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How to tell if your coffee is good or bad

How do you suss out a good cuppa? We find out from The New Black's director of coffee – and a former US Barista Champion – Bronwen Serna

Coffee flavours can depend on the season

'People don't realise that coffee is an agricultural product. It's a fruit. It has an expiration date; it's not going to last forever,' explains Bronwen Serna. 'Coffees have a wide range of flavours and one batch of beans isn't going to taste the same year after year.' Which is why it's not uncommon to hear your barista effuse like a geopolitical fortune teller, 'Colombia is having a great year!' 

Acidic-tasting brews aren't all bad 

Having been weaned on the sweet, rounded, robust flavours of kopitiam brews, tasting a cuppa percolated with beans from Sweden, Norway or Denmark might be an acquired taste for some. 'The Scandinavians like to roast light,' the barista explains how their preference for sour notes came about. 'It's a product of their culture and matches their taste preferences.' 

But bad coffee can taste astringent

That's the feeling when a sip grips you by the sides of your tongue. More signs of bad coffee: staleness, which Serna describes as coffee with a smell of rancid oil, and lacking in flavour and aromatics. 


Bronwen Serna

It's not all about the gear

'The most important thing is the grinder – it matters more than the machine,' says the pro. 'If they're grinding coffee to order, it's a good sign. As is matching the grind to the method. Most great specialty coffee shops use a different grinder for espresso and drip brews.' 

Latte art doesn't really matter

'To an extent, it shows that the barista takes care of the finished product. When you drink the coffee, you want it to taste good and have it be beautifully presented,' she says. 

There is no gold standard

Surprising, but true: 'Most baristas like nuanced, interesting coffees, while consumers still love their milk-based beverages. It about what you enjoy drinking.' 

The keys to a great cup: taste and talk 

Ask the barista where the beans are from and what their flavour profiles are. If they can answer these basic questions, you'll probably get a good cup, according to the American barista. 'What's great about Singaporeans is that they’re not afraid to try new things. So go to all the great cafés around town and ask the barista to help you taste different coffees,' she exhorts. 'If you have your coffee with milk, have it without milk. Be open!' 

Check out these coffee places

Nylon Coffee Roasters
1/8

Nylon Coffee Roasters

The Everton Park café pioneers, Dennis Tang and Lee Jia Min, are dead set on their mission to educate and power the barista – and office crowds alike – that pass through their tiny space. 'They do the best job of making Scandinavian-style roasts in town,' says Serna.

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Outram Park
Oriole Coffee + Bar
2/8

Oriole Coffee + Bar

Pouring at two outlets in the city – Capitol Piazza and Pan Pacific Serviced Suites by Somerset – this early advocate for Third Wave brewing in Singapore is Serna's favourite for a proper American-style batch filter brew. 

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Somerset
Common Man Coffee Roasters
Johan Lim
3/8

Common Man Coffee Roasters

Stellar coffees, sourced by Melbourne-based Five Senses Coffee and roasted in-house, are issued from behind the green granite bar. And those serious about really getting acquainted with their single-origins can sign up for free public coffee-cupping sessions, held every Wednesday from 2pm.

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Clarke Quay
Dutch Colony Coffee Co
Photo: Atan Chua
4/8

Dutch Colony Coffee Co

This east-side favourite is also one of Serna's top picks for its all-roundedness. In a wood-laden space on Frankel Avenue, speak to one of the knowledgeable baristas – Siraj Salim is this year's Singapore Aeropress champion – to sample beans percolated through different contraptions. 

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Kembangan
Good Morning Nanyang Coffee
5/8

Good Morning Nanyang Coffee

This chain serving kopi and ciabatta kaya toasts is Serna's pick for Singapore-inclined brews. 'I love the atmosphere, and they do a great job with local kopi. The pastries are also freaking tasty – try the orange cake.'

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Tanjong Pagar
A.R.C. Coffee
6/8

A.R.C. Coffee

This Kampong Glam standout is owned by an all-star team of local Latte Art, Brewers Cup and Barista champions, including three-time Singapore Barista champion, John Ryan Ting. The blends and single-origins served out of machines and filters are all roasted within its shophouse premises, so you can bet the coffee's fresh. 

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Bugis
The Populus Coffee and Food Co
7/8

The Populus Coffee and Food Co

Co-owned by local roasting outfit 2Degrees North Coffee Co and the coffee-serious crew behind defunct Department of Caffeine, this café offers three blends and a variety of single-origins in a wide range of espresso and filter brew styles. Serna also recommends the waffles – a throwback favourite from DoC. 

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Outram Park
Jewel Coffee
8/8

Jewel Coffee

Hit up the brew bar for a tasty blended or single-origin sip to conquer the post-lunch sleepies. Serna likes that Jewel's roaster, Shin Hao, has got his bean-cooking down to an art. 

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Downtown

Go now

The New Black

Coffee appreciation in the city reaches a zenith as The New Black charts a plan for office-crowd domination with its java-to-go concept. This spot is all about exposing the local drinker to new expressions of the roasted bean. While the idea of having guest roasts on rotation in a café’s hopper isn’t exactly fresh in Singapore – you’d need only to look at Drury Lane’s wall of empty coffee bags from the likes of Denmark’s Coffee Collective and Melbourne’s Proud Mary for evidence – The New Black rejects the idea of pushing its own house label on its masses.

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Clarke Quay

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