Tagged "varietals"

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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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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