February 03, 2017

"Breaking Grounds" with Coffee Cuppings


What does "cupping" have to do with coffee?  If you do an Internet search for the term “cupping,” the top hits are for things that don’t have much to do with coffee. But once you make it past graphic tales of the traditional Chinese skin therapy (and the open letter to Michael Phelps to stop doing it), you’ll find our friends at the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) use “cupping” to describe standards and protocol for assessing coffee quality.

We often say in our shops that a customer’s impression of coffee quality depends on the customer’s preferences. So we try to figure out what kind of flavor profile a customer’s looking for based on six primary flavor categories (which correspond to the SCAA’s identification of over 100 particular flavors, as discussed in our last blog post).

But in choosing to source and roast varietals that bring out those flavor attributes, coffee professionals rely on cuppings to compare, evaluate, and rate different coffees by smell and by taste.  The higher the rating, the “better” the coffee in objective terms.  During each cupping, coffee importers and roasters follow a rigorous process that helps them focus on assessing various characteristics, such as fragrance, aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, and body. 

So what does the choreography of a cupping actually look like? It begins with freshly ground beans, sniffed for indications of “fragrance.” Water pours over the grounds, and the wet coffee is smelled again for “aroma.” At both junctures, the nose is looking for specific analogies, and trying to determine whether a coffee's presentation is pungent or muted.

Then, the tasting begins. The first slurp (yes, you must slurp!) should yield an evaluation of “flavor,” again by analogy. The focus progresses to “aftertaste,” which requires deliberation about how clean a cup of coffee is and how long the flavor lingers in the mouth.  Up next is “acidity,” which tasters might distinguish in terms of fruit such as orange or lemon (citric acid), or green apple or pear (malic acid). Finally "body,” also known as mouthfeel, is the concept for assessing how heavy or light a coffee tastes, similar to the way in which whole milk feels "heavier" than skim milk.

Coffee cuppings aren’t just for connoisseurs––anyone can participate! Our coffee educators regularly offer free cuppings that are open to the public so that customers can learn how to taste coffee and develop a flavor palate. Every Friday at 10:00 am, join us at our shop in Pentagon City––all you need to do is RSVP to hold your spot, and we’ll look forward to walking you through it!

RSVP by clicking here. Happy cupping!

January 26, 2017

New Bags Mapping Single-Origin Coffees

Next time you see our bags on the shelves, you might be surprised by the new look. The inspiration goes back to our mission of making outstanding specialty coffee more approachable.

We’ve been selling single origin varietals for years, and the question we keep getting from customers is “which one should I buy and why?” The answer depends on the customer. Even though every crop is different, single-origin coffees are generally prized because they consistently accentuate key flavor profiles. As coffee roasters, part of our job is to tailor the roasting process to bring out those flavor profiles in each coffee, and share them with customers in an easy-to-understand way.

It starts on the front end, when we host coffee “cuppings” (or tastings) to sample and untangle the precise bouquet of flavors that each coffee produces. That’s where our cupping experts come in, assessing each coffee’s numerous characteristics (e.g., “body,” “acidity,” “aftertaste”) across a wide spectrum of possible flavors. That flavor spectrum has been helpfully elaborated by the pros at the Specialty Coffee Association of America, who developed (and recently remodeled) a visually-striking Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel (based on work by World Coffee Research) to identify 116 flavor attributes of coffee––from spicy tastes like nutmeg, to sweet tastes like maple syrup, to fruity tastes like pear.

But even if we place our coffees on this spectrum with precision, at the end of the day we need to be able to quickly convey to our customers why they should care. Thus, the advent of Commonwealth Joe Coffee Roasters’ “Flavor Hexagon,” which simplifies the hundred-plus distinct flavor attributes of coffee into six primary categories, which also roughly correspond to roast level (dark to light): spicy, chocolatey, nutty, sweet, floral, and fruity.

On the back of each of our bags, the Flavor Hexagon is the key for mapping out the flavor attributes of a particular coffee:


The Flavor Hexagon also is at the core of our new logo, representing our commitment not only to the craft of coffee roasting, but to the art of explaining our coffees to customers in a way that makes sense.  Let us know if you want to take a deeper dive––we’re always happy to jump into the details!

November 09, 2016

Why Science Says Freshly Roasted Coffee Tastes Better

Freshness matters!

Everybody knows things are better fresh.  But why is coffee fresh off the roast any better than coffee that’s been sitting on the shelf for a few months at the gourmet grocery?  Why is it all that important to look at the “Roast Date” on bags of coffee you buy at retail stores?  What––scientifically––does “freshness” even mean in the coffee context?

