meaning exceptionally flavorful and aromatic coffee pleasing to connoisseurs,
is always arabica coffee, as contrasted with robusta coffee. Most lower
priced off the shelf brands of coffee are blends of robusta and arabica.
Not all arabicas are gourmet coffees. Some can be rather pedestrian, depending
on where they are grown and how they are harvested, milled and dried, stored
and marketed. Gourmet coffee is grown in several places in the world which
are especially favored by Mother Nature with optimum environments – high
elevation, well drained volcanic soil, partially clouded days, cool tropical
temperatures, little wind and plentiful rains. These favorable conditions
occur in Columbia, in parts of Central America and some African countries.
Jamaica and the Kona coast of the Island of Hawaii are perhaps the best
known of the gourmet coffee growing areas.
How did it all start?
Who first dried and ground and brewed up some coffee to drink? No hard
facts here for a food and beverage historian, but fairly persistent rumor
has it that, in the beginning, a goat herder in what is now Yemen
noticed his charges eating some little red berries from a pretty bush with
shiny dark green leaves. The goats then began to jump around very energetically.
According to the legend, the goat herder decided to follow suit, and an
industry was born.
Nowadays, who knows how many
centuries later, the state of the art in this industry requires certain
meticulous procedures in producing gourmet coffee. Harvesting is always
done by hand. This way the green cherry (coffee is called cherry at this
stage) can be left for a while longer and only the ripe cherry is picked.
A gourmet coffee orchard may be picked in three or four rounds over a period
of several months. Machine harvesting, used with lesser quality coffee,
doesn't discriminate between ripe and unripe cherry, so that the unripe
is processed into the product and lowers the quality.
Once harvested, the red cover
on the cherry coffee is removed by a simple milling procedure (called wet
milling) and the beans, beige in color at this point, are covered with
water and left to soak in a fermentation tank for twelve to fourteen hours.
Some naturally occurring bacteria causes the fermentation, loosening a
sticky substance on the newly milled beans. The coffee beans are then agitated
with hand tools to separate the sticky stuff, and the parchment (coffee
is called parchment at this stage) is rinsed in fresh water and put out
on a deck to dry in the sun. Here they are spread evenly and raked repeatedly
to accomplish uniform drying. Depending on the quantity of coffee coming
into the mill at any one time, a particular lot may be pushed off the deck
into a mechanical dryer to finish the drying. Processors try to dry the
parchment to twelve percent moisture content before bagging it up and placing
it in storage. Parchment is very stable, and, if the storage facilities
are adequate, it can be held for many months without loss of quality.
Peaberry. Some three percent
of a crop of arabica is peaberry. This happens when only one bean is in
a coffee cherry, instead of the usual two. These peaberry beans are round,
rather than flat on one side like the other beans. The round beans are
separated out at a later stage in the processing. Many connoisseurs believe
that peaberry beans roast differently and as a result present a unique
and very pleasing taste.
So what's next in the
process of bringing gourmet coffee to the discriminating consumer? Parchment
is subjected now to a further and more complex milling procedure. The beige
husk on the beans is ground off in a machine and the resulting greenish
grey beans, now called green coffee, are divided by another machine into
different sizes (and, to get the peaberry, into different shapes). Size
and weight determine the grade, and therefore the market value of the coffee.
In Kona, the grades, in descending order of market value, are Extra Fancy,
Fancy, Number One and Prime. Peaberry is in a class by itself and commands
prices equivalent to Extra Fancy. Different countries have different grading
systems. Weight is determined by yet another machine that separates out
light weight beans that are of lesser quality. The green coffee is now
ready for roasting.
Roasting coffee reduces the
weight of green beans by twenty percent. Wet milling and drying already
reduced the weight of the cherry by seventy five percent and green milling
reduced the weight of the parchment by twenty percent, so that a one hundred
pound bag of cherry coffee renders about sixteen pounds of roasted coffee.
If you just chew on a green
coffee bean, it doesn't have much taste. Roasting releases the taste. The
longer and hotter coffee is roasted, the more some particular chemical
compounds in it extinguish and others come to the fore and can be tasted.
So the duration and temperature of roasting are critical in achieving an
optimum result. A good coffee roaster is an artist. A lighter roasting
sometimes preserves more of the distinguishing features of a coffee from
a particular location. These region specific coffees are called varietals.
The darker a coffee is roasted, the more the results of some defects, like
sour or immature beans, will disappear. Finally, irrespective of the foregoing,
some coffees just present better at a certain level of roasting. For example,
many discriminating coffee drinkers believe that the medium dark roast
called Vienna is the best coffee roast for Kona coffee.
Blending coffee. Another
artist in the coffee industry is the professional blender. The most common
blend on the grocer’s shelf is robusta mixed with arabica, the prior for
economy and the latter for taste. Sometimes arabicas of lesser excellence
are blended with small amounts of gourmet arabicas to produce a pleasing
brew. The best way to drink a gourmet varietal is straight up – not blended.
Some blends, unfortunately, are designed to deceive the coffee enthusiast.
A blend is called by a well regarded varietal name, whereas it actually
contains very little of its namesake gourmet coffee and a whole lot of
something else. Caveat emptor!
After gourmet coffee is roasted
it is usually packed in small heat sealed mylar/foil bags with one way
valves in them. After it is roasted, coffee continues to release a gas
(thus the wonderful aroma of freshly roasted coffee) for several hours.
The valves release the pressure build up in the bags, preventing them from
rupturing. The one way feature prevents the entry of oxygen into the sealed
Why worry about oxygen
getting into bags? Two things make roasted coffee go stale – oxygen
and light. A see through bag is an attractive coffee package, but an opaque
container safeguards the freshness much better. Coffee exposed to light
and air, like one sees sometimes in bins or big jars on a grocer's shelf,
is going to oxygenate and deteriorate from light exposure fairly quickly.
Freshness is a very important
issue with gourmet coffee. The best of coffees eventually go stale and
will not be very pleasing to drink. How long will it stay fresh? One major
retailer in the US requires ninety day date stamping on gourmet coffee.
Some purists say that gourmet coffee has to be drunk within three weeks
of roasting. Some home roasters don't want to drink it after twenty four
hours. Actually, a well packed coffee will stay good beyond the ninety
days, but it is beginning to change by that time. Opinions vary on the
merits of freezing coffee. The better part of wisdom in the matter seems
to be that coffee that is frozen will stay fresh and taste good for a year
or more if it is frozen early on and kept frozen for the duration. A good
rule of thumb for freshness – protect your coffee from light and air and
freeze it if you aren't going to drink it within a couple of months. Also,
don't buy ground coffee. Buy whole bean coffee and grind it as needed.
An inexpensive little grinder will do. Whole beans stay fresh longer.
Brewing coffee. Use a good
water. Chlorine treated tap water, unless you have a good filtering system,
is a no no. Drink coffee soon after brewing it. Coffee kept warm on a burner
or heat disc loses something after fifteen minutes or so. A good gourmet
coffee is enjoyable whether it is dripped or percolated, but a french press
or a cold water brewing process can make it even better. Grind the coffee
up fairly well. If it looks like granola, grind it some more. Experiment