Coffee Around the World, Pt. 2: Varietals

Posted by Christopher McClure on

Many coffee drinkers are unaware of the existence of varietals: different strains of the coffee plant that grow cherries (and beans) with different characteristics. While growers have known about these coffee varieties for a long time, most of the attention has been paid to how resistant they are to pest or disease, or how much coffee they yield. Until very recently, neither coffee growers nor consumers have not paid any attention to how varietals affect the coffee they’re drinking.

The closest you'll get to a coffee rainbow (photo by Mad Cap Coffee)

For the foodies among us, it’s somewhat of a shame. Some drink (or don’t drink) wines based solely on the grape (no merlots please). Even when it comes to apples in the supermarket you know that you have options and know that certain are better for baking, some are better for applesauce, and some are best plucked right off the tree as a snack. Yet no one looks at a bag of coffee and thinks, “oh pacamara, that’ll be a nice citrusy cup just the way I like.”

"Pacamara is truly the honey crisp of coffee" said no one ever

Coffee varietals form like just about every other type of variation in plants and animals: random genetic mutations. Many varietals have been specifically bred for certain characteristics, like catimor, a variety with a little bit of robusta in it’s family tree that mixes hardiness and productivity, while some varietals have formed as coffee plants have been moved to different environments and slowly changed over time. We have a pretty good knowledge of varietals in many countries because when farmers started growing coffee, they based their farms off a few seed or trees they were able to sneak out of Ethiopia. This means many countries have only a few varietals growing in them, and we know them pretty well. Ethiopia is a special case—because it is the birthplace of coffee there are so many varietals that no one has ever been able to categorize all of them. The variety within Ethiopian coffee and the uniqueness of those varietals—often not found anywhere else in the world—is one of the reasons that Ethiopian coffee is so unique.

Coffee blossoms of the Gesha varietal, as noted by Serious Eats

With a new focus on varietals, there has been a change in how varietals are chosen. One of the few categorized Ethiopian varietals, Gesha, has been getting notice in the coffee world for how delicious it is. This has resulted in farms starting to grow more Gesha because they know they can ask for a higher price. Though it represents a greater level of awareness regarding This isn’t entirely new to the coffee growing world—back n the 1930s the Kenyan government had a laboratory do a survey of varietals in Kenya to find the best bets for a successful coffee future. The results were that the country should grow the varieties that became named SL34 and the now prized SL28.

SL28 — when coffee and rapper names collide (photo by Counter Culture)

Despite that research nearly a century ago, a surge in knowledge about and awareness of varietals has been a pretty recent phenomenon. Luckily, consumers have more tools at their disposal than ever. Any good roaster will list the varietals on the coffee bag, you can find coffee family trees and descriptions of varietals, and some varietals (such as Gesha and SL28, as mentioned above) are being noted for their extreme tastiness. In 2013 Mad Cap Coffee even released a varietal series that featured coffees sorted by varietal from one farm (and coffee nerds everywhere drooled). So the next time you pick up a bag of coffee, take a look at the varietals on the bag, even if just to appreciate the diversity in the coffee world! Stay tuned for the next piece in the series where we'll take a look at how climate, weather, soil and more can affect the flavor of your coffee!

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The Other Caffeine: An Introduction to Tea

Posted by Christopher McClure on

We’ve focused mainly on coffee on this blog (no surprise, giving that coffee is in our name), but in the world of warm caffeinated beverages, tea is important, especially since it’s still the world’s second most consumed beverage, second only to water. From the get go, Arabica has aimed to offer a good selection of teas in addition to top notch coffee, so for this post we’re going to do some tea education. Our goal is to help you make an informed decision the next time you feel like changing your caffeination routine.

"The experiments are telling me that we should get green tea"
"The experiments are telling me that we should get green tea"

The first question is, what is tea? The answer might be harder than one would first assume, though that’s mostly due to marketing (my marketing department is frowning at me #notallmarketing). Tea has become any number of different hot beverages—there are herbal teas, flower teas, bubble teas, twig teas and the list could go on. But if we go back to tea, just basic tea, it’s a plant—one species of plant, plain and simple. More specifically, tea is made from the leaves of Camelia Sinensis, a species of evergreen shrub native to Asia.

Coffee lovers will note many similarities between their preferred source of caffeine: both require very specific growing conditions, with better quality plants coming from higher elevations, both have preferable and more delicate varieties and more hardy, less flavorful varieties (Arabica coffee compared to Camelia Sinensis var. Sinensis and Robusta coffee compared to Camelia Sinensis var. Assamica). Both plants even have a long history of trade wars, involving spies, deception, thievery and other associated miscreancy (just think, countries would go to war over spices, just imagine what those same people would do for a jolt of caffeine in the morning?)