To answer these questions, we need to dive deep into the chemistry of what happens to coffee beans as a result of roasting them at high temperatures.  As soon as you scorch raw coffee beans into the delicious brown roasts we know and love, the natural flavors, aromas, and soul of the coffee starts to degrade.  Essentially, the chemical structure of the beans changes, and after a time, they begin to lose desirable flavors and aromas, and accumulate undesirable flavors.

One big part of the deterioration process revolves around the build-up and release of carbon dioxide (which can create the beautiful “bloom” during brewing) and the exchange of certain sulfurous compounds (which contribute the exquisite natural flavors and aromas of certain Arabica coffees). Some of the most important compounds, such as sweet-smelling “aldehydes” and earthy “pyrazines,” evaporate very quickly upon contact with air––even before packaging, and even under low-oxygen conditions or inside vacuum-sealed bags.  The chemical structures within a raw coffee bean usually prevent this from happening, but subjecting the bean to high roasting temperatures sets a fuse on freshness.

It’s worth noting that physically breaking down the beans by grinding them, or adding a solvent like water, shortens that fuse even further. This explains why we always recommend freshly-roasted, freshly-ground, and freshly-brewed coffee as the ways to ward off the three corresponding enemies of coffee––heat, oxygen, and moisture.

Back to our gases and compounds.  As desirable flavors and aromas leave the coffee bean, their oxidation causes other unwelcome compounds to amass, contributing to staleness.  Humidity and exposure to oxygen can speed things up even further––something especially important for DC-area residents given the city’s swampy summers.

That said, even if it’s important to enjoy coffee soon after roasting, we don’t recommend brewing it the moment that it comes from the roaster.  There is a peak “resting time” following each varietal’s roasting before the coffee’s body and signature flavors tend to surface. The initial stress of roasting traps large amounts of carbon dioxide in the beans, which overwhelm the palate with unremarkable “toasted” flavors that drown out the nuances of the bean.  In other words, you don’t want coffee beans to deteriorate too much…but if you don’t let the deterioration process begin after roasting, you might just be tasting the burnt flavors from the roast itself.

At Commonwealth Joe, we bridge that gap by delivering coffee within 48 hours of roasting.  This way, our coffee has been allowed to rest after roasting, but can also be enjoyed before any of the deterioration processes make too much head way.  We’ve found it’s the best way to guarantee the richest flavors and aromas in every brew.


October 12, 2016

The Magic of Latte Art

It's espresso with a big dose of style.  But what’s the point of latte art?  Is it just for aesthetics, or is there something deeper that it adds to the third-wave specialty coffee experience?

Fine-tuning milk and coffee to form art on top of espresso really only emerged in the United States during the mid-1980s.  Latte art is the result of a barista pouring steamed milk from a pitcher into a shot of espresso, and creating intricate ribbon patterns in the foam atop lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, and other drinks. 

But, the words “latte” and “art” are both a bit deceptive.  The art doesn’t just appear on lattes, but can be applied to any coffee drink based on espresso and milk.  And as you'll see, it's as much an art as it is a science!

Visit our baristas at the Java Shack!

Part Art, Part Science – All Talent

Of course, a well-honed artistic impulse is critical to the success of a barista’s pour.  The central goal of the whole process is to create something expressive, beautiful, and fleeting.  Think Van Gogh, but in a coffee cup.

Pouring elegant latte art is a theatrical process that takes skill and a lot of practice.  A beautiful tulip, rosetta, or heart framed within a cup is a painting done specially for each customer.  The short-lived nature of the art bears analogy to sand mandalas or other ephemeral forms of expression.  Some have compared the tension behind the pour to the loading and unloading of a line in fly fishing, as the barista intently cradles a cup and manipulates the height, position, flow, and control of the pour to create a beautiful experience.  Latte “art critics” look to certain variables to judge a pour, such as the contrast of a design, its symmetry, and its central placement in a cup.

Chemically, what is happening is equally fascinating.  Latte art results from pouring steamed milk into the “crema” of an espresso, which is the emulsion of coffee oil and brewed coffee that forms a bold ring around the edges of a drink.  The real trick is in the steaming of the milk.  When milk is perfectly steamed to the right temperature and consistency, a dense, rich “microfoam” emerges on top of the milk that contains air but only the tiniest signs of bubbles, and the concoction looks so smooth that it actually shines and shimmers with the light.  The lactose and proteins in the milk are changing into different chemical structures, with the fat and sugars breaking down into simpler sugars that help the milk taste sweeter. 

