The Works Behind a Cup of Specialty Coffee
Origins, Processing, and Flavors
In this extensive post, I will deep dive into the world of specialty coffee! Prepare to be flabbergasted by the complexity of coffee. If you are ever preparing a list of things to talk about for an awkward social gathering, buckle up, and just narrow down your list to coffee, take notes, and you have your solution to that dreaded moment of: *crickets* *walks off*. In this post, I will touch on farming on a global scale, the qualities of each origin, popular varietals (the conversation starter), as well as the process of how a cascara cherry transforms into a coffee bean, which then ends up in your brew.
Coffee Origins: Where are my beans from?
To ease ourselves into the topic of farming we must look to the origins of coffee and the different coffee growing countries. Coffee is an extremely complex crop, with the most complex aspect of this crop being the tremendously specific environment it must be grown in. There are only a few dozen countries in the world where coffee can be grown. The ideal regions for growing coffee are known to be across the eminent “coffee belt”, a glorious region which lies amidst the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. What does that mean?
This tells us that coffee requires peculiar conditions which happen to be present across this very region. For instance, countries across the region have the ideal combination of cooler temperatures accompanied by exposure to a lot of sunlight, also known as the quintessential mix for coffee trees to flourish and is usually present at high altitudes. While all countries across the “coffee belt” have the potential to produce high quality beans, there are numerous varieties and different qualities each continent, country, region, and even farm produces. The figure below shows some characteristics known to each continent; this shows how the terroir factors into the flavor of the beans. Mind you, the origin of the bean is only one aspect of many that affects the flavor and quality; however, this is the best place to start when we are trying to wrap our heads around the basics. As a matter of fact, I advise beginners to start building their palates by asking the simple question “where are these beans from?”.
A final note on this topic, something to take forward with you on your coffee journey: the taste from continent to another differs due to different soil conditions. So, using the above guide and our taste buds is a good way to begin to differentiate between our American vs. African vs. Asian. However, the variables that affect different taste profiles don’t stop here…
Essential to Farming are:
By far the most important aspect of the coffee farming process is the climate in which the fruit is grown. Arabica trees, by nature, are extremely sensitive to their environment and the littlest of changes in climate can have dramatic impact on the fruit, which in turn impacts the quality of the harvest, and that ends with changes to the flavors in our cups.
For this reason, regions that can cost effectively supply coffee are limited. While there are some variations in climate conditions across the “coffee belt”, some characteristics remain the same. These include high altitudes (1–2,000 meters), cool temperatures (23C to 28C), adequate rainfall (1,500–2,000m per year) with a dry period of 2–3 months, and most importantly, a lot of exposure to sunlight.
Since these conditions are quite specific and are apt to frequent change, it is exceedingly difficult for farmers to uphold consistency in their product, thus creating tremendous risk to the farming of the beans. To add to that, coffee requires a considerable amount of time to produce fruit (3–4 years on the faster side), in other words, a faulty harvest could significantly decrease, or in severe cases, eliminate a farmer’s income for extended periods of time.
I have the perfect anecdote to open on the topic of disease. A common piece of advice I often receive from friends who have visited Sri Lanka is to take my coffee with me. The complaints about the access to “good coffee” are endless. This was particularly surprising given Sri Lanka has decent attributes for growing coffee. A couple months ago I was on the topic of diseases plans with a coffee friend and she mentioned that approximately 20 years ago, Sri Lanka had very rich coffee agriculture. This is until disease struck the plant, also known as leaf rust, a fast-spreading fungus which struck the plant starting in Sri Lanka and eventually spreading to the whole world. As one can imagine, the disease was so bad that it rendered the coffee plants useless. During that period, Sri Lanka could no longer grow coffee for the next 10 years until the soil fully recovered and then a further 10 years to produce its first harvest. This impact was so devastating to the farmers that they decided to switch to tea.
Disease has a huge burden on farmers, with extreme cases taking up to 20 years for full recovery from diseased vegetation. Some of the most common diseases of the coffee plant that farmers must be aware of are the following:
· Leaf rust, which is a destructive fungus that turns leaves brown and causes considerable damage in the plantations of Arabica.
