Tagged "coffee"

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!

Read more →

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!

Read more →

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.

Read more →

What Does Coffee Taste Like?

Posted by Christopher McClure on

There was recently a segment on the Today show that did a blind taste test between what they called ‘cheap deli coffee’ and ‘fancy gourmet coffee.’ Their finding? 67% of participants preferred the cheap stuff. It has prompted some negativity from those interested in craft coffee, and for good reasons (what coffees are they using? how are they roasted? how are they brewed? how long did they sit around before being served? how does ‘dozens’ constitute any kind of meaningful sample size?), but there might be something to what they’re saying. Mostly being: maybe most people aren’t able to tell what they’re drinking when they have coffee. They just taste coffee.

There’s nothing wrong with just tasting coffee: it is what you’re drinking after all. But there’s more going on, and for those of you who are already drinking the ‘fancy gourmet coffee’ it might be worthwhile to take a moment to appreciate what you’re drinking since you’re already paying a premium. That of course begs the question, what is there? We’ve mentioned before that coffee is a complex thing, and when you’re talking about single origin coffees, that’s especially true. So how do you break it down?

Start broad and go back to the basic flavors: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter*. You don’t usually encounter any salty flavors in coffee (not that it doesn’t happen), so you already only have three to focus on. Bitter is easy to recognize, and though it's present to some degree in every cup of coffee, if it stands out it usually means you have bad cup of coffee. So assuming you have something quality in your hands, you’re looking mostly at sweet and sour flavors. Sweet might make sense to some, but sour is an odd flavor to have in coffee and probably means someone royally messed up your coffee, right? Not necessarily. If you have a coffee and instantly think, ‘this is sour,’ that’s an issue. But a balanced sourness is what we call brightness. It makes a cup lighter and crisper, like tart fruit. Of course this is just a simple break down, a start to a longer (and much more enjoyable) journey.

May I present the official coffee taster’s wheel?

This wheel offers a great starting point after you start to pay attention to the basic flavors, it provides a language for you to start connecting to, working from the inside out. Maybe all you’ll be able to notice is that the coffee is sweet, or fruity, or tastes like chocolate. But if you start thinking about it enough you’ll start to recognize that sometimes that fruity flavor is a little more like citrus, and sometimes it’s a little more like a berry. Sometimes that citrus is more like a lemon and sometimes more like an orange. It takes time, but with practice it’s something anyone can start to notice!

We find the wheels help because you don’t have to create your own words for the flavors, you get to see some common terms and find something you connect with. Of course flavor is subjective, so a dozen different people could taste the same exact cup of coffee and taste a dozen different things. But most people will at least agree on the inner wheels, and that’s a great place to start.

Now that you have the basic tools, the next time you go out and grab a cup of coffee, take a moment to taste your coffee and think about it, even if it's 'cheap deli coffee'. And if you really like tasting coffee, keep an eye out for coffee cuppings, we've got some plans in the works!

*So tongue diagrams aren't that accurate, and there is a fifth flavor, umami, but mostly I wanted to keep this flavor discussion simple, rather than getting into the current debates over the science of taste.

Read more →