Wine connoisseurs spend years learning about grape varieties, smelling and tasting wines, and visiting vineyards. Similarly, those who drink fine whiskey or cognac spend their time in distilleries, and are particular about which labels they consume. Yet, when it comes to coffee, an equally complex drink, we often grab whatever is on hand. Anyone who has tasted fine, high-quality coffee beans, ground just right and roasted and brewed professionally, can tell you that not all coffee is the same. The quality of the coffee in your mug depends on the species, the variety, where it was grown, and how it was processed.
Coffea, the botanical name for coffee, comes in many species. However, there are only two that are consumed in what we know as coffee: Robusta and Arabica. Robusta is the more resilient and disease-resistant of the two, and therefore easier to grow. It is used in most mass-market coffee brands. Arabica is much more finicky, and must be grown in a cool climate at high elevation. But Robusta, though it’s easier to produce, has a lighter flavor, lacking in complexity and acidity. Arabica coffee, on the other hand, produces a rich, aromatic brew, and is used in most specialty coffees.
Coffee reflects the soil where it was grown, just like wine. This is known as ‘terroir,’ deriving from the word ‘terre,’ meaning ‘land.’ Terroir is the thought that everything in the environment where coffee is grown, including the sun, soil, wind, rainfall, altitude, and temperature, affects the coffee’s flavor. Experts can taste a cup of coffee and know where it’s from, as each coffee-producing country has signature flavors. Latin America coffees, for example, are known for their bold acidity, and are often described as ‘lively.’ Cocoa and nuts make up a lot of the flavor of Latin American coffees. The higher the altitude, the more acidic the coffee, so while all Latin American coffees share certain characteristics, those from Guatemala will be more acidic than those from Brazil.
African coffees are mostly grown in the mountain ranges linking Yemen, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Rwanda. These coffees can be floral and citrusy, or have strong berry tones. Kenya, for example, is famous for very acidic, berry-toned coffee, while Ethiopia is known for coffee bursting with floral and citrus. Coffees from Yemen exhibit a deep, winey flavor.
In Asia, Indonesia, Hawaii, and Papua New Guinea are the biggest coffee producers. The Sumatran coffee of Indonesia is characterized by a complex, velvety body, while Java is known for light-bodied brews. Kona coffee from Hawaii is medium-bodied and maintains an almost spicy aroma.
The way coffee is grown adds to its complexity. Coffee trees do well in shade-grown environments, where they’re only exposed to a few hours of direct sunlight each day. Coffee trees thrive in eco-systems where they’re shaded by taller trees, getting hit only by filtered light. The trees in these environments are fertilized by decomposing forest litter, and they’re protected from insects by larger, natural predators. Over the past 40 years, researchers have introduced new hybrid trees that can produce more beans and grow in the sun, but these practices use fertilizers and pesticides, harming the environment and surrounding farms, and also the flavor of the coffee.
While geography and growing conditions are incredibly important in producing a great cup of coffee, how the beans are roasted has the biggest impact on taste. The beans come to the roaster fresh and green, and are transformed into smoky, flavorful beans that can eventually be ground and brewed. The same bean can produce different results, depending on how it’s roasted. Today’s roasting equipment allows the roaster to control the air velocity in the roasting chamber, as well as the temperature. Knowing how hot to roast, and how long, is the secret to achieving a good flavor. Dark roasts are a favorite among coffee drinkers, and good for their rich, aromatic taste. Viennese, French, and Italian are all popular dark roasts and espresso, the king of coffee in Italy, is the darkest of all. But many experts prefer medium roast coffees, taken off the roast just before becoming oily, because it’s easier to taste where the coffee came from. Neither is better or worse, but a matter of preference. Most canned coffee sold in large quantities is light-roasted, mainly because light-roasted beans hold onto their moisture, and are heavier, making them more profitable for large companies.
Lastly, the complexity of your coffee depends largely on how you brew it. A high-quality coffee bean, expertly roasted, can still be ruined if not prepared properly. Your grinding and brewing equipment should always be clean and dry, otherwise you’ll risk mold or the stale taste of old coffee grounds. Air also changes the taste of coffee, so it’s best to grind your beans right before you brew them. Store your beans in a cool place, away from light, moisture and other strong smelling foods. When grinding your coffee beans, remember these simple rules: A French press requires a medium or coarse grind, a drip coffee system requires a fine grind, and espresso requires the finest grind. To produce a strong, rich cup of coffee, use two level tablespoons of ground coffee for each 6-ounce cup. Because your coffee will in the end be mostly water, the quality of the water you use is important. Filtered or freshly drawn water is best, and you should avoid using chlorinated water. The ideal brewing temperature is about 200˚F, which often requires letting it rest a minute or two after boiling.
All of these things, from the soil to the altitude to the roasting to the water used for brewing, affect the complexity and flavor of your coffee. Just like wine connoisseurs can taste the flavors of the vineyard in their glass, and can tell you exactly which region in Spain it’s from, in a good cup of coffee you can taste its history, and the path from farm to mug.