The Complexity of Coffee
There are many species of Coffea, the botanical name for the genus, but only two matter to the coffee drinker: Coffea arabica, which prefers high elevations and a cool climate and yields the beans for the world’s best coffees, and Coffea canephora, commonly known as robusta, which grows in lower spots and in warmer weather. It is more disease-resistant than the finicky arabica.
But, there is a trade-off. Compared to arabica, robusta beans produce thin coffees lacking acidity, complexity and flavor. The mass-market coffee blenders use mostly robusta for their canned and instant coffee brands, which compete largely on price. Specialty coffee—the rich, aromatic cup brewed at high-end coffee stores and in fine restaurants—depends on arabica.
Coffee matures slowly at high elevations, producing a harder, denser bean with more flavor potential. High-elevation coffees also tend to have brisk acidity when brewed, whereas coffee from beans grown at lower elevations tends to be softer, without that bright acid backbone. But, there are exceptions. Authentic Kona coffee from Hawaii grows at relatively low elevations but still delivers a compelling cup.
Geography as Destiny: Coffee by Country
Just like wine, coffee reflects the place where it is grown. Some people call that “terroir,” (from the word terre, meaning “land”) the notion that everything about the environment—sun, soil, wind, temperature, rainfall, altitude—affects the flavor in the cup. To a connoisseur, coffee-producing countries have distinct flavor signatures, although the processing method can have a huge impact, too. And, of course, many coffees depend on beans from multiple sources, even multiple continents, combined to achieve a house style or a harmonious blend.
Now that many specialty coffee suppliers and shops sell beans identified by country of origin, it is helpful to know what to expect from beans from different parts of the world.
n Latin America: At least 17 different Latin American nations grow coffee, from the highlands of southern Mexico, through Central America, to the South American countries of Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. And, do not forget the Caribbean, home of the famous Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee, among many others.
All together, these Latin American countries grow most of the world’s specialty coffees. Latin American coffees are generally regarded as “lively” because of their bold acidity. Many exhibit aromas of cocoa or nuts. But, altitude also makes a big difference. The high-grown coffees of Guatemala—some of the world’s finest—will be more acidic than the rounder, sweeter Brazilian coffees, which are lower grown. But, “acidic” is no flaw. In the coffee world, it is a positive term for that pleasurable briskness people want from a brew.
In Africa/Arabia: Yemen, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Rwanda—coffee thrives in the mountain ranges that link these countries, yielding some of the world’s more intriguing brews. African coffees often show floral or citrus notes; Arabian brews tend to be more winey and berry-like. Kenya is famous for coffee with vigorous acidity and berry tones; Ethiopia for highly perfumed coffee with plentiful floral and citrus scents. Coffees from Yemen, sometimes known as Mocha, are often particularly winey. (Although mocha has come to mean a coffee-and-chocolate drink, the original meaning comes from the port of Mocha, departure point for Yemen’s coffee.)
In Asia/Pacific: This category embraces coffees from Indonesia (which includes Sumatra, Sulawesi and Java), Hawaii and Papua New Guinea. Sumatran coffee has a velvety body and complex character, while Hawaii’s renowned Kona coffee is medium-bodied, with a spicy aroma and a varied acid profile. From Java, one can expect a relatively light-bodied brew with restrained acidity.
Coffee companies blend beans from different origins to take advantage of the best features of each and to create a complex, multi-faceted cup. The skilled artisans who practice this craft might blend an acidy coffee, like high-grown Costa Rican, with a sweeter style, like Brazilian Santos. They might add Ethiopian beans to fill out the aroma, or Sumatran Mandheling for depth.
Growing Practices: Good and Bad
Coffee can be grown in ways that hurt the environment or help it—and in ways that hurt communities or help them. In recent years, conscientious people in the coffee industry and beyond have tried to develop ways to identify and reward good practices in coffee-producing countries. Three of these practices are Fair Trade, shade-grown and organic.
The purpose of Fair Trade certification is to help lift coffee growers out of poverty; to improve their working conditions; and to encourage environmentally sound farming. Farmer co-ops are guaranteed a good minimum price for their coffee, with premiums for organic product. A third-party certifier verifies that the co-op operates democratically; provides safe conditions for workers; farms in a responsible manner; and invests in the community. However, Fair Trade certification indicates nothing about coffee quality.
