This is the revised and corrected version of an article with the same title originally published in our winter 2013 issue. The original text can be seen in our print version, which you can check out here.
Photo by Ciera Battleson, illustrations by Samantha Schuyler
Sometimes you want a cup of coffee for the jolt. You have an early class, or a redeye flight or your body has long since forgotten how to make it over the existential speed bump that is waking up. Regardless, coffee has its pure utility.
Then again, sometimes you want coffee like you want a piece of cheese. You do not need cheese. Your doctor has even said maybe you should lay off the cheese. But the thought of its aroma, its texture and its taste has you standing rapt in front of Trader Joes’ cheese refrigerator with sparkly, wistful eyes. So coffee can be a sensory experience, too.
The sheer number of options you have under each umbrella—utility or pleasure—is overwhelming. Dark roast? Espresso? What is an Aeropress and does it have to do with space? Because it sounds like space.
We know. We at The Fine Print are sympathetic. Here, let me take your hand. We might not be experts, but we can give you some basic information to get you going.
What is coffee?
Dumb question, I know. You and I have a basic understanding of what coffee is, and with 83 percent of Americans saying they drink coffee, it’s safe to assume most other people do, too.
But let’s back up. Before your coffee was a liquid–or even brown–it was a bean.
And “coffee bean” is a misnomer. The dark, hard kernel we associate with coffee isn’t actually a bean at all. It’s the seed of a fruit.
Yep! Coffee comes from a fruit. A berry, actually. Its skin is firm and red when ripe, much like a cherry (which is its nickname among many coffee professionals). It tastes like watermelon, rosewater and hibiscus.
And it hangs from a tree or small shrub which. When it flowers, it smells like sweet jasmine.
We consume two species of Coffea: Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta. There are also plenty of subspecies, but those two are the big guys. Both flourish in the “coffee belt,” or land located between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer.
Coffee requires cool nights, warm days and predictable rainfall, said Anthony Rue, owner of Volta Coffee and regular judge at the World Barista Championship. That’s why coffee growers cluster around the equator, basking in the ideal growing conditions.
So what’s the complexity?
Good coffee can come from anywhere. Bad coffee can come from anywhere. The only sure way to produce good coffee is to do it right, Rue said.
Every detail in making a cup of coffee contributes to its final flavor. This applies as much to the stuff you get at a gas station as what you pay top dollar for. The spectrum of outcomes is also vast. The Specialty Coffee Association of America even developed a flavor wheel to help people describe the different tastes that coffee can have, good or bad.
We can break what makes coffee taste the way it does into steps: growing, roasting and brewing.
Coffee is a relatively hardy plant. Of course, it takes precise conditions for it to flourish and yield regularly, but it can withstand nature. The caffeine we consume for energy the plant uses as a natural repellant. It fends off bacteria and fungi, and when it seeps into the ground wards off weeds, too. But it takes precise conditions for coffee to flourish and yield regularly.
Although hardy, coffee is also fickle. Any number of environmental conditions will contribute to the final flavor. And each subspecies of Coffea produces its best flavor under very different conditions, Rue said.
For example, a variety called SL28 is one of the few that can utilize Kenya’s phosphate-heavy soil, Rue said. It turns the phosphates into phosphoric acid, giving the coffee a unique flavor.
“There’s a matrix of conditions that allows coffee to taste like that,” Rue said, “that you can’t reproduce anywhere else.”
Soil, weather conditions or harvesting processes will alter the flavor of the coffee, even before it’s roasted and brewed. The best coffee is from berries picked at their ripest, when they’re a rich red color. The seeds from green berries taste like a green orange: astringent and bitter, Rue said.
And from the moment the berry is picked, Rue said, a clock starts ticking. You have a five-to-eight-hour window to get the seeds washed and removed before the fruit starts to rot, damaging the seeds.
