From bean to cup
OK ! so you are wondering, how does this cherry become a wonderful drink, what’s the process and as we’ve got this coffee connection going I thought that I’d outline a typical arabica’s journey from fruit to drink. Coffee begins as a cherry fruit, ideally grown in high altitudes on volcanic soil and on slopes. It is picked of the trees very carefully because red ripe cherries can grow alongside unripe green ones. The ripe cherries are placed on a special basket that determines the weight and this incidentally is how some cherry pickers are paid. After that the cherries are sorted out and then go through a drying out phase.
We have dry processing, more common in Africa, Asia and in Yemen, whereby the beans are laid flat on a special drying mat, turned over many times a day to dry naturally in the sun for about 3 weeks, after which the husks are removed and beans sorted. with this method, the bean keeps much of the body and earthy flavours as well as fruitiness, however this can tend to be dirty if not done properly. With wet processing, more common in Central and South America, the bean is washed in lots of water to soften the outer skins and then run through a pulping machine to remove the skins and fruit. With this method, the bean might taste better and will be cleaner but might loose some of it’s more distinctive “earthy” tastes. In the end it comes down to a matter of taste and some experts prefer to mix clean washed coffees with natural dried coffees to get a blend of exotic and clean sweet tastes. The purpose of this stage is to reduce the moisture – you are basically trying to get rid of the flesh of the cherry until it reduces to almost a bean. In any case, whether the bean dries naturally or is wet processed, the beans have to be washed to get rid of any unwanted fruit – this eventually leads to the “green” bean which are then sorted and graded – bad beans are discarded and good beans tend to be uniformed in colour and shape. Top exporting countries take the sorting and grading process very seriously as this is where you earn and maintain your reputation. The green beans are then packed into brown sacks and shipped across the world. On arrival the green beans are sent to specialist roasters and sometimes you might see some specialist shops just selling green beans or for decoration.
The next process is the most crucial as the coffee has to be made for consumption – this is the roasting process. The roaster or person who roasts the bean is a very specialized profession and a slight mistake can ruin a coffee roasting company. Master roasters have been doing this for many years and just know how each type of bean should be roasted to get the best flavour. Basically each green bean is different and can contain up to 2,000 types of tastes – as the bean is roasted it goes through many transformations and chemical processes. An expert roaster will know how a particular bean should be roasted in order to get the best taste. To make you more confused, there are many types of roasting methods and different types of roasts, each with its own advantage and disadvantage, but again it depends on the experts and the type of coffee you buy and on how you want to drink it. Naturally there is controversy.
In summary, the darker the roast, the more you lower acidity but the more you loose out on the best tastes in the coffee – now remember that high acidity in coffee is what experts like. Acidity in coffee doesn’t mean you get heartburn as these acids are the good ones. Darker roasts also tend to be more oily and sweet as the sugars from the bean become caramelized.
In America, darker roasts seem to be in vogue, especially with the majors like Starbucks – darker roasts are complementary with milk based drinks, like caffe lattes. However, some experts believe that darker roasts make you loose the best tastes in coffee. From a marketing point of view, it has been suggested that darker roasts are easier and don’t require too specialist a hand in roasting, but also they conjure the image that the coffee is strong and only for the brave – now who doesn’t want to tell people that they only like strong coffee, despite it being filled with 60% to 70 % of hot milk. Outside America, darker roasts are favoured in southern Italy and France. You can tell a proper darker roasted coffee by the present of oils on the beans. In any case, for some beans, you may be able to get a better taste when it is roasted more darkly. Some connoisseurs however prefer medium roasts as they maintain acidity and still let you taste all the wonderful tones in the coffee. For espresso lovers, you may not get that dark reddish crema, but you will still get crema with a a wonderful taste lining your mouth. Medium to dark roasts are popular in northern Italy and by followers of the espresso expert, David Schomer of Espresso Vivace, Seattle.
We can even go further to what is called a cinnamon roast, favoured in some parts of America. This roast is much lighter and of course those who favour this type of roast stress that coffee roasted like this brings out the more delicate tones of the coffee. In the end, if you are lucky enough to live in a city where you can get different types of roasts of different types of beans from across the world then experiment and choose the best for your palate and type of coffee. When it comes to blending different types of coffee, there can be more confusion. In America, it is not unusual to find blenders mixing coffees from across the continents – Ethiopian with Costa Rican, etc, but in Europe, excluding Italy, artisan roasters prefer not to mix coffees from different continents, so Costa Rican coffee may be mixed with Brazilian, but not with Ethiopian. However, you may find that the major coffee chains in Europe blend coffees from around the globe. The best blends I have tasted have followed the rule of not blending outside the continent but I am just at the beginning and still discovering the world of coffee, blending, etc. Again, I encourage experimentation, which I tried once with Costa Rican Tarrazu and Brazilian Mogiana – lots of crema and a rich taste. If you do try blending, make sure you try and use equal proportions of the coffee you want to blend – this is best done by weighing the beans equally. Some other expert blenders now mix Arabica with robusta beans – the reason ? Robusta can produce more crema but of course it is bitter, however, it will look good. Most specialist roasters and coffee shops have their own blends for sale, which are often used by the cafes they supply. For example, Flat White in Berwick Street, London uses the espresso blend from Monmouth Coffee Roasters in Convent Garden. Also, some blends are good for espresso only drinks and some are better for milk based drinks. Whenever I buy different blends, I always try it with different concoctions and often find some good for espresso only and some for filter and some good for cappuccinos only. Recently, I tried two blends from a specialist roaster in Vienna and the blend for milk based drink tasted bitter for an espresso, but when I had it as a cappuccino, it was sweet (no sugar added of course) – this was strange for me. I encourage experimentation until you get what is best for you.