is much more difficult than getting a tasty cup of drip. A well-balanced, naked espresso shot with a thick layer of crema on the top is a beautiful, beautiful thing, and an entirely different coffee experience than a latte or a cappuccino.
— I learned that I have a real love for coffee, especially when something new comes into the Beanery. I love lingering in the front window of our office, sipping, gazing out at the cloudy city, trying to put words to what I’m tasting.
My point being that yes, you might want to drink your coffee black because it cuts the calories; or because your tastes are changing; or because you work the night shift and only have access to drip; or you want to save money by making coffee at home instead of buying lattes; because you’re curious; or maybe you want to seem more sophisticated when your friends offer you coffee after dinner parties. But I’ll warn you: beginning to drink your coffee black may just inspire a passion for coffee you never knew you had.
Here are our tips on how to enjoy black coffee.
Buy Fresh Coffee— If you only change one thing about your coffee routine, buy fresh coffee! Coffee is a perishable good: it may not “go bad” in the traditional sense, but it will lose its flavor and, if it sits long enough, the oils on the beans will begin to taste like spoiled food. You’re missing out on the joys of black coffee if all you drink is old, stale beans. Fresh coffee is like buying fruit from the farmers’ market. And keeping it in the fridge won’t help you. Buy fresh, and keep in a cool, dry, airtight container out of the sun.
Buy Whole Beans, and Don’t Grind Until You Brew— Similar to the above, once the beans are ground, they lose their flavors much faster. Do yourself a solid by grinding before every brew.
Keep Your Tummy Happy— There are a lot of dubious myths around involving coffee acids and stomach aches or reflux, but in the end, you have to listen to your body. And if you’re concerned about a cup of black coffee upsetting your stomach, there are ameliorating factors: pick a roast with less acid (often lower-grown coffees, like Brazils and Sumatras, and medium-dark roasts), use a brew method that filters the grounds from your cup (french press is a no-no), and pair your coffee with food.
Wean Your Way Off Sugar Slowly— Coffee is a comfort food, and you don’t want to feel like you’re suffering through something for the sake of health or sophistication. Add just a little less sugar or cream every day, and ease into those stronger coffee flavors.
Try Lighter Roasts— No, it’s not what you grandparents drank, but light roasted single origins are all the rage these days, and many of them don’t have those strong, bitter flavors that “traditional” coffee is known for. Washed Yirgacheffes taste like black tea. Natural Ethiopians and Kenyas have tart, syrupy fruit flavors. Central Americans like Costa Ricans and Guatemalans often have soft, mellow fruit and floral notes. A Panama Geisha is the ultimate splurge of specialty coffee, and no one would ever mistake it for a dark, diner brew.
Try Japanese Cold Brew— Lighter roasts that have been brewed in the Japanese style taste light and crisp, very much like iced tea. Check our our method for great cold brew HERE.
Keep a Journal— Keep track of what you drink, what you like, and what you don’t. Make up your own rating system! In addition to helping you remember your preferences, there’s a whole world of coffee enthusiasts, groups, and message boards out there for folks who like to try new coffees and share their opinions.
Make It Your Morning Ritual and Special Treat— Great coffee is a little gift you can give yourself every day. Invest in the best gear you can afford, and buy the best, freshest coffee you can find (like ours!).
So, why not spend a little time with black coffee? When you taste unadorned fresh black coffee, the cup opens up to you, reveals itself as a little slice of time and place. Each little bean: grown, harvested, processed, sourced, lovingly-roasted, all to end up with you, in your kitchen, dripping through your brewer, smelling so good… talk about an everyday luxury!
Ready to take the plunge? Our favorite products for burgeoning coffee tasters (and yes, we ship within 48 hours of roasting):
Our World Coffee Tour — A seasonal selection of 16 different roasts from coffee-growing regions all over the world.
A Bean Box Subscription — A monthly, hand-picked selection (by us!) from Seattle’s independent coffee scene. We work with more than 23 local roasters, so the variety can’t be beat. And, as a bonus: if you ever decide to visit Seattle, you’ll already know which cafes to visit. Score.
Happy Coffee Tasting,