Welcome back to the Artisan Coffee School blog! I hope you all enjoyed reading my first blog and feel inspired to learn more about the amazing world of coffee. Just as a warning, once you dive into the wonderful world of coffee there is no escape. Picture it as a deep dark slippery pit, once you are in, you are in for life…. But that’s a good thing right!?
Okay, so now that we have got through the introduction, let’s get back to basics and really go to the first link of the chain and get to know where coffee comes from and how it ends up in our cup… almost like a coffee timeline.
What is coffee?
Some of you may have never realised, coffee is actually a plant. These plants start off as seedlings and a lot of time and care goes into nurturing them until they are big enough to be planted in the ground. Coffee is grown in an area of the world we like to call the coffee belt, more commonly known as the Equator; this belt is between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn – the perfect climate, temperature and soil conditions area found here. After three to five years the plant will start to produce fruit. White flowers will appear on the plant, they are then pollinated and these flowers will turn into small green pea size cherries, eventually becoming bigger and developing into lovely red, orange or yellow colours when ripe. The two main traded species are Robusta and Arabica. Arabica coffee comprises up to 70% of the global market where Robusta is only around 30%.
So what is the difference between these two species? Let’s break it down:
Robusta – The word Robusta, meaning robust, is a plant that can grow up to 10 meters in height. The Robusta plant grows at lower altitudes (800 meters above sea level and lower) and grows in swampland conditions. The plant has twice the amount of caffeine then Arabica, which acts as a natural pesticide to chase away pests and bugs. If I personally think of Robusta I think of Italian espresso, bitter and one dimensional… not everyone’s cup of coffee.
Arabica – The coffee that changed my life!!! The Arabica plant is smaller and grows to a height of 3-4 meters. The plant prefers high altitudes that range from around 1,000 to 2,000+ (meters above sea level). The bean contains half the amount of caffeine than Robusta and does not have that harsh bitter taste. Arabica has such a wide spectrum of flavour, it can be chocolatey, fruity, spicy, herby etc.; it’s a lot lighter in body, higher in good acidity and fruity.
So what does it mean when coffee enthusiasts talk about washed and natural processed coffee and how does this affect the taste?
Washed – Washed coffee or wet coffee is a more modern industrial process that requires investment as well as natural resources. Once the cherries are ripe they are picked, put into bags and sent to the wash plant. The cherries are fed into a machine, which removes the flesh from the seed and then placed into water baths for the fermentation process. The seed has a sticky substance called mucilage and this will slowly wash away during the fermentation process. Beans are left to soak from anywhere between 12-36 hours then taken out and dried on flat beds in the sun and are dried to around 11-13% humidity. Once the beans are dried they are sent to a processing plant to remove the parchment (a protective layer surrounding the bean) and then they will be classified as washed processed green beans. Once roasted, washed coffee displays a higher acidity, lower body and clean flavours in the cup.
Natural – This is the oldest method of processing coffee and is my ultimate favourite. The cherries are picked when ripe and sometimes left a bit longer to ripen on the plant. They are removed and laid out in the sun to dry and this results in the natural sugars concentrating and therefore marinating the bean in a sense. Due to coffee’s natural ability to absorb flavours, this takes a lot of care as unwanted dirty and off-flavours can be picked up from the surrounding areas. The bean is then removed from the dried fruit and you are left with a natural processed green bean. Once roasted the bean displays a heavier body, lighter acidity and a richer mouthfeel.
So there we go, you now know all the basics of coffee and I’m sure it will change your thoughts when drinking your next cup. There is a lot of care, time and dedication that goes into coffee and once roasted it’s all up to the barista to make or break this amazing product. I challenge you now to try and guess whether a bean is from the Robusta or Arabica species or whether it has been through a washed or natural process and feel free to email me your feedback at email@example.com.
Next month I will be talking about espresso and focusing on the key fundamentals of espresso making, something that a lot of baristas get wrong.
Until then, enjoy the coffee and start exploring new avenues; maybe try and get your hands on some of that natural coffee I mentioned.