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Many times we have heard the barista ask for “a strong coffee”.
But what is and what is meant by strong coffee?
It’s important that industry professionals (baristas, café owners and roasters) understand what people might want when they ask for something “strong”, for meeting their expectations. And, at the same time, they communicate effectively when a customer asks whether or not a coffee is strong.
Strong coffee: definitions from around the world
The idea of strong coffee is probably the most culturally communicated desire.
It seems to elicit a particular range of emotional response related to strength, aggression, or a “go get ’em attitude” in one way or another. That is, for many the idea of “strong coffee” is not really definable by physical characteristics of the coffee but really about how it makes them feel.
A long-lasting and intense flavour. A huge impact in your mouth in terms of aromas and flavours.
A full and rounded body. For the general public, a thicker body translates into a more intense drink.
Some people define strong coffee based on how bitter it is and the length of time that you steep it.
Others also associate strength with different drinks: a strong coffee is one that contains more caffeine than usual. Many believe a ristretto has more caffeine than a regular espresso when in fact the only difference between the two is the ratio of water.
Italians find bitterness to be more desirable in a cup of coffee and don’t look for acidity.
Brazilians expect coffee to be heavily roasted. Historically, most of the coffee available to people in Brazil was overroasted to disguise imperfections.
The fact of the matter is that the strong coffee is one of the most demanded things by coffee drinkers everywhere.
Actually, across the world there are different experiences and perceptions of “strong coffee” as well as many various definitions and interpretations of what constitutes a “strong coffee”.
Some people use the term to describe a concentrated beverage while others associate it with high caffeine content or a darker roast.
Strong coffee: high percentage of caffeine
If you measure the strength of coffee as the amount of caffeine in the cup, you will evaluate its ability to keep us awake and active longer thanks to the effect of caffeine, a stimulating substance of the central nervous system.
Especially out of Italy, many roasters advertise their product as “the strongest coffee in the world”, with names that recall death or with black packaging depicting skulls and danger signs.
These are products that are the result of careful marketing and coffee strategies that in terms of quality do not reflect the standards of a good cup.
A method to increase the caffeine in the cup is to simply use more coffee to begin with or in other words, just drink more coffee.
If what you are searching for is a faster immediate boost to your day, then we start looking at the quantity of caffeine consumed over time as related to the amount of liquid.
In example: brewed coffee vs espresso
Your brewed cup has more caffeine in it but you are going to take much longer to drink it than the espresso.
The end result is that when you drink espresso, you are consuming caffeine in a much shorter time period. The body processes it all sooner. So you end up with a quicker “kick”.
On the flip side, it will also subside faster because you have consumed far less caffeine overall.
In short, espresso gives you a faster kick, brewed gives you a longer boost.
Strong coffee: intense coffee
A rich coffee. Even if “rich” is a confusing little word used to describe a lot of different things, from dark roasts to a heavy body (also referred to as mouthfeel).
A coffee therefore, to be considered “strong”, must have intense aromas, not always (indeed almost never) pleasant and fine, but still perceptible even from a distance.
This is why some roasters use on their packaging and sites an evaluation with dots, squares or simply a number that highlights the degree of “intensity” of the coffee, which guide the choice of the average consumer. Even if they say very little to a coffee professional.
When tasted, however, the “strength of coffee” is often evaluated as the relationship between the body and the bitter note of the coffee. The more full-bodied and bitter very often equate to a stronger coffee in the consumer’s mind. This leads to a stronger coffee being considered a ristretto coffee (which also has a higher TDS).
Strong coffee: dark roasting
Dark is what many people say when they talk about strong coffee.
As for the roasting, a darker roasted coffee is considered stronger, due to the greater presence of bitter notes and the greater solubility that the dark roasting gives to the coffee bean, also increasing the intensity of the body of the coffee cup of but often not the tactile quality of the drink.
Dark roasting which, moreover, as often erroneously thought, does not affect the percentage of caffeine contained in the bean which remains more or less constant during the roasting process.
However, it’s difficult to come to an official definition of what a strong coffee is
It often depends on the consumer and their background.
In coffee industry circles, those who subscribe to the technically correct approach to all things coffee will talk about “strong coffee” as a myth or a fallacy.
It would be easy to follow this route simply because “strength” has a technical definition which has little bearing on the reality of people’s experience. That is, what all the other interpretations of strength in coffee refer to have merely a tertiary connection with the actual technical definition.
Strong coffee: technical definition
In technical terms, we could define the strength in coffee with the definition used by the SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) in its studies and in the training programs of the Coffee Skills Program: TDS (Total Dissolved Solids).
It is a measure of concentration and it reflects how much of the coffee has dissolved into the hot water in our cup. That is, what percentage of a cup of coffee is actual coffee and what is water.
The acceptable range of proper extraction in coffee should be 1.1-1.5% coffee and the rest water.
To be clear, with “extraction” we refer to the process of water dissolving and extracting solids from ground coffee (which results in your cup of coffee).
While this sounds more like a science lesson than brewing coffee, it’s important to understand it because extraction also affects the coffee’s flavor.
If the percentage of coffee dissolved in the cup is higher, we can speak of a “stronger” coffee.
If, on the other hand, the percentage of TDS is lower, we can speak of a “weaker” coffee.
On a technical level
The strength of a cup of coffee is measured not only when tasting but also, and above all, with an optical instrument called a refractometer which is used to measure the refractive index of the beverage sample that is placed on the glass, above of a light.
In order to be measured, the coffee sample must first be filtered with a paper filter to remove the coffee particles that pass through the small holes in the metal filters and remain suspended in the drink. These particles (Total Suspended Solids TSS) could in fact affect the result of the instrument.
As for espresso, the percentage of TDS is usually between 8% and 12%, while for a cup of filter coffee we are talking about a much lower percentage, between 1.2% and 1.5%.
It soon becomes clear that espresso can certainly be defined as a much stronger coffee than a filter coffee, but even an espresso with a TDS of 12% will be stronger than an espresso with 8% or 9%.
But is a higher percentage of solids dissolved in the drink always synonymous with the quality of the cup?
Certainly not, other calculations will measure whether the cup has had a correct extraction and above all it will be our palate to tell us whether this coffee is not only strong but also good, or at least pleasant.
But are we sure that when a consumer asks for a strong coffee that he is very clear about the concept of TDS?
This is usually not the case.
We often hear about “strong coffee” referring instead to the caffeine content and aromatic intensity combined with the amount of bitterness and the body of a cup.
While TDS does provide us with a measurable figure, individual perceptions of what “strength” is do differ from person to person.
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.
Speaking of quality coffee
we must pause a bit while smelling and tasting the espresso in order to recognize the thousands of facets that this can have, positively and negatively: trying to favor coffee with little bitterness and without negative aromatic scents, coffee naturally sweet and with interesting and complex aromas.