EAT + DRINK
Is The Coffee The New WINE
Everyone recognizes a roasted coffee bean, but unless you have lived or traveled in a coffee-growing country, you might not recognize an actual coffee tree. Pruned short in cultivation, but capable of growing more than 30 feet high, a coffee tree is covered with dark-green, waxy leaves growing opposite each other in pairs. Coffee cherries grow along the tree’s branches. It takes nearly a year for a cherry to mature after the flowering of the fragrant, white blossoms. Because it grows in a continuous cycle, it is not unusual to see flowers, green fruit and ripe fruit simultaneously on a single tree. The trees can live as long as 20 to 30 years and are capable of growing in a wide range of climates, as long as there is no harsh fluctuation in temperature. Optimally, they prefer a rich soil and mild temperatures, with frequent rain and shaded sun.
In the commercial coffee industry, there are two important coffee species: Arabica and Canephora, more commonly called Robusta.
Coffea Arabica is descended from the original coffee trees discovered in Ethiopia. These trees produce a fine, mild, aromatic coffee and represent approximately 70 percent of the world’s coffee production. On the world market, Arabica coffees bring the highest prices. The better Arabicas are high-grown coffees, generally grown between 2,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level, though optimal altitude varies with proximity to the equator. The important factor is that temperatures must remain mild, neither too hot nor too cold, ideally between 59 and 75 degrees, with about 60 inches of rainfall a year. The trees are hearty but a heavy frost will kill them. Arabica trees are costly to cultivate because the terrain tends to be steep and difficult to access. Also, because the trees are more disease prone than Robusta, they require additional care and attention. Arabica trees are self-pollinating. The beans are flatter and more elongated than Robusta and lower in caffeine.
Most of the world’s Robusta is grown in Central and Western Africa, parts of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and Vietnam, and in Brazil. Production of Robusta is increasing, though it accounts for only about 30 percent of the world market. Genetically, Robusta carries fewer chromosomes than Arabica and the bean itself tends to be slightly rounder and smaller than an Arabica bean. The Robusta tree is heartier, more disease and parasite resistant, which makes it easier and cheaper to cultivate. It also has the advantage of being able to withstand warmer climates, preferring constant temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees, which enable it to grow at far lower altitudes than Arabica. It requires about 60 inches of rainfall a year and cannot withstand a frost. Compared with Arabica, Robusta beans produce a coffee which has a distinctive taste and about 50 to 60 percent more caffeine. Robusta is primarily used in blends and for instant coffees.
The “know your farmer” concept may soon apply to the folks growing your coffee, too.
Increasingly, specialty roasters are working directly with coffee growers around the world to produce coffees as varied in taste as wines.
Roasting is a heat process that turns coffee into the fragrant, dark brown beans with which we are most familiar. Before being roasted, the beans were stored green, a state in which they can be kept without loss of quality or taste. Once roasted, however, they should be used as quickly as possible before the fresh roast flavor begins to diminish.
Roasting is a technical skill which approaches an art form. It takes years of training to become an expert roaster with the ability to “read” the beans and make decisions with split-second timing. The difference between perfectly roasted coffee and a ruined batch can be a matter of seconds.
The process of roasting brings out the aroma and flavor that is locked inside the green coffee beans. A green bean has none of the characteristics of a roasted bean. It is soft and spongy to the bite and smells green, almost grassy. Roasting causes numerous chemical changes to take place as the beans are rapidly brought to very high temperatures. When they reach the peak of perfection, they are quickly cooled to stop the process. Roasted beans smell like coffee, and weigh less because the moisture has been roasted out. They are crunchy to the bite, ready to be ground and brewed.
Most roasters have specialized names for their favored roasts and there is very little industry standardization. This can cause a great deal of confusion for the buyer. But in general, roasts fall into one of four color categories—light, medium, medium-dark or dark. The perfect roast is a subjective choice that is sometimes determined by national preference or geographic location.
The RoastsWithin the four color categories, you are likely to find common roasts as listed below. There can be a world of difference between roasts!
Light brown in color. This roast is generally preferred for milder coffee varieties. There will be no oil on the surface of these beans, because they are not roasted long enough for the oils to break through to the surface.
Medium brown in color with a stronger flavor and a non-oily surface. This roast is often referred to as the American roast because it is generally preferred in the United States.
Rich, dark color with some oil on the surface and with a slight bittersweet aftertaste.
Shiny black beans with an oily surface and a pronounced bitterness. The darker the roast, the less acidity will be found in the coffee beverage. Dark roast coffees run from slightly dark to charred, and the names are often used interchangeably, which can be very confusing.
Storing Your Daily Coffee
It is important not to refrigerate or freeze your daily supply of coffee because contact with moisture will cause it to deteriorate. Instead, store coffee in air-tight glass or ceramic containers and keep it in a convenient, but dark and cool, location. Remember that a cabinet near the oven is often too warm, as is a cabinet on an outside wall of your kitchen if it receives heat from a strong afternoon or summer sun. The commercial coffee containers that you purchased your coffee in are generally not appropriate for long-term storage. Appropriate coffee storage canisters with an airtight seal are a worthwhile investment for the discriminating coffee drinker.