"You won't believe how far I've traveled for this cup of tea..."
"You won't believe how far I've traveled for this cup of tea..."

Obviously tea isn’t something that we just pluck right off of the tree and throw in the tea pot (if you’re even using a tea pot to brew), and like coffee, there are many different ways to process tea to get different flavors, even from the same crop. Also, like coffee, those different processes are often associated with different areas of the world that tea is grown, which also produce different flavors in tea. We’ll learn a little more about processing tea and where it comes from on our next posts in this series, so keep an eye out for them!

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Coffee Around the World, Pt. 1: Processing

Posted by Christopher McClure on

One of the most exciting things about coffee, for us nerds at least, is how different each coffee can be. I’ve mentioned before that there are up to 1,500 flavor compounds in coffee, compared to wine’s measly 200 (coffee snobs can officially look down their noses at wine snobs, if that’s your thing). And like wine, coffees from different parts of the world taste incredibly different: you could take a coffee from Ethiopia and a coffee from Colombia, and even someone who had never tasted coffee before could tell you that they were different, even if they couldn’t say exactly how.

This coffee clearly tastes more like coffee than the other coffee. Without a doubt.

But why do those coffees taste so differently? Good question hypothetical reader! The answer is: it’s complicated. There are a lot of factors that influence the flavor of coffee, and we honestly don’t know what factors have the biggest effects. We know that beans grown in different parts of the world taste different, sometimes vastly so, but how much of that comes from how and where the coffee is grown? We know that the processing affects the flavor, and different areas of the world process coffee differently, so how much of that is a factor? And what about varietals? The oft neglected different strains of Arabica coffee certainly affect flavor, but we’re still learning how much of a difference (think different types of wine grapes, to continue the analogy).

Thanks to Rebeckah Burke for the photo

This post is going to be the first a small series exploring how all the above affect flavor, leading up to final breakdown of coffee flavors by growing regions (which will include some gross generalizations). We’re going to start with a brief walk through on processing. This is something I’ve talked about before, but it’s worth a refresher, and there were some less common processes I left out.

There are three basic types of processing: washed (also known as wet), honey (also known as pulped natural), and natural (also known as dry). For washed coffee the fruit and skin is removed entirely before drying for a cleaner, brighter cup. For a natural process the whole coffee cherry is left intact to dry, which causes fermentation and results in a sweeter, fruitier cup. Honey process lies in between: just the skin is removed, leaving the pulp of the fruit. Honey process coffees have a better balance between sweetness and brightness.

Those are the basic options, but they’re not the only ones. There is also a process known as wet-hulling, or Giling Basah, in which the thin layer of parchment around the bean is removed before it’s completely dry. Because the beans don’t dry, and don’t have the protection of the parchment they ferment a little and their final flavor is syrupy, spicy and sometimes even a little mushroomy (Sumatras are traditionally wet-hulled as an example). You can read more about wet-hulling and why it developed here.

Coffee baths are part of the process. Yes, I want to jump in there too.

So as you can see, there whole process from coffee cherry to dried green bean alone can affect the flavor in big ways. Something that we’ll see when we take a look at different regions is that many forms of processing are typically used in specific areas, and have a large impact on the flavor of those growing regions and what they're known for. Take Sumatras for example—the spicy, almost musty characteristics that are trademark for Sumatra coffees owe a lot to the wet-hulled processing usually used for them. Stay tuned for the next excerpt where we'll be talking about varietals!

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Easy Brewing: French Press

Posted by Christopher McClure on

Welcome back to easy brewing! If you read the last post in this series on cold brew, you’ll know that the goal here is to make great coffee without needing much time, or having much equipment. Cold brew was incredibly easy, basically an add water and wait situation, with a step to filter out the coffee, but not everyone wants to drink iced coffee all year round (especially in New England). So today we’re going to cover one of the easiest hot methods out there: French Press.

The French Press is great for a lot of reasons. It makes coffee with thicker body, which is lovely in the cold months, and the thicker body means the coffee takes milk better—so if you like to doctor up your cup with milk or cream (or anything else), using a French Press will give you a cup that can take the abuse. On top of that, other than an automatic machine, a French Press is probably the easiest method of making coffee out there. Let’s get brewing!

What you need:
French Press
Something to boil water
A spoon, or something to stir with
1/2 Cup measuring cup, or a tablespoon

Step 1: Heat the Water
Pretty Straight forward right? We’re looking for a full boil.

Step 2: Measure and Grind* the Coffee
We want a heaping 1/2 cup (or 8 tablespoons, or 53 grams if you have a scale*). We want this coffee to be pretty coarsely ground—it should feel gritty in your hands and look like coarse ground pepper.

