It’s a long process from the coffee tree to your cup. Each step is meticulously planned out to allow the coffee to reveal its most subtle aromas.
The plant: there are more than 80 varieties of coffee trees. The two main types are arabic and robusta.
Arabica: Approximately 60% of the world’s coffee production comes from the “coffea arabica” shrub. It grows best at altitudes between 600 and 2,000 meters, and is found mainly in Central and South America, as well as on the east coast of Africa. Arabica coffee “cherries” take seven to eight months to ripen, and then typically undergo a wet treatment process. Arabica coffee is very aromatic; its taste is sweet and balanced.
Robusta : Coffee from the “coffea robusta” shrub makes up the remaining 40% of the world’s coffee production. This fast growing and high yield plant is more resistant to heat and parasites than the arabica plant. Robusta coffee grows at altitudes of up to approximately 800 meters, mostly in the tropical regions of Asia and Africa. After nine to eleven months, the coffee cherries ripen, and then typically undergo a dry treatment process. Robusta coffee is characterized by a slightly sharper and more bitter taste. It is therefore ideal for espresso blends.
A tropical plant, the coffee tree loves countries where the climate is hot and humid (with an average temperature of 18-22°C). Coffee is grown in approximately 90 countries. The main regions where it’s grown are between the 24th parallels, north and south. At these latitudes, it grows best at altitudes of between 600 and 1,200 meters.
Highland coffee, a highly prized variety, grows between altitudes of 1,600 and 2,000 meters, giving it the designation of “Strictly High Grown”.
Before the coffee bean arrives in your cup, it goes through four important steps: harvesting, drying, roasting, and brewing.
Harvesting is the first step. It must be done when the cherries have just begin to ripen. Fruit that’s too green increases the coffee’s bitterness, and if it has over-ripened to a purple color, it will have a pungent taste. Harvesting can be done in two different ways. Picking consists of harvesting the ripe fruits by hand. This technique involves several pickings for each shrub. It is therefore more costly, but yields high quality coffee. The second technique is stripping. It is a mechanical process that consists of shaking the shrubs to make the fruits fall. This technique is less expensive, but the quality of coffee is not guaranteed because cherries from the same tree are not all of the same ripeness. On family farms, harvesting unites generations of families who live in rhythm with the coffee harvest. In some Latin American countries, school vacations are sometimes scheduled around harvest time so that children can help out.
In order to extract the coffee bean from its fleshy shell, there are also two techniques. The first is called the drying technique. It consist of spreading the cherries with a rake and setting them in the sun. After several weeks, when the fruits have hardened and turned brown, the beans are mechanically separated from their husks. The second technique is the wet method. This method is often used when the fruits are harvested by hand because they must be the same level of ripeness. Very soon after harvesting, the cherries are de-pulped and turn into a gelatinous substance called “mucilage”. The beans are then fermented in water for 18 to 24 hours. The thin skin surrounding the bean, called the parchment is then removed.
The third step in the process is called roasting. This step was traditionally done at the village grocer or even at home. It’s the most important step in the production of coffee, which is why it’s often viewed as an art.
Traditional roasting is the most often used method for coffee lovers. The beans are placed in a cylindrical broiler with a drum, and heated from below. A rotating motion prevents the beans from burning and allows them to be roasted in a uniform way, thus bringing out their subtle flavors. There is, however, a second method that’s less expensive and quicker, which is used by the food industry. Air, heated to a temperature of 700°C, is blown on large quantities of coffee beans.
Depending on the region or the taste profile that the roaster is looking to achieve, the duration and roasting temperature can vary, and the beans will take on a variety of hues. When the bean heats up, it changes color. It increases in size by 50% (swelling like popcorn) and its weight decreases by 20%. Chemical reactions take place, and the proteins rise to the surface as oil. These oils give the coffee its flavor and are called aromatic oils. The master roaster’s job is to optimize the aroma of the beans, while preventing them from burning.
In the cup
The full flavor of a good coffee and its sweet warm aroma is delivered to the cup only when it is ground at the same time it is prepared. Essentially, once coffee, is ground, it oxidizes very quickly, and loses its qualities. It is for this reason that many families had a coffee mill in order to grind the coffee. Modern packaging can now slow down this oxydation. The grind can vary according to the way coffee is prepared. As such, a grind can be extra fine for Turkish coffee, to more coarse for coffee prepared with a French press.