As for shade-grown, in most locations, coffee trees prefer a shady habitat with only a couple of hours of direct sun each day. They do well in filtered light, as part of the lush understory beneath taller native trees and plants. Coffee trees have evolved to thrive in that ecosystem, fertilized by decomposing forest litter and protected from insects by natural predators. Shade-grown coffee needs few chemical inputs.
In the early 1970s, plant researchers introduced new coffee hybrids that tolerate sun and produce higher yields. Hoping for more profit, many growers made the switch. They cut down forests, destroying habitats for birds and other wildlife, and planted the new sun-lovers. Their yields went up, but so did their use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Organizations promoting shade-grown coffee are trying to preserve wildlife habitats and minimize chemical use in coffee farming. It is important to know, however, that in some particularly rainy locations, coffee trees do better in sun. Grown in shade, they would be more disease-prone.
Lastly, certified-organic coffee is available for those who are concerned about the health and environmental impact of chemical use. These coffees tend to fetch a premium—because of the costs involved in certification and in rewarding farmers for the extra effort involved.
The Art of Roasting
In the world of specialty coffee, the person who transforms green coffee beans into roasted beans has a huge impact on the eventual brew. The smoky aromas and bittersweet flavors that make coffee so alluring do not emerge until beans are roasted.
Working with the same beans, two roasters can produce remarkably dissimilar results. And, the outcomes may be equally good, just stylistically different. Like a chef, an expert roaster applies both art and science to the job.
With modern roasting equipment, the roaster can control the temperature and air velocity in the roasting chamber, a rotating drum that keeps the beans constantly moving. The trick is in knowing how long to roast and how hot.
Although many consumers believe dark roasts are superior, that is not necessarily so. Many connoisseurs prefer a medium roast, because it does not obscure the signature of the beans’ birthplace. It is entirely a matter of taste. Try beans roasted to varying degrees to gauge individual preferences.
Light roasts are used mostly for supermarket canned coffee. Light-roasted beans retain moisture, so they are heavier and thus more profitable. Medium roast, sometimes known as “full city roast,” applies to beans taken just to the point before they become oily. Viennese roast is a dark roast; French and Italian roasts even darker—with espresso roast the darkest of all. Note that dark roasts do not necessarily produce stronger coffee, as some people think. The proportion of beans to water, not the roast, determines how intense a brew will be.
Brewing Coffee: Best Practices
The best coffee beans can produce a lackluster cup, if the brewing method is sloppy. From the farmer to the processor to the importer to the roaster…many people have a hand in coffee’s long journey from farm to mug. Yet, an inattentive brewer can instantly sabotage all their work. Brewing good coffee is not difficult, but one must mind the details, which include the elements of cleanliness, freshness, proportion, grind and water.
Keep grinding and brewing equipment scrupulously clean. Ground coffee goes stale within hours, so clean a home coffee grinder after every use, to avoid imparting a stale taste to the next day’s brew.
Air is the enemy of coffee, so grind beans just before the brew. Protect beans and ground coffee from exposure to light, heat, moisture and other strong aromas (like that stinky cheese in the fridge). Do not hold brewed coffee on a warmer; if one must hold it, pour it into a preheated carafe.
Many people do not use enough ground coffee to produce a rich, strong beverage. Use at least two level tablespoons for each 5- to 6-oz cup. (Most coffee mugs are larger than that, so adjust accordingly.) Those who intend to add milk should brew the coffee even stronger.
Use the right grind to suit the equipment. Rule of thumb: The shorter the contact between ground coffee and water, the finer the grind. A coffee press calls for a medium-to-coarse grind because of the relatively long steeping time. Electric and manual drip models require a fine grind, with an even finer grind for espresso.
Coffee is 98% water, so water quality is critical. Start with cold, freshly drawn filtered or spring water, not chlorinated water straight from the tap. Ideal brewing temperature is around 200˚F, not right off the boil. Bring water to a boil, then let it rest for a minute or two. Never reboil water for coffee. pf