Coffee Bean Fundamentals

Before we start covering off some of the technical aspects of coffee, let’s take a little tour through the world of specialty coffee, how I arrived here and the basics that you’ll need to know to produce a cup of coffee you can be proud of.

Let’s start with a confession.

I arrived to coffee a milk and sugar kind of guy. My first experience with specialty coffee came black as death in a small village in southern Laos and the truth is, I hated it.

However, four days of exploring this spectrum of coffee, I was captivated.  I came to be able to experience and love the range of flavors that can be found in the smallest sip of coffee brewed pure without additives. 

Since my first experience with this liquid gold, specialty coffee has also been growing in leaps and bounds and is really blossoming into an industry as celebrated and diverse as that of wine.

But what is coffee exactly?


Cherries, Beans and Dancing Goats - How coffee is grown

As consumers and makers of coffee, much of our focus is on the coffee bean. But, it may come as a surprise to you to know that coffee actually starts out as a cherry on a tree. (Yes, coffee is a fruit!)

The name for coffee comes from an Arabic phrase ‘qahhwat-al-bun’ which means ‘the wine of the bean’ and according to legend, Ethiopian farmers first discovered its caffeinating effects when their goats were seen to be jumping (or dancing) after eating the cherries.

To produce the bean we love, these cherries must first be picked, then shelled, and are dried out in the sun to be reduced to the remaining bean.

This sun-drying actually ferments the fruit surrounding the bean and adds sweetness to its final taste.

Coffee trees (or coffea) can continue to produce fruit for up to 60 years. The cherries themselves take up to nine months to ripen.


A little history

Traditionally, coffee was grown in the shade under the cover of taller rainforest species. Farmers would use traditional agricultural techniques such as composting the pulp of the coffee, rotating the crops, and avoided chemicals and fertilizers to shade-grow the trees amongst other plants.

Cultivating different food sources by intercropping coffee with food crops, such as bananas, offered food security for farmers and helped to generate additional revenue sources.

But, as client demand rose, more efficient farming strategies had to be developed to accelerate production. By shifting coffee growth out into the full sun on acreages of cleared land, production was made faster and machine harvesting became possible.

This move to modern farming practices has impacted the ways in which farmers make their money, families grow their crops and has ongoing impacts right down to the taste of bean produced.

Shade growing still exists today and has been shown to produce a sweeter bean than that of sun grown coffee.


Varieties of coffee bean

coffee bean variety

Of the 25 coffee species of coffee in existence, only two account for the coffee we drink; Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora (also known as Coffea Robusta).

Though similar in their genus, there are actually some distinct differences between the two.

1. Taste

Robusta is often characterised by the strength of its flavour; tarry and slightly rubbery. Arabica tends to be the taste winner time and time again with a fruitiness and acidity likened to that of wine. Often you will find the two beans blended together in varying ratios to alter the flavour profile of the blend.

2. Plant height

While arabica grows within the impressive range of 2.5 - 4.5 metres, it is dwarfed by that of the robusta that ranges between 4.5 - 6 metres in height.

3. Lipid and sugar content

According to Coffee Chemistry, the fat and lipid contents of the beans vary significantly. In fact. “Arabica contains almost 60% more lipids and almost twice the concentration of sugars than robusta.”

These sugars play an important part during the roasting process, and later during brewing, as the fats and lipids extracted impact flavour.

4. Price

Due to consumer demand for arabica far outweighing that of robusta, green robusta beans can be bought for a fraction of the price of arabica.

They are still, however, a common choice for farmers as they are hardier than arabica and produce more fruit due to their size.

5. Caffeine content

Not only larger in size, robusta is also higher in caffeine which adds to its hardiness, making it less susceptible to pest and insect attack.


Where is coffee grown?

The best coffee beans need moderate sunshine, rain, porous soil, and steady temperatures. The ‘coffee belt’ spreads east to west across the equator and offers these ideal conditions.

Image: MelaCoffee

Just as with wine, undoubtedly the greatest coffees are coming from single farms and the reason is very simple, that's where you get craftspeople who really love what they're doing and focusing all of that attention and care into one bean variety in particular.

With blends, you're mixing different coffees from different people and you're getting this okay or very good but not great coffee.

For this reason, Coffee Geek are particularly interested in getting into single origin coffees and enjoying the vast differences produced in various parts of the world.


