Strong Coffee – What Is It?

Do you desire strong coffee? Do you want the strongest coffee in the world? Do you think your coffee is weak?

The idea of strong coffee is probably the most culturally communicated desire. “How do you like your coffee?” “Strong, and black.” “I don’t care how you make the coffee as long as it’s strong!” And of course the bevy of businesses representing ‘the strongest coffee.’ It’s one of the most demanded things by coffee drinkers everywhere. Yet, there’s seemingly no consistent (or accurate) connection to reality when it comes to individuals knowing what ‘strong coffee’ really is.

In this article, I’m going to talk about the ideas and conceptions of what ‘strong coffee’ is perceived to be, how it’s marketed, and it’s technically correct definition. Most importantly I’m going to help you figure out what strong coffee means to YOU, and how you can get the most of what you desire from your coffee.

If you search online to learn about strong coffee, you’ll find many people discussing various interpretations. In the 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.

To be clear, the Specialty Coffee Association – which is the worldwide association that oversees the conventions of coffee (so we are all talking about the same thing) defines ‘strength’ in coffee as a factor of a cup of coffee’s total dissolved solids. 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).  ‘Extraction’ is referring to the process of water dissolving and extracting solids from ground coffee (which results in your cup of coffee).

Before we get into more ‘technically correct’ definitions of strong coffee, let’s look at what you may perceive the experience to be.  After all, more important than any technical definition is your perception and your desire.

I asked on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Readers via email for YOUR thoughts on what ‘Strong Coffee’ is and what it means to you.

There end up being three general categories of response. Strong coffee relates to the taste. Strong coffee relates to the caffeine. Strong coffee relates to both.

But more importantly than any of that, is that strong coffee 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.

 

 

 

So we end up with a variety of expectations of what ‘strong coffee’ is to coffee drinkers.

Strong coffee is high in caffeine.

Strong coffee is darker and ‘bolder’ (another trip word).

Strong coffee is a higher intensity of flavor.

Strong coffee gives you a bigger kick, a bigger reaction, it smacks you in the face..

Etc.

Regardless of the above perceptions, by and large people approach strong coffee by looking for roasted coffee which is ‘stronger.’  This is where the technical definition and reality do not meet. If strong coffee really is a factor of having greater % of coffee solids in your cup, then the roast or bean matters not at all. You would simply just brew with more coffee using the same amount of water, and BAM you’d have strong(er) coffee.

So people who want the strongest coffee in the world, why don’t you just eat roasted coffee beans? Think of the total solids you’d be consuming! 100%! How strong is that?

Oh, you want an actual cup of coffee?

Ok, let’s take a reasonable amount of water and create the ‘strongest’ coffee we can come up with. How about 1:1 coffee to water, and then we just put it in a blender? 50% coffee in this case – far less strength than eating the coffee, but hey you can drink it.

Oh, you don’t want the actual grinds and grit in your cup? You’d like to have something actually drinkable?  Well, now we are getting into the technical production of brewing coffee. There’s a reason the SCA has standards developed and a reason why the 1.1-1.5% range of total dissolved coffee solids exists. It’s because going above or below those numbers creates a cup of coffee which starts off at ‘just not tasting good’ to becoming unpalatable. Getting the best and most accurate taste out of coffee requires a certain delicate precision.

But that’s all about taste is it not?

What if strong coffee to you is coffee which just has more caffeine?  After all, maybe you want your coffee to ‘kick you in the ass’ in the morning?

Then you might take innovative approaches to brewing like ‘double batch brew’ – which will pull twice the caffeine out of your single brew! Right?

Little do you know, that most of the caffeine in coffee is extracted very quickly. Caffeine is tremendously water soluble and doesn’t require much heat or time in order to pull from your ground coffee beans.  Once you’ve done a singular brew of a batch of coffee, it’s likely you’ve pulled all the caffeine already.

There are only two ways to increase the caffeine in your cup of brewed coffee.

The first is to simply use more ground coffee to begin with. If 4 tablespoons of ground coffee gives you X caffeine, then 8 tablespoons of that same coffee will give you 2X caffeine.  Or in other words, just drink more coffee. Of course if you brew those 8 tablespoons with the same amount of water as you brewed with 4, you’ll end up with a cup of coffee that is far more concentrated, and dare I say it “stronger” than the previous cup (honestly though, that cup will be a disgusting assault on your taste buds – far better to just drink twice the amount of 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.

Don’t worry, this ends up being simple.  We look at Brewed coffee vs Espresso.  A 12 oz cup of brewed coffee may contain 200 mg of caffeine, while a 1 ounce cup of espresso may contain 45 mg of caffeine.  Yes, your brewed cup has more caffeine in it, but you are going to take much MUCH longer to drink it than the espresso.  You might drink the espresso in 5 seconds, or even as decadently long as 1 minute. But that brewed cup of coffee may take you 15 or 30 minutes to drink.

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 overall caffeine).

In short, espresso gives you a faster kick, brewed gives you a longer boost.

Of course, drinking a latte completely voids the caffeine benefit (in terms of volume) as a 12 ounce latte might contain 90 mg of caffeine (2 shots of espresso) while a 12 ounce brewed cup still gives you 200 mg.

You also need to consider how you individually react to caffeine, how much other things you’ve consumed at the same time, how much caffeine on a regular basis you consume (the body will acclimate to caffeine and it will become less effective over time). These factors I cannot write about, because I don’t know your biology.

The other way to get more caffeine in your brewed cup is to use roasted coffee which inherently contains more caffeine — let us not buy into the myth that lighter roasted coffee contains more caffeine than dark roasted. Yes, there are circumstances where this can be true, but on the average, there’s no definitive difference. The amount of coffee by mass that you use to brew is still the major factor, alongside the species itself.

