The phrase “making a coffee” is spoken without thought by millions of us every day, but very few understand what it really takes to make a quality brew. To make a coffee is not to simply pour hot water over ground beans. The journey from berry to brew is in fact extremely complex, and there are a number of stages that must be mastered in order to perfect the brew. Today, 125 million people depend on coffee production for their livelihood, a fact many coffee consumers are completely unaware of. Consumers are however starting to engage with their coffee and want to appreciate what really goes into creating the brews they love.
The root of the coffee
All of the coffee you consume may begin its journey from berry to brew from a number of different geographical origins. From Africa to Asia to the South America, each and every brew will have a distinct individual flavour. However, no matter the country or farm, the origin is simple; a tree.
The trees take three years to begin bearing fruit and most are only harvested once a year, although some lower quality beans are harvested twice a year. Prolonged rainfall triggers the bearing process, although the cherries will not be ready to harvest for nine months. Cherries start out green and over the nine months, as they ripen, they deepen in colour. The bright red cherries are those that are ready to be picked.
Cherries picked at their peak ripeness generally provide the best flavour and so meticulous harvesting is fundamental to the quality of the coffee. For many experts, the harvesting stage is considered the make or break stage for the quality of the coffee.
Due to the non-uniform ripening of the cherries, farmers face difficulties in deciding when the cherries should be picked. They can either have one picking phase resulting in unripe and overripe cherries or multiple picking phases at a greater cost.
Machine harvesting is seldom used, with Brazil being the main exception. The trees are shaken by the machines until the cherries all fall off, unsurprisingly leading to unripe and overripe cherries being picked. Due to its flat landscape, however, this is the quickest and most cost effective economically, but with a negative effect on the quality of the coffee itself.
For the highest quality coffee, hand-picking remains the norm and is also the most efficient harvesting method. This way of harvesting allows pickers to select only the ripe cherries, resulting in uniform quality coffee. Another method of picking the cherries by hand is strip picking, which involves stripping the branch of cherries in one movement. Despite being a quick method and effective on hilly terrain, the imprecise picking leads to a lack of uniformity, undoubtedly having an impact on quality.
Processing the bean
The final brew can be heavily impacted by how it is processed after harvest and so is considered a fundamental stage in the process of forming the eventual cup. When picked, the coffee cherries have a moisture content of roughly 60 percent and should be dried to around 12 percent during processing.
The drying process is carried out in the wet mill where the coffee is processed from cherry to parchment. Traditionally, the coffee is stored for thirty to sixty days in reposo (at rest). Despite being called ‘wet milling’, this initial processing stage uses very little if any water. It is the later stage referred to as ‘dry milling’ in which hulling and grading happens. The aim for producers when processing is to make the coffee as profitable as possible and so the process chosen must be entirely cost effective.
Bags of coffee
The shipping process takes place after the beans have been dried, and have been bagged into designated 60kg or 69kg sized jute bags, depending on its country of origin. The global price for coffee generally referred to as the C-price, is the price for commodity coffee traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
Ethical trade organisations have placed distinct focus on coffee trading, with many seeing the buyer and producer relationship as the First World exploiting the Third World. Historically, however, countries including Colombia and Costa Rica have been able to get higher differentials (referring to premiums) for their coffee, disproving exploitation claims.
Towards the end of the 2000s, global demand for coffee increased dramatically, causing an increase in price and a massive drop in production; 2010 saw coffee increase considerably in price to $3/lb.
The roasting is considered to be the fundamental transformation stage for coffee; taking it from a flavourless and bland seed to a deeply aromatic bean, boasting an array of intoxicating flavours.
Not only does each bean provide the unique taste, roasting variations and styles influence the way in which the flavours of the coffee are extracted and ultimately creates the taste of the brew. Each speciality roaster possesses its own ‘roast philosophy’, its own aesthetic and distinctive style of manipulating the bean.
When referring to roasting, the product is the final colour - light or dark, and the time it took to roast to get to the colour - fast or slow. Slow roasting describes a roast of 14-20 minutes which although leads to a loss of 16-18 percent loss of weight, it ultimately results in a better coffee. In comparison, a fast roast can be achieved in as little as 90 seconds, although the depth of flavour will not be as broad.
The final brew
The brewing method can make or break the quality of the coffee. A good brewing technique can unlock the vast array of intense flavours and layers that a bad brewing process would fail to unearth. A poor technique can sometimes completely spoil what the ‘berry to brew’ process has worked so hard to achieve. It is unfortunate that brewing badly can be done with such ease, but understanding the principal aspects of brewing can lead to better a quality result.
Brewing involves extracting the coffee itself from the freshly roasted beans, leaving behind the cellulose grounds. Since the 1960s, research has been ongoing into measuring how much of the coffee should be extracted for the resulting cup to taste its best. Coffee that has been under-extracted will be weak and taste sour. Coffee that has been over-extracted will taste harsh and bitter. It has been generally agreed that an optimum cup contains 18-22 percent by weight of the ground coffee used when brewing.
As well as extraction, the water to coffee ratio is fundamental to taste. To put it simply, more coffee leads to a stronger cup. Strength can be calculated by the number of grams of coffee per litre of water, for example generally 40g/l and as high as 100g/l in Brazil and Scandinavia. However, the strength of a brew is not considered right or wrong, it is rather personal preference how strong someone will enjoy their brew.
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Written by Katie Humphrey