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Understanding coffee and coffee beans

There are two main species of coffee: robusta and arabica. The earthy robusta is the least expensive and least flavorful; it makes an ordinary and sometimes harsh-tasting cup of Joe and is rarely brewed on its own. Robusta plants grow in a wide range of conditions, but fuller-flavor arabica beans flourish only in mountainous tropical regions. Specialty coffees represent the top 5 percent of arabica beans. These are exceptional coffee beans with distinctive flavors, cultivated in just a few ideal regions (for which they are often named).

There are two main species of coffee: robusta and arabica. The earthy robusta is the least expensive and least flavorful; it makes an ordinary and sometimes harsh-tasting cup of Joe and is rarely brewed on its own. Robusta plants grow in a wide range of conditions, but fuller-flavor arabica beans flourish only in mountainous tropical regions. Specialty coffees represent the top 5 percent of arabica beans. These are exceptional coffee beans with distinctive flavors, cultivated in just a few ideal regions (for which they are often named). These include Guatemala, Jamaica, Indonesia, Kenya and Ethiopia.

When buying coffee, simply specifying “arabica” won’t guarantee you a decent brew, as there are vast differences in quality. Some brands use inferior beans, while others are blends with varying amounts of robusta added. It’s best to partner with a reliable distributor or roaster who’ll allow you to sample or “cup” periodically, as flavor can change with the crop and mix of beans. Arabica blends range from $4/lb. for an undistinguished blend with a large robusta component to $7-$8/lb. for a higher-quality blend and $10 for a specialty coffee. Single-origin coffees run up to $12/lb. or higher.

Purists buy whole beans and grind them before brewing, but time-crunched operators may want to purchase ground coffee; the price is the same for both. Also, an inaccurately calibrated grinder or inattentive employee can negatively impact the results you get from grinding beans, reports Jay Cunningham of Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago.

Since coffee flavor deteriorates with age, it’s best to buy in quantities that correspond to your usage pattern and get weekly deliveries. Beans will keep longer than ground coffee, but both should be stored in airtight containers at room temperature.

Coffees come in 1-lb. and 5-lb. bags with one-way valves that vent carbon dioxide and bar harmful oxygen. A pound of coffee brews about 50 cups. “Frac packs” are convenient fractional packages that hold enough pre-measured ground coffee for a 10- to 12-cup batch of drip; they are easy to rip open and dump into a filter. Filter packs are pre-measured like frac packs, but the coffee is packed in a filter envelope.

How the Market Behaves

Coffee futures rose more than 7% the week after Hurricane Katrina slammed New Orleans, as buyers assumed that the storm did major damage to the 1.6 million bags of Central American beans warehoused there. The price of a December futures contract reached $1.0495/lb. on the New York Board of Trade on September 1. However, prices dropped as the damage reported was less severe than originally feared. By September 12, futures had fallen back to 92.15 cents, reported the Dow Jones Nybot Coffee Review.

As a fragile agricultural product, coffee is an extremely volatile commodity. In early 2003, the average price of coffee on the commodities market was 50 cents/lb. In the late 1990s, it was over $3/lb. Prices depend to a large extent on the annual production of Brazil, the world’s largest robusta coffee producer, and Vietnam, which has become a bean exporting power in the last decade. Frost is a potential spoiler in Brazil and drought in Vietnam, but large crops expected from these countries should ease prices for American buyers through 2006.

Meanwhile, coffee growers in places like Central America and Africa are hoping for moderate harvests. For these producers, a coffee glut in recent years has meant historically low prices and economic hardship.

Which Brew’s Right for Your Place?

C­ustomer demographics and preferences can be a good guide for a coffee menu, says Tracy Allen, VP-wholesale for Zoka Coffee Roasters in Seattle. Restaurants that serve 20- and 30-somethings need dark roasted blends, while those catering to seniors should menu decaf and lighter blended roasts.

Well-heeled adults favor the pricier single-origin coffees, Allen notes. It has been said in the specialty coffee trade that it takes equally as much labor, time and equipment to brew a bad coffee as it does a good coffee, but customers willingly pay a higher price for the latter. It makes sense to upgrade if the increase in cost is just cents a cup and the return is greater.

Blends of two or more coffees provide a consistent flavor profile with wide appeal. A breakfast blend is typically lighter in body and easier to drink than a big, dark after-dinner brew, although Americans are getting used to —and are sometimes even demanding—darker roasts in the morning.

Single origin coffees are the unblended product of a single country or region, like Kenya AA and Ethiopia Yirgacheffe. If your clientele favors distinctive flavors, brew these—either at the table in the French press pot or in the drip coffee system.

Do-good coffees like Fair Trade, priced to give growers a decent return and laborers a decent wage, and Shade Grown and Organic, promoted as environmentally sustainable, “are growing incredibly fast in popularity,” says T.J. Whalen, VP of marketing for Green Moun­tain Coffee Roasters, Waterbury, Vermont.

 

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