Step 3: Rinse the French Press with Hot Water
Pour it in and swish it around. This simple step brings the brewing vessel to the proper temperature so you don’t loose any heat when you brew—it’s especially important in the winter time in cold kitchens!

Step 4: Pour it All In
Pour in the coffee and then the water (after it reaches a boil, wait 1 minute if it’s in an uncovered pot, 2-3 minutes if it’s in a kettle).

Step 5: Let it Bloom
Wait about 30 seconds and a crust of coffee should form on the stop, then stir the coffee to break the crust. This lets the coffee fully absorb water and then mix in with the water to brew better.

Step 6: Let it Brew
Set a timer for 6-8 minutes, depending on your preference (experiment with it!). This is longer than most other brewing methods for a brew time, but because of the coarser grind, you need the extra time. Trust me, your taste buds will appreciate it.

Step 7: Plunge and Pour
Push down the plunger slowly and pour the coffee out, and enjoy! Don’t let the coffee sit too long in the press or it will become bitter. Because of the metal filter there will always be a little bit of silt in French Press coffee, so the sooner you drink it the better!

*If you read the first post in this series, you’ll know that having a grinder is incredibly important for good coffee. Always grind fresh!

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The Road to Decaf Coffee

Posted by Christopher McClure on

There exists a group of coffee drinkers for whom caffeine is not an option. Some might call them the true believers, the true adherents, since they’re drinking it not to get their morning fix. These true connoisseurs get no buzz, but enjoy only the flavor of their simple cup and the experience it brings with it.

Too bad most decaf coffees aren’t any good. Or, at the very least, they are nowhere close to the same standards of flavor set for regular coffee. Sadly there are a lot of reasons to not like decaf coffee, even beyond the lack of caffeine. It usually isn’t brewed as often as regular due to less demand, so your cup of decaf isn’t going to be as fresh as your coworkers caffeinated cup. Less demand also means that decaf is roasted less often, increasing the odds that the beans sat on a shelf long enough to start tasting a little stale. But even before the beans are roasted there are issues.

The culprit

First off we need to talk processing. There are a few different ways to get the caffeine out of coffee beans, but all of them face the same problem: how do you remove one aspect of the coffee bean (the caffeine) while keeping everything else (sugars, flavor compounds, proteins, etc.) in place? The answer is, unfortunately you can’t, not perfectly at least, and that means no matter what you process you use, you’re going to be losing a little bit of flavor.

There have been a lot of methods used to create decaf coffee since it was first pioneered by Ludwig Roselius (pictured above) in 1903. Many of them are similar to Roselius’s process, which was to steam the green coffee beans in brine and then use benzene to extract the caffeine. We’ve discovered that benzene is a carcinogen to humans since then (oops), so we’ve had to make some changes. It’s taken quite a few tries, but it seems like we’ve finally found solvents and a process that don’t put human health at risk for the sake of decaffeinated coffee. There are two different solvents used at the moment: methylene chloride and ethyl acetate. Though the processes are slightly different, both of them involve washing the beans with the solvents and then steaming the beans so the solvents evaporate, so there is essentially no trace left of the solvents on the beans.

Essentially no trace is good for most people, but there are some people who still have a reaction to these processes. Luckily there are other ways to do it, the most popular of which is the water process. Essentially it works by soaking green beans in warm water to dissolve the caffeine. This also dissolves all of the sugars and flavor compounds (oops again), but that water is put through a carbon filter sized to take out only the caffeine. The first batch of beans is of no use after that, but they can take another batch of green beans and soak it in the same water—which is saturated with sugars and flavor compounds, but not caffeine—and it will dissolve only the caffeine. Once the beans are removed from the water and dried off, you have decaf coffee beans, with no chemicals used! This is the method that all of our decafs use, and it's only been put into wider use in the past few decades. You can learn more about the process in this video:

No matter what process you use, the beans are going to lose a little bit of flavor with the caffeine. That alone isn’t a huge issue, and though it affects the final product, just as important is the cost of the process. It’s not cheap (especially water process), so in order to make the coffee affordable decaf is usually made from cheaper beans. For coffee lovers who can’t do caffeine it might look like a bleak scene, but with the surge in craft coffee things are changing. Better beans are now being put through the process, as opposed to throwing in the cheapest beans that can be found, and with water process more flavor is retained. There has also been an exciting recent discovery: a naturally decaffeinated coffee strain has been found in the wild. It will take awhile before it reaches the public, but if it ever takes over decaf drinkers will finally have access to unadulterated beans with full flavor. It’s something for decaf drinkers to dream of!

If you want more details on the decaffeination process, check out this article, or take a look at this video.

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