To the discerning drinker, coffee offers as many opportunities as wine (and whiskey, and beer, and…) to lose one’s self in exploring the depth and breadth of its offerings, the study of its provenance, and the downright transcendental enjoyment of the best of it. This is precisely why we migrated to coffee from careers in wine (and whiskey, and beer, and…) and started roasting.
What follows is a brief introduction to the sweeter side of a beverage you may have — until now — taken for granted.
First thing’s first: Coffee is a fruit. It looks like a cherry and grows on trees in the tropics around the world. The pit of each cherry is what you and I recognize as two beans. When ripe, it is picked by hand — yielding an astonishingly small amount, about a pound per tree. (One wonders how we can get a cup of coffee for less than twenty bucks.) There are several types of coffee plants — primarily Arabica & Robusta — though Specialty coffee traders deal almost exclusively in the more complex and delicate Arabica varieties.
Though coffee trees can grow just about anywhere in the tropics, they only produce beans of the highest quality in very specific conditions. Just like wine, coffee has a terroir, a “somewhereness” or sense of place: altitude, sun exposure, rainfall, wind and soil composition all affect the harvest. Beyond that, farming inputs and processing methods (wet v. dry) affect the flavor profile — and let us of course not forget the roaster.
Wisconsin, as we are plainly aware, does not enjoy a tropical climate. So how does the green coffee find its way to your local roaster? The vast majority comes from small, dedicated, specialty-focused importers around the country; a tiny-but-growing amount is being sourced directly from the coffee farms and cooperatives by roasters interested in taking the concept of fair trade to the next level. In either case, the careful roaster makes purchasing decisions based on lots of “cupping” — a standardized method of critically and (we hope) objectively evaluating the flaws and attributes of a given coffee. Performance on the cupping table ultimately determines whether a given crop will make it into the shop.
There are over 1500 flavor & aroma compounds in a coffee bean available to the roaster to develop — or destroy — and there are as many roasting philosophies out there as there are people cooking beans. The current election season provides a convenient, if blunt parallel: there are two major parties, Dark Roast and Light Roast. You have your zealots in each camp, but the average Joe drinker honestly falls somewhere in the middle. Roasting coffee to the point which the sugars have been carbonized (dark) and the fats forced to the surface (shiny), yields a very consistently-flavored cup of coffee, albeit one dominated by “roasty” flavors, regardless of where it’s from. Light-roasting coffee makes for an incredibly bright & fruity — bordering on tart — cup that for better or worse lays bare the origin of the beans. With work, a roaster can find balance: Somewhere beyond tart is bright-yet-pleasing, juicy acidity; somewhere short of dark and oily is a sweet, rich, silky cup of coffee. Something that’s from somewhere, that is both interesting and delicious.
This ultra-simple explanation belies how elusive it can be to roast that balanced, nuanced cup. It happens fast — all told about fifteen minutes to bring room-temperature green coffee to well over 400F — and requires constant attention and input from the roaster. (Remember not to start a fire.) Give it a try! [Perhaps offer a link to sweetmarias.com, a site dedicated to home roasting with loads of good infomation.] Once the beans are roasted, it’s time to go back to the cupping table to check your work. How did it go?
Just as a winemaker can make broken wine from the finest grapes and an unskilled chef can ruin even the best ingredients, even a well-intentended pot of thoughtfully roasted coffee can produce a bitter or insipid cup; the work toward a sweet cup of coffee is far from over.
A few practical tips:
- Buy fresh coffee. It takes a day out of the roaster to fully develop in flavor but gradually fades after that. Store in a room-temp, air-tight container. No fridge, no freezer.
- Grind to order. Ideally, coffee is ground just before brewing. Invest in a burr grinder for a cool, even grind rather than one with blades that unevenly chops the coffee and creates unwanted heat.
- Use hot water. Around 200F (or just off a boil) is enough, but remember to never boil brewed coffee.
- Explore your method. The paper filters in drip or pour-over brewing captures any sediment and some of the fats in coffee, making for a lighter-bodied, crisper, “cleaner” cup which is more likely to accentuate bright acidity. A press pot leaves more oil and sediment in the cup for a fatter, “chewier” coffee. Espresso is another animal altogether, using pressure to transform the coffee oils into an intensely flavored foam called crema. With each brewing method, the key is balancing all the factors that affect extraction: grind (surface area) & throw weight (amount) of coffee, relative volume/weight of water, and time. A little experimenting goes a long way to finding the best recipe for you.
Empowered with a little information, perhaps your daily coffee ritual will be a bit less mundane, or — better yet — more sweet, interesting and delicious. Coffee shouldn’t hurt; we’re here to help.