Before you start to fantasize about latte art in your morning bowls of Cap’n Crunch, though, you should know that it takes a lot of skill to pour correctly.  To create a design on the top of a latte, the barista must pour in such a way as to get the milk in first, followed by the microfoam. Getting all the variables right, through a lot of hard work and talent, makes for a truly magical result.


The Sidekick to an Espresso’s Crema

OK, so latte art is part art, part science.  But does it have an effect on the taste of the drink?

It turns out it does.  When a barista creates latte art on a drink, the bold ring of crema at the top of the drink is intensely flavored – the microfoam forming the “art” on the drink is concentrated in the middle, pushing the strong-tasting espresso oils to the side.  After taking a look at the latte art, if you decide to drink it without mixing the drink, you’ll have a pungent first mouthful, and the rest of the drink might taste comparatively less flavorsome.  Some customers like their espresso this way.  Others prefer to stir the latte art to mix the crema into the drink, spreading the intense flavors throughout the cup and making the whole mixture a little stronger and richer.  This makes for a mellower start and a cleaner finish, at the expense of that signature bitterness that other customers look for in their drinks.  There’s a different “right way” for everyone, and each person’s way is dictated by their preferences.


Why We Love It

So why are we in favor of adding latte art to drinks as a general matter, besides the aesthetic appeal?  Because although the presence of latte art does not necessarily mean that you’re going to enjoy your drink, great latte art is the flourish that can signal that a shop cares about the coffee experience, and probably has put together the right raw ingredients for an outstanding drink. 

A lot of things have to come together.  A barista carefully grinds coffee beans, skillfully “tamps” down the ground coffee beans into an even “puck,” uses a precisely calibrated machine to “extract” the espresso under high pressure, obsessively monitors temperature and other variables throughout the process, expertly “textures” perfectly steamed milk into a cup, and works the milk and foam through the espresso.  Most of the magic is in the coffee itself, of course.  So, don’t skimp on that. We recommend a well-tailored, specialty-grade varietal, like our own Golden Horseshoe Espresso

If all these things come together, though, then latte art can be that last loving caress that makes you cry “La vita è bella!” 

And in the end, that’s what we really want coffee to be all about.  Passionate attention to detail, mingled with a few satisfying “oohs” and “ahs.”  That’s the #waytojoe.

September 12, 2016

Basic Coffee Roasting Mechanics for the Average Joe

Commonwealth Joe's state-of-the-art coffee roasting facility

Before coffee ever reaches your cup, its essence is locked away from the world - captive in a “green” coffee bean. The roasting process develops the bean’s flavors and coaxes a coffee to perfection, at temperatures of anywhere from 300 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

As the carbohydrates in the raw beans break down, hundreds of aromatic chemical compounds develop and the flavor profile of the coffee begins to emerge. Acids are broken down, adding texture and flavor to the cup. Fragrant oils and fats bloom to the bean’s surface, escaping through the bean’s weakened cell walls.

Coffee is often roasted in large, rotating drums that are set above a flame. Conduction and convection slowly add heat to ensure beans are evenly roasted. During the roast, beans go through a transformation, expanding to nearly double their original size. As heat increases, beans begin to change color, from green to yellow and then tan. Excess water in the beans cooks off, such that the beans’ moisture content of eight to fourteen percent drops to around two percent. Depending on the roast level, the color of the finished coffee beans can range anywhere from milk chocolate to charcoal.

Coffee beans exhibit two major reactions during the roast that can be identified by rapid popping sounds coming from within the roasting drum. “First crack” occurs at around 400 degrees Fahrenheit, when moisture within the beans reaches a boil and an audible “cracking” sound can be heard from within the roasting drum. The once “green beans” now have turned a light shade of brown, and entered the desirable range for specialty coffee.

Depending on the characteristics of the roast, the coffee beans may be allowed to reach “second crack,” which occurs at about 450 degrees Fahrenheit. At some point between first and second crack, chemical reactions that degrade amino acids, sugars, phenolic acids, and lipids result in hundreds of aromatic compounds forming the elixir that many people expect from their coffee.

At the desired temperature – which varies depending on the coffee varietal selected – the roaster will open the door of the roasting drum and drop the beans onto a cooling tray to dissipate heat and halt the process. It’s up to the roaster to keep a watchful eye, taking care that each coffee varietal isn’t roasted beyond its idiosyncratic limits.  In that sense, coffee roasting is as much an art as a science. On average, beans are roasted anywhere between 9 and 14 minutes, but even a slight variation in temperature and roasting time can radically alter the ultimate flavor profile of a batch of coffee beans.