August 5, 2020

“Strong Coffee”: Definitions From Around The World

What is strong coffee? Some people use the term to describe a concentrated beverage, while others associate it with high caffeine content or a darker roast. 

There are many different definitions of what a “strong coffee” is around the world. It’s therefore important that café owners, baristas, and roasters understand what people might want when they ask for something strong.

To find out more about the different perceptions of strong coffee across the world, I reached out to a number of industry professionals for insight. Here’s what they had to say.

Lee este artículo en español “Café Fuerte”: Definiciones Alrededor Del Mundo

The Science Of Strength

The Specialty Coffee Association measures brew strength in terms of “total dissolved solids” (TDS). TDS is a measure of concentration; it reflects how much of the coffee has dissolved into the hot water in our cup. 

Ibrahim Saad is a Q grader for Torch Coffee Labs in Saudi Arabia. He tells me that regardless of the roast profile, “strength” can be measured through the quantity of dissolved solids left in a cup after extraction.

While TDS does provide us with a measurable figure, individual perceptions of what “strength” is do differ from person to person. Claudia Leite is Head of Shared Value Creation at Nespresso Brazil. She explains that when someone tastes something they perceive as being “strong”, it creates a lasting sensation in their mouth. 

This activates an olfactory memory – a memory of taste and smell – that perceives the stimulus as a “strong” flavour. To put it simply: when you taste something, your brain will reference this against previous tastes and flavours to determine whether or not you consider it to be strong.

You may also like Coffee 101: Extraction & The “Strong Coffee” Myth

How Do People Define Strong Coffee?

Claudia says that Brazilians expect coffee to be heavily roasted. Historically, she says, most of the coffee available to people in Brazil was overroasted to disguise imperfections. Claudia says that there is a belief that dark roasts are “stronger”, and that “many brands end up appropriating this cultural attribute to promote their products”. 

Kristiyana Ancheva, the owner of Zero Point Espresso Bar in Spain, says that when customers order a strong coffee, they want a beverage with a full and rounded body.

According to Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, a champion barista from Greece, a strong coffee should have a long-lasting and intense flavour. He adds: “For the general public, a thicker body translates into a more intense drink.”

Tommaso Bongini is a roaster for Gearbox Coffee, in Florence, Italy. He says: “Many people here associate strong coffee with a cup that has a huge impact in your mouth in terms of aromas and flavours, and not the caffeine content.” According to Tommaso, Italians find bitterness to be more desirable in a cup of coffee, and don’t look for acidity.

Fiqri Aunurofiq is a barista for Three Folks Coffee & Creamery in Indonesia. He says his customers consider a strong coffee to be “black, hot and bitter”.

Indonesian coffee shop owner Jaya Lim, however, refers to the caffeine content of the cup, saying that a “strong coffee makes my heart beat faster after a sip, like Vietnamese street coffee”.

Shaun Aupais is the founder of the Red Band Barista Academy in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He believes that, generally speaking, people define strong coffee based on “how bitter the coffee is, and the length of time that you steep it for”.

However, Shaun believes that it’s difficult to come to an official definition of what a strong coffee is. He says that it often depends on the drinker and their background.

Meeting Customer Expectations

Despite the SCA’s position – that strength is measured through TDS – it’s clear that the word “strong” means different things to different people.  Therefore, it’s important that café owners, baristas, and roasters communicate effectively when a customer or buyer asks whether or not a coffee is strong.

For example, Claudia explains that Nespresso doesn’t categorise coffees for consumers by strength. Instead, they separate coffees by using an “intensity” meter. According to Claudia, this is determined by three factors: “Roast degree, grinding size and persistence on the palate.” This, she says, helps customers to understand the coffee’s nuanced and complex qualities. 

“Many feel that the best coffee is the most intense.” Claudia says, but she disagrees with this. She believes there is a global perception that there should be a “direct relationship between the quality, flavour, and intensity of a coffee”, but personally believes that “each coffee is individual”.

Some people also associate strength with different drinks. Tommaso explains that most of his customers think a strong coffee is one that contains more caffeine than usual. He says that many of them believe a ristretto has more caffeine than a regular espresso, when the only difference between the two is the ratio of water.

The clearest definition of what a “strong” coffee is the one from the SCA: a cup with a high percentage of total dissolved solids. But when a customer asks for a strong coffee, their definition may very well not be the same as the barista’s.

What about you? Do you agree with the SCA definition? Or do you have your own understanding of what makes coffee strong?

Enjoyed this? Then read How to Meet The Needs of Today’s Coffee Shop Customer

Photo credits: Jubilee Roasting Co., Sebastian Coffee, Fazenda Barinas, Sérgio Parreiras Pereira

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