What's the difference between the best and the worst coffee in the world? It's not just that the best coffee is often served to you by someone with an attitude and a sweet vest.
In fact, there's real differences in the coffee itself -- and to figure out just what separates the cream from the commodity crop, we spoke with Clancy Rose of Wild Gift Coffee, one of our best new roasteries and second-place winner of the Roasters Choice Award at the 2015 US Coffee Championships. Read on to find out what it takes to make some of the best coffee in the world (and the worst).
The microclimate in which the beans are planted
Coffee comes in many shapes and sizes. Well, mostly just one shape, but different coffee varietals respond best to different microclimates. If you're planting Geisha (a rare, treasured coffee varietal) in an area that's not suited for it, it won't result in a very high-quality bean. The best farmers match the varietal to the setting.
The description of the coffee's flavor profile
What makes a coffee special is its uniqueness. Although specialty roasters tend to get a little bit silly with their tasting notes, if a company uses generic terms like "smooth" or "bold," it implies that they haven't taken the care to bring out the more subtle characteristics.
The amount of attention paid to the drying process
Once coffee has been picked, there's a few different ways to dry out the moisture inside the beans. Basically you either lay them out to dry for several weeks, or use an expensive mechanical dryer. The highest-quality beans are monitored to make sure they don't mold, whereas lower-quality beans are just left out in the sun unattended because the labor cost of tending to them isn't worth it.
How long it's been on the shelf
If your coffee shop is brewing local beans from a decent roaster, they're probably serving that coffee within a week to ensure that it's at the perfect level of freshness. That's just not the case with larger, lower-quality brands.
The amount of coffee the roasters are buying
There's a direct correlation between quality and quantity at the farm level. The highest-quality lots in the world are not available in quantities big enough for the largest roasters to use. Smaller companies can buy five to 10 bags of these and other highly rated coffees and do limited or smaller runs, but that much coffee isn't even going to make one batch of beans for the major roasters. Once a roaster reaches a certain size, their ability to source truly high-grade coffee diminishes greatly.
Whether the roasting process emphasizes desirable characteristics or hides defects
Any roaster can produce coffee that's roasty, ashy, and dark -- even the cheap stuff! It's a way to hide defects. Bringing out more-complex fruity or caramel flavors requires both high-quality beans and closer attention to detail.
Picking the coffee at the right time
Near the end of the harvest, coffee that isn't quite ripe is stripped from the trees to make way for the next year's crop. These beans are still usable, but far from ideal, and generally get lumped into a scary-bad category called "subgrade."
Whether the coffee has been water quenched
In extremely large-batch roasting machines, there's so much coffee cooking at once that you can't air-cool it; it needs to be hit with a quick squirt of water inside the roasting drum. There isn't great data on this, but many roasters believe that even though the water evaporates almost instantly, it decreases overall quality if water comes into contact with the beans.
Prioritization of quality or consistency
In order to scale as a roastery, you eventually have to sacrifice quality for consistency. When you're roasting 2 million pounds a week, it's hard to focus on the nuances.
Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's National Food and Drink team. He's totally okay with the fact that you're totally okay with drinking bad coffee. Really! Follow him to that's like, your opinion, man, at @Dannosphere.