Most places use water and sluices to gradually remove the hard skin of the fruit. But some places like Ethiopia and Sumatra don’t have access to water. Instead, farmers let the berries dry in the sun until they wrinkle up like raisins. Then hundreds of women remove the berry skins by hand. As the berry dries in the sun, it traps the sweetness and acidity that come from the sugars and alcohols into the seed. This method, called the natural process, can create wildly fruity flavors.
“Natural dried coffees have crazy, over-the-top fruity flavors,” Rue said. “Sometimes you’ll get coffee from Ethiopia that will taste like blueberry cereal milk.”
But naturally dried coffee doesn’t always taste good. Rue said he tried some that tasted like the bottom of a compost bucket or rotting fruit. It all depends if the coffee was grown in the right conditions.
The coffee you get at gas stations or Dunkin’ Donuts for cheap is not meticulously grown and harvested. Rue said there’s an essential split in the coffee world between commodity and speciality coffee. Most of the coffee you buy and drink is commodity coffee. They take whatever falls from the trees as berries. The cheaper the coffee, the more likely you’ll have a mixture of green and red berries, he said.
Speciality coffee is usually more costly, often four or five dollars over the commodity price per pound. But the outcome is usually more complex, Rue said. Not only that, farmers usually pay their workers more to do things like pick the correct color berry or remove the fruit by hand. It’s not always the case, but the incentive to make more nuanced and flavorful coffee means workers have to have more particular jobs, resulting in higher pay.
The sheer number of roasts a coffee-drinker can have is pretty overwhelming. Dark roast, light roast, full roast, slow roast–so many names. But should you favor one type of roast?
Probably not, Rue said. Roasts aren’t going to yield the same flavor for every type of coffee. You can’t rely on a roast to provide a certain type of flavor.
Roasting is simply drawing the sugars and protein out of the starches of the seed. Those two things help provide flavor to the coffee. Playing around with the amounts of each by how long you roast the seeds makes each coffee taste different.
It’s also hard to classify roasting techniques into a few names. Coffee providers have different techniques for handling their particular type of coffee. Some roast the beans at the same temperature from start to finish; some amp up the heat in the last thirty seconds; some keep the temperature purposefully low and roast the beans for a long time. But here are some names you’ve probably seen when shopping around.
Dark roasts are best for masking any inconsistency or fault in the flavor, Rue said. Starbucks, for instance, has to have a consistent coffee flavor, although it takes coffee from a large number of places. To standardize the taste, it roasts it as much as possible.
Coffee becomes edible once it is hot enough to go through what is called “first crack.” This is when the seed pops like a popcorn kernel, releasing water vapor and becoming water soluble. During dark roast the seed goes through “second crack,” this time releasing its oil from the seed and creating a new taste for the coffee.
This is the standard roasting style. Most places like Dunkin’ Donuts will provide a medium roast. Rue said it’s less finicky than the light roast, but not as cooked off as the dark roast. It’s standard, run-of-the-mill, tried and true.
Light roast is easy to screw up, Rue said. But it’s also the most rewarding. While dark roast is best for keeping coffee tasting similar, roasting lightly brings out what is unique in the coffee bean. By applying less heat, the beans retain the natural oils and acids that are different in each type of coffee, which, when done correctly, can translate into a very complex flavor.
Notes on Single Origin
Like a lot of pithy, marketable phrases, “single origin” coffee should be taken with a grain of salt. The concept of single origin coffee originated about four years ago at barista competitions, Rue said. As coffee farms improved their wares, people wanted a way to show off the goods of an individual farmer.
Soon it became its own category. Coffee can be a blend, coming from many regions, or single origin, coming from one. Sometimes single origin means it comes from a single farm. Micro-lot coffees can come from a particular field on a specific farm in a certain region.
Single origin doesn’t necessarily mean better or healthier coffee, Rue said. And companies like Starbucks who sell single origin Ethiopian coffee are missing the point.
You can of course have, say, Guatemalan coffee, Rue said. But with 30 growing regions within the country, single origin Guatemalan coffee doesn’t make a lot of sense.