How to Choose your Coffee - Deciphering Labels

Your coffee-making journey will begin in the same way as everyone else’s. First you will take a roasted bean, grind it into little pieces and add hot water.

How you do this will vary depending on the brew method you choose, your prefered taste and quite a few other small variables we will discuss in later posts.

But how do you decide on which bean to use? Specialty coffee has really blossomed and matured to a point that even your grocery store has been assaulted with a huge variety of choices that, unfortunately, all appear exactly the same.

How can you be expected to make a choice based on region when all of the brands on offer are all boasting unique blends from Kenya, Guatemala, Colombia and Bali.

At first glance it is extremely difficult and frustrating to even figure out where your coffee is coming from, particularly if you are buying from the supermarket.

So, let’s take a look at deciphering the coffee label so you can more easily decide which coffee to start using at home.

Origin

This simply refers to the region the coffee came from. It may appear as a list, denoting that this is a blend of a variety of different beans from different countries or, origins.

‘Single Origin’ means that the beans in the bag you are holding all came from the same place and, as a result, may have a higher price tag.

Single origin coffees generally have a specific taste profile characteristic to a region, where blends are often combined to achieve a signature blend for that particular brand of coffee.

Grind

Look for the grind of your particular brew method if you’re just starting out or not grinding at home. The grind of your bean impacts the way it is brewed and extracted depending on what type of machine or coffee maker you use at home.

If you are using an at home espresso maker, look for espresso ground beans, for example. If you are already grinding at home, you can simply buy the whole beans and grind on demand. This is an effective way to keep your coffee fresh than buying bulk ground coffee and trying to store it.

Altitude

While all coffee grows along the coffee belt, the altitude at which it is grown also contributes significantly to its final taste. Coffee trees grown in cooler temperatures, like those found at altitudes of 3,000 metres and above, mature more slowly, which fills the coffee bean with more complex sugars that yield deeper and more interesting flavours.

It is becoming more common to see the altitude the coffee was grown at on specialty coffee labels.

Roast

Next on your label you may see the roast listed. Usually this varies between light, medium and dark. But, there is actually a whole scale of roasting the raw green coffee once it's out of the cherry.

The Roast scale

Expressed as time, the roast scale represents the length that a green bean has been roasting for.

  • 3 minutes: the green bean will start to look like this it's dehydrating

  • 6 minutes: you get this really still unpalatable coffee

  • 12 minutes: now you are starting to get a full roast; the lightest of the roasts

  • 13 minutes: the medium roast reveals a chocolatey looking bean

  • 14-15 minutes: oils bleed to the surface and roast darkens

This is something you want to know when choosing your coffee because each person has a preference regarding the roast and its associated flavour profile.

Many roasters in specialty coffee recommend lighter roasts to really enjoy the flavours of the bean itself.

This is because once you start to go into the darker spectrum you are simply adding more and more caramel flavor from the actual roasting process itself. This is not anything inherent in the bean.

Vintage

Much like with wine, the vintage date is simply noting when the coffee was harvested, NOT when it was roasted or packaged.

Now that you have a clearer idea of what is in the paper bag you bring home, we should touch on a few tips for storing it.


Storing Coffee At Home

Understanding how coffee is made should have given you some ideas about how tiny variables such as temperature, altitude, roast time and grind size can impact the flavour of your coffee.
process of coffee storage at home

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that how you handle the coffee is also vital to ensuring that the flavour of your most important ingredient hasn’t been tainted by improper storage.

Much like with any perishable, exposure to excess light, oxygen, moisture or mildew can alter and ruin your coffee. Most coffee today is vacuum-sealed, however once the bag has been cut open it is defenseless.

You coffee should always be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry and dark place.

It‘s always best to use your beans within about two weeks. Try to only buy as much as you need for this time period so as not to waste any.

It is also a great way to try new blends. If you don’t like it after two weeks, simply switch to a new one.

Other ‘no-no’s’ with coffee is storing it in the fridge as it can cause condensation and mold. As you should buy whole beans and grind them just before brewing your coffee.


Understanding your Ingredient is the Key to Good Coffee

As you can see, if you really want to get pleasure from what you're drinking, understanding the key ingredient is vital.

We hope this has been helpful in giving you some ideas of how to steer your way through the forest of information that's available to you when it comes to specialty coffee.

Now that you have a better grasp on what coffee is, where it is grown and how to decipher the package it comes in, you’re ready to start brewing.

Join us as explore taste, mouth feel and the technical aspects of extraction.