· Coffee berry disease, which attacks the Arabica. Robusta appears to be resistant, or only slightly susceptible, to these scourges. This disease is a devastating pathogen so far present exclusively in Africa. In its more severe form, the fungus invades the berry during the green stage (4–14 weeks after flowering) producing dark brown spots that end up covering the cherry and affecting bean development and quality.
Among the numerous parasites that attack the coffee plant is the berry borer, which damages the seeds of both Arabica and Robusta. This is a small beetle native to Africa. It is among the most harmful pests to coffee crops across the world where coffee is cultivated.
Now that we’ve got disease out of the way, let’s look at harvesting. The time between blooming and maturing of the fruit varies appreciably with variety and climate, being about seven months for Arabica. The ripened fruits of the coffee plant are known as coffee cherries, and each cherry generally contains two coffee seeds (“beans”) positioned flat against one another. The fruit is finally picked by hand when it is fully ripe and reddish in color.
After harvesting, the cherries are then processed by removing the coffee seeds from the outer layers and from the pulp and by drying the seeds from an original moisture content of 65–70 percent water by weight to 12–13 percent. The beans must be removed from their fruit and dried before roasting. To then process the coffee, there are several options for the farmers.
Perhaps the most important and most influential aspect of the coffee is the production process. While coffee origins and varietals will reveal a lot about what to expect from a bag of beans, they are both heavily reliant on the way coffee is processed, which can have quite a dramatic impact on the flavor of the beans. Before I get into the different processing styles, I must first explain to you what exactly we mean by processing and why it’s so important.
As you should now know, coffee beans start off as a cherry known as cascara. These cherries are harvested, and the seeds are separated in a mill and then dried for storage, which eventually turns into the coffee in your cup. But how do we eventually get from cherry to bean? Well, that would be with processing. Now, there are three main processing types we will focus on today because these are by far the most popular, however, I will touch on a couple “new age” processing methods that farmers have developed out of necessity. Before I get into this, however, I must first disclaim to you that this list is by no means exhaustive, as there are new processing methods being invented every day, as farmers get more creative to extract more out of their beans.
The natural or dry process method is the oldest, and perhaps the simplest method of processing coffee cherries. With natural processing, coffee cherries are spread out to dry naturally in the sun after being harvested. While this is the most straightforward method of processing coffee, it does comes with challenges. For instance, farmers must constantly turn the cherries in order to avoid mold and rot and the cherries must be fully dried. Once the coffees are fully dried, they are then stored before exporting.
Naturally processed coffee come with several benefits for the famers. First and foremost, there is no water involved in the process, which is a huge consideration, especially for farmers in countries where clean water is scarce. Second, processing coffees naturally allows for mild fermentation to take place, which has a significant effect on the taste. If done correctly, this fermentation can provide a lot of complexity and nuances to a cup, including floral, fruity, and sweet flavors. On the other hand, this fermentation does have the potential to be taken too far, where the flavors in the cup would end up almost rotten or off putting.
In stark contrast to the natural/dry process, the washed process is significantly more expensive, however, it happens to be more reliable and consistent. With the washed process, the goal is the same, which is to remove the sticky flesh from the cherry, however as the name suggests, this process now uses water to achieve this. The coffee cherries are washed thoroughly to remove the outer layers and are then dried fully before storing and exporting. There are several benefits to this method, as well, namely in the consistency of the flavors, as well as the resulting “clean” cups achieved from the beans. To help you understand the difference in these two methods, I want you to think of it this way. With natural processing, external flavors (both positive and negative) can creep into the coffee, both from the soil and the surrounding crops. This results in a different taste than what is already in the beans. Conversely, washing the coffee eliminates the potential for these external flavors. Instead, the resulting flavors are those that are already contained in the bean, usually with more clarity of flavors. Washed coffee, when compared to natural coffee, is generally classified as containing more acidity and less sweetness.
As mentioned above, coffee farmers traditionally used either washed or natural processing for coffee. However, these are far from the only two techniques for processing. The honey (or pulped natural) process is a hybrid that combines elements of both techniques to create new differentiations in flavor.
Pulped natural or honey process is a method in which the fresh coffee cherries are de-pulped, but allowed to dry without washing. Some of the fruit is still there, but not nearly as much as in the natural process. Most of the cherry is gone, but the remaining golden, sticky mucilage is reminiscent of honey, which is where the process gets its name.