In short, there are two major species of coffee we consume. Most of the time you are drinking Arabica coffee – this is because it is the best tasting (by far). The next most common species consumed is Robusta. Which usually does not have an enjoyable taste, but it’s a much hardier plant, easier and cheaper to grow, and it contains 2x the caffeine of Arabica. Roasters that sell coffee based on it being strong and in some cases ‘deadly’ are almost always using some amount of Robusta to increase the base amount of caffeine with which you brew.  But prepare to taste a range of dirt to rubber.

*Whew!*

Let’s regroup.

We can see from the coffee drinkers point of view that the idea of strong coffee is somewhat ephemeral.

It can be about the actual ‘strength’ of flavor (which relates most directly to the technical definition involving how much coffee solids end up in your cup).

It can be about the level of caffeine in your cup.

But most often, its an indescribable sense of how the coffee makes you feel – which often gets attributed to one of the above.

One of the biggest challenges from my perspective in helping you understand coffee and get deeper into its delicious mysteries is overcoming the habits and patterns you’ve developed and been taught by businesses which are just looking to sell their experiences. Coffee often gets misrepresented for the sake of selling an experience. There are many companies built upon coffee yet if you delve into what they are really about, it isn’t the coffee itself, it’s the feeling you get with that coffee, it’s the community, etc.

These aren’t bad things. In fact, these are great things. But often those experiences are built at the expense of coffee’s unique beauty (after all, getting into the taste and beauty of coffee itself is a fairly new market and experience, but that’s another conversation for another time).

Thanks to the proliferation of Deathwish Coffee over the past few years (especially after they won their Super Bowl ad spot), most coffee companies selling ‘strong’ coffee focus on caffeine levels in their roasted coffee. One of the amusing parts is that every one of these companies claims to have the strongest coffee in the world.

Let’s bring the picture all together now, and I’m going to attempt to help you figure out how to actually get what you desire when you want strong coffee – and do so in a way that shows coffee in it’s most proper light.

[Is strong coffee to you coffee which has a big strong taste in your cup?]

This can be due to:  tighter ratio / higher concentration of solids or over-extraction. The way to achieve this is to simply use more ground coffee in your brew for the same amount of water, or grind finer for your brewing method.

This can also be due to: physical presence of oils or other more glaring taste properties as a result of how the coffee is roasted. The way to achieve this is to brew with methods that don’t filter your coffee with paper (primarily, French Press). You can also achieve this by using much more darkly roasted coffee, which will expel more oils and result in a thicker cup even if it is paper filtered.

Arguably the ‘strongest’ cup of coffee would be a cup full of 100% undiluted high pressure brewed espresso. Normally this would be about 1 ounce of liquid, but if you did a 12 oz cup of espresso would probably have a least 600 mg of caffeine (at least 3x the normal brewed caffeine), and much much thicker body. Mostly the reason for this is that if you actually made 12 ounces of espresso, you’d be using about 200 grams of coffee, whereas a 12-ounce brew only needs 24 grams of coffee. Be noted, its difficult to directly compare espresso and brew, since they are prepared in such a different manner.

If you want a stronger tasting/feeling cup of coffee, but you also want it prepared well, go to a cafe and ask for a short americano. Or get more specific and ask for a 4-ounce americano / long black (depending on where you live – ‘long black’ is a drink term in Australia, and is essentially the same as an americano). This is espresso in hot water. You might think of it as diluted espresso, but taking 1-2 oz of espresso into 4 oz of water creates a delicious beverage that comes off like a brewed coffee that has a thicker body and stronger taste. If you get more than 4 ounces, you’ll just be diluting the effect (unless technically you double the espresso, but then things get messy, and we want to do this right).

[Is strong coffee to you coffee which has really high caffeine content?]

If you want to get a higher quantity of caffeine in a single brew, you may consider one of the brands that specialize in this. Their coffee is hyped up as strong and special, but all these brands are doing is mixing in Robusta. Robusta is the second most used species of coffee, behind Arabica. It has a much higher natural caffeine content, but doesn’t taste nearly as good as Arabica plants (most of the time, Robusta will come off tasting like rubber). The high caffeine brands blend Robusta and Arabica.

The irony is this used to be the standard practice, which is why 100% Arabica is still a marketing term floating around. Robusta was blended in because it’s much easier to grow, and thus far cheaper – but again, it usually tastes terrible (some limited exceptions can be found, but the price goes up).

[Is strong coffee just coffee that’s darker than darker, blacker than black?]

Get the darkest roast you can find, brew it in a French Press. Your perception of strong coffee may just be surrounding the image of black oily coffee. That’s totally fine. Most people grow up drinking this kind of coffee. Dark roast is easier to make and sell in the long term (so it was the norm until recently). On top of that, the French Press's full immersion and unfiltered nature will give you maximum coffee oils in your cup.

[Is strong coffee to you a bit indescribable, but a feeling possibly related to the specific coffee / roaster you buy?]

Your feeling of ‘strong coffee’ may be brand related, and not about the coffee itself. Consider one of the brands that are all about being hardcore with your coffee.

One last note. On the idea of ‘bold.’  I honestly can’t find one consistent interpretation of what bold actually means in coffee. The closest I can come to is that it refers to the feeling of taste. It doesn’t refer to the quality of taste. It doesn’t refer to the type of taste/flavor. It doesn’t even refer to ‘more’ flavor (mostly because much of the time I see something referred to as bold, it’s a coffee that has very little actual flavor). So if you are looking for something more “bold,” my best suggestion is to consider the part of the article related to stronger/more perceived taste.