Every great cup of coffee begins with top-quality beans: the right variety, grown in the right place and processed the right way. The coffee plant is a tree—some call it a shrub—that thrives in the tropics.
There are many species of Coffea, the botanical name for the genus, but only two matter to the coffee drinker. Coffea arabica prefers high elevations and a cool climate and yields the beans for the world’s best coffees. Coffea canephora, commonly known as robusta, grows in lower spots and in warmer weather, and it’s more disease resistant than the finicky arabica.
But there’s a trade-off. Compared to arabica, robusta beans produce thin coffees lacking acidity, complexity and flavor. The mass-market coffee blenders use mostly robusta for their canned and instant coffee brands, which compete largely on price. But specialty coffee—the rich, aromatic cup brewed at high-end coffee stores and in fine restaurants—depends on arabica.
Coffee matures slowly at high elevations, producing a harder, denser bean with more flavor potential. High-elevation coffees also tend to have brisk acidity when brewed, whereas coffee from beans grown at lower elevations tends to be softer, without that bright acid backbone. But there are exceptions. Authentic Kona coffee from Hawaii grows at relatively low elevations but still delivers a compelling cup.
Coffee by region
Just like wine, coffee reflects the place where it’s grown. Some people call that “terroir,” the notion that everything about the environment—sun, soil, wind, temperature, rainfall, altitude—affects the flavor in the cup. To a connoisseur, coffee-producing countries have distinct flavor signatures, although processing method can have a huge impact, too. And of course, many coffees depend on beans from multiple sources, even multiple continents, combined to achieve a house style or a harmonious blend.
But now that many specialty-coffee suppliers and shops sell beans identified by country of origin, it’s helpful to know what to expect from beans from different parts of the world.
Latin America: At least 17 different Latin American nations grow coffee, from the highlands of southern Mexico, through Central America, to the South American countries of Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. And don’t forget the Caribbean, home of the famous Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee, among many others.
All together, these Latin American countries grow most of the world’s specialty coffee. Latin American coffees are generally regarded as “lively” because of their bold acidity. Many exhibit aromas of cocoa or nuts. But altitude also makes a big difference. The high-grown coffees of Guatemala—some of the world’s finest—will be more acidic than the rounder, sweeter Brazilian coffees, which are lower grown. But “acidic” is no flaw. In the coffee world, it’s a positive term for that pleasurable briskness that we want from a brew.
Africa/Arabia: Yemen, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Rwanda—coffee thrives in the mountain ranges that link these countries, yielding some of the world’s more intriguing brews. African coffees often show floral or citrus notes; Arabian brews tend to be more winey and berrylike. Kenya is famous for coffee with vigorous acidity and berry tones; Ethiopia for highly perfumed coffee with plentiful floral and citrus scents. Coffees from Yemen, sometimes known as Mocha, are often particularly winey.
Asia/Pacific: This category embraces coffees from Indonesia (which includes Sumatra, Sulawesi and Java), Hawaii and Papua New Guinea. Sumatra coffee has a velvety body and complex character, while Hawaii’s renowned Kona coffee is medium bodied, with a spicy aroma and a varied acid profile. From Java, you can expect a relatively light-bodied brew with restrained acidity.
Coffee can be grown in ways that hurt the environment or in ways that help it, and in ways that hurt communities or help them. In recent years, people have developed ways to identify and reward good practices.
Fair Trade: The purpose of Fair Trade certification is to help lift coffee growers out of poverty, to improve their working conditions and to encourage environmentally sound farming. Farmer co-ops are guaranteed a good minimum price for their coffee, with premiums for organic product. A third-party certifier verifies that the co-op operates democratically, provides safe conditions for workers, farms in a responsible manner and invests in the community.
Shade Grown: In most locations, coffee trees prefer a shady habitat. They do well in filtered light, part of the lush understory beneath taller native trees and plants. Coffee trees have evolved to thrive in that ecosystem, fertilized by decomposing forest litter and protected from insects by natural predators. Shade-grown coffee needs few chemical inputs.
In the early 1970s, plant researchers introduced new coffee hybrids that tolerate sun and produce higher yields. Hoping for more profit, many growers made the switch. They cut down forests, destroying habitat for birds and other wildlife, and planted the new sun lovers. Their yields went up, but so did their use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Organizations promoting shade-grown coffee are trying to preserve wildlife habitat and to minimize chemical use in coffee farming.
organic: Certified organic coffee is for those who are concerned about the health and environmental impact of chemical use. These coffees tend to fetch a premium because of the costs involved in certification and in rewarding farmers for the extra effort involved.
The art of roasting
The person who transforms green beans into roasted beans has a huge impact on the eventual brew. The smoky aromas and bittersweet flavors that make coffee so alluring don’t emerge until roasting.
With modern roasting equipment, the roaster can control the temperature and air velocity in the roasting chamber, a rotating drum that keeps the beans constantly moving. The trick is in knowing how long to roast and how hot.
Although many consumers believe that dark roasts are superior, that isn’t necessarily so. Many connoisseurs prefer a medium roast because it doesn’t obscure the signature of the beans’ birthplace. It’s entirely a matter of taste. Try beans roasted to varying degrees to see where your palate lies.
Light roasts are used mostly for supermarket canned coffee. Light-roasted beans retain moisture so they are heavier and thus more profitable. Medium roast, sometimes known as “full city roast,” applies to beans taken just to the point before they become oily. Viennese roast is a dark roast, French and Italian roasts even darker, with espresso roast the darkest of all.
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