One benefit to producers is that honey processing uses less water. Allowing the fruit to dry on the bean means that it can be physically removed during milling rather than being washed off as is typical of washed coffees. During the honey process, as the coffee is drying, the sticky coating on the outside of the beans oxidizes and darkens in color. Beginning a golden yellow color, coffee which is stopped at this point is referred to as yellow honey process coffee. Allowing the coffee to continue fermenting, the mucilage further oxidizes to a red and finally a black color. The more fruit is left on the bean the darker the color as well. Black honey processed coffee can also have more fruit left on the bean during the drying process than yellow honey coffee.
As the coffee beans dry, yellow honey process coffee is turned more often to encourage drying, while red and black are turned less often. It is the length of that drying process which allow the coffees to develop more or less fruity flavors, with yellow honey being the quickest to dry and the red and black being the slowest. In terms of flavor, the honey process almost gives a hybrid taste to coffee, somewhere between washed and natural, with sweet notes coming out alongside more acidity.
Anaerobic Fermentation Process
Anaerobic fermentation is the last processing method I will dive into today, however, as mentioned previously, there are new experimental methods of processing that farmers are always developing based on their needs and the coffee they are processing. While fermentation is, by its nature, an anaerobic process, the term “anaerobic fermentation” refers specifically to fermentation that occurs in a custom-built, oxygen-free environment, such as a sealed container or tank. The simplest way anaerobic fermentation takes place is by putting the coffee beans in a tank and injecting carbon dioxide (CO2) to remove all oxygen. Since oxygen is absent from the very beginning, it is completely anaerobic. The other way to do this is to put coffee in a tank with a valve on top. Initially, there is still oxygen present in the tank. But as fermentation starts taking place, CO2 is released as a by-product. Anaerobic fermentation provides producers with the flexibility to extend the fermentation timeline, giving rise to the development of new and interesting flavors.
The popularity of anaerobic fermentation has increased in recent years for a couple of reasons. The main reason is that farmers wanted something unique to add to their beans. The flavors that come out of this process tend to be completely different from what you’d usually expect from coffee. The other reason for this processing is for farmers to save a bad harvest. Remember, farming coffee is extremely time consuming, expensive, and labor intensive. If a harvest goes wrong for any number of reasons, the farmer would be unable to make an income from the harvest. In order to hide these defects, different processing methods have been developed to alter the flavor of the cup. As an example, some farmers in South America have been known to dry coffee cherries with tropical fruits, such as guava, in order for the beans to take on the flavor. This flavor, while unique, also will be able to hide any flavor defects in the coffee.
Now that you have a background on the origins of coffee, we can move on to the world of coffee varietals. The topic of varietals can be its own article (stay tuned), simply due to the vastness of the topic. There are dozens of coffee varieties within the Arabica family alone. These varieties come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and each offer their unique characteristics, in terms of flavor, body, texture, etc. Below is an excellent summarized representation of the coffee family.
I encourage you to explore the world of coffee varietals on your own accord and to try and look for some of the popular varietals listed below when shopping for beans. Try to understand the nuances of the different beans you try, both in flavor, but also in look and feel.
To explore this coffee family tree, I encourage you to focus on the Arabica branches (green, orange, yellow, and red). While all the beans on these branches fall into the Arabica (Ethiopian) family, there are four sub varieties we will look further into: Ethiopian/Sudan Accessions, Yemen Accession, Typica, and Bourbon. These are the parents of modern specialty varietals. If you’ve been around the coffee world, you’ve certainly heard of many of these varietals. There are many nuances that make each special in their own way, but as I mentioned previously, this topic is for another time. For now, I only ask that you try out every kind of variety you can and compare the differences and your preferences.
We have discussed several aspects of coffee that give it its unique characteristics, including origins, varietals, farming, and processing. One take away from this is to appreciate the diversity within the coffee world and to understand the amount of work that goes into producing your morning cup.
In my upcoming post, I will be getting into coffee varietals, the grading of coffee, the strict guidelines around that, and the different flavor profiles across the regions and how variables such as climate and processing can impact the taste of a bean.
Until next time!