When we drink our morning cup of coffee it is not necessary to know that the beans used in your brew have travelled from remote mountains, passing through exotic ports, before finally leaving a brown ring on your newspaper. They move through many lands and many hands and are subjected to various processes until they are transformed from the seeds of a cherry-like fruit into the delicious beverage we all love.
The roastmaster concerns himself primarily with the intermediate steps in this journey, the selection and acquiring of green coffees, the roasting of the beans and the blending process. Part 1 of this article will deal with green beans, Part 2, roasting and blending, will follow later. This will be an overview intended as general information for the coffee novice.
There is an incredible variety of coffees grown in the world. Originally native to the highlands of Ethiopia, coffee has spread, with the help of man, until it is now grown in almost every area of the globe that has a favourable climate. The better coffees usually come from high in mountainous areas and are hand picked, making coffee production very labour intensive. Each growing region produces a variety of coffees each with their own tastes. Different varietals, different processing methods and even which specific farm the coffee is from can make it unique from others.
In general coffees from Central America are bright and lively. Those from Africa range from floral and light to heavy and winy. Indonesian coffees are usually heavy bodied and rich. (These are very simple descriptions of complex tastes, details of individual coffees will follow in later articles and will be discussed in other columns).
As coffee is grown in a cherry or fruit it has to be processed and dried before shipping. This processing of the coffee beans has a great influence on the final taste. Traditional ‘natural’ coffees are simply dried in the cherry, pounded with a stick or pestle to free the beans from the hull and sorted by hand. Natural coffees often are sweet and not acidic. They can be complex and fruity with intense, full flavour. As this process can be done by very small producers with little or no equipment, the results may be inconsistent or the beans might have ferment or spoilage from poor handling. Good, old fashioned, natural coffees are some of the best in the world but they can be rare.
Semi washed or ‘aqua pulped’ coffees have the fruit first removed then the beans are washed and dried. This is a common method for Sumatran coffees, it requires only a simple wooden machine to pulp the cherries and this process can be done in remote villages by small producers. Coffee produced this way can have earthy or musty off-tastes if it is not properly done.
Modern coffees are for the most part ‘washed’. The pulp is removed, the beans are fermented for a short period, and then are washed and dried (actually a much more complex and careful process than my brief description indicates). This usually involves farmers bringing their coffee to a central area where it is then processed. Washing coffee involves considerable equipment and expertise. The coffees tend to be bright or acidic and clean tasting.
Some of the best coffees are in great demand. The roastmaster has to find a variety of beans that are of suitable quality, acceptable price, and available supply. This is one of the most demanding tasks but can also lead to great excitement when an exceptional and unusual offering is discovered. Very few small coffee roasters purchase beans directly from producers and when they do it is usually the result of personal relationships developed over a period of time. Often the road from producer to roaster is a long one involving many middlemen and thousands of miles of transport. Most coffee beans are bought from brokers or merchants who specialise in coffee. They select and purchase beans and then re-sell them, often building a reputation and business relationships with many large and small roasting houses.
The roaster receives samples of coffee beans from his suppliers and this is where things get really fun. The sample is roasted and ‘cupped’ or tasted to assess its qualities. It is an exercise that is crucial to the roaster, the source of excitement or disappointment. For some reason it seems to be one of the most difficult tasks to get done. We often have dozens of samples that they have not ‘cupped’ yet. Cupping is best done in the morning before the taste buds are jaded by that caesar salad for lunch. It demands careful thought and concentration, not just a quick ‘coffee break’, only a few samples can be cupped each sitting and it is not a job to be done when tired or distracted but in a small business it is the usual state of affairs to be busy, tired, and distracted.
After making the decisions on which beans to buy it is still necessary to, at some later date, unload the truck ( the bags can weigh up to 150 lbs. each) and put away the stock. Time to rest the aching back from dragging bags of coffee into every available corner, pull a shot of espresso, take a seat on a coffee bag, and have a break - until we continue in part 2 with roasting and blending.