A World Unknown

This entry is going to be about coffee. I realize the title is probably a bit overkill for something that seems so general, but I wanted to catch your attention.

It's about time I write something on coffee. Coffee may be a shallow thing to write on, in light of what could be written. However, in writing that, I'm reminded that I'm posting it on my blog, so I don't need to worry that very many people will waste their time reading this. I don't really have credentials to prove that I actually know as much as I do, and I'm not going to research books for quotes in order to prove my points. This entry is on somewhat of a "take it or leave it" basis, but I've tried only to write of what I know to be accurate.

I am writing this because of how often someone will bring up coffee around me, and then there has been people who have said, "Nate knows everything about coffee." Obviously, that's not true. We all will find that there are deeper levels beyond our comprehension, like: how does a seed come to life, or why does gravity exist? I realize that I'm taking the statement to an extreme, but I thought it would be best to start there. I'd rather have said of me that I know everything about the Bible, but of course that too would be ludicrous in light of all that there is