Cherries on tree close-up

It’s surprising just how little people think about the coffee bean when they go about drinking their morning cup. Dave and I have found that a lot of people in our classes even think that that it is some kind of generic food substance – like a peanut (after all, it looks like one!) and it looks and tastes the same irrespective of where it is grown.

Then there’s a group of people who know zero about coffee, but they do know about their wine or their chocolate. They can relate to you when you talk about the nuances in coffee and nod knowingly when you tell them that coffee is different from country to country. Most are flabbergasted though when you tell them that coffee can taste different not only from country to country, but plantation to plantation in an individual country.

Believe it or not, tens of thousands of people are employed around the world just to sort coffee, and grade it according to its size, shape and number of defects. Buyers of green coffee beans are a picky lot – they crave consistency and understand that quality and price necessarily go hand in hand.

Because of such diversity in quality and ultimately shape, coffee beans can influence an espresso in so many ways: strength, mouthfeel, aroma, amount of crema produced, crema colour and thickness and aftertaste.

Why does Coffee Taste Different According to Where it is Grown?

Coffee that comes from just one country is called single origin coffee. Simply put, coffee can be classified as Brazilian, Colombian, Costa Rican, Guatemalan etc. But as suggested previously, the classification is much more complicated than that. Brazilian coffee can be further broken down into size and quality. For example, a coffee roaster may order Brazilian Santos 2/3, strictly soft, medium to good bean, 14/16. Most of this is self explanatory apart from “Santos” which simply refers to the port from which the beans were shipped (and therefore signals the general geographic region that the beans were grown in) and “14/16” which refers to the “screen size.” Green beans are sieved to separate out different sizes. Everything falling through the 14/16 sieve is too small to be classified as 14/16 and everything that sits above the sieve must be large enough to attain that status (and therefore accompanying higher price).

Single Origin Coffees – What Defines Them?

The soil in which the coffee trees grow can obviously impact on the flavour of the coffee beans that these trees produce. Different pH levels, mineral content and even what crops coffee grows next to on a plantation will affect taste, aroma etc. For example, coffee that is grown in India sometimes takes on a spicy undertone as it grows under the forest canopies next to pepper trees. Coffee from the highlands in Mexico can take on a slight chocolaty aftertaste as it grows near cacao trees that are used to produce chocolate.

Climate will also impact on coffee and is one of the main reasons that single origin coffees taste different to each other. Countries with distinct wet and dry seasons will often have a shorter maturation period than countries with slightly less temperate climates.

There are two main species of coffee tree that grow commercially around the world: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica coffee refers to coffee that grows on a tree. It is generally more difficult to grow than its poor cousin Robusta, but Arabicas are generally better tasting than Robustas and hence command a higher price in the market place. Robusta coffee grows on a wild shrub or a vine and although they are easier to grow than Arabicas and their yield is higher, they often yield a bean that produces bitter espresso that dries out the drinker’s palate (not always true though, for example Robusta coffee coming from certain plantations in India is very nice – and expensive).

Altitude plays a large part in taste as well. Generally, the higher the altitude, the better the Arabica coffee that is produced.

It surprises people but the method of processing and the individual farmer will have a huge impact on a coffee’s taste, aroma and depth of quality. A plantation that cuts corners when it ferments its coffee cherries or dries the green beans artificially/too quickly or stores them in their hessian bags incorrectly will produce inferior-tasting coffee compared to the farm next door that does these things correctly.

What to Buy

Generally you will purchase a blend when you purchase your coffee, but if you are at the stage or experimenting with the often-costlier single origins, the better-known ones include Ethiopian Limu (the home of coffee), Kenya AA, Costa Rican SHB and Colombian. Single origins to watch include Myanmar, Laos, Nepal, El Salvador, India and Papua New Guinea.

Our next blog post will focus on coffee blends (ie the mixing if single origins and why coffee roasters do this). Fire up another Ethiopian espresso and stay tuned!

© Barista Brothers 2009. All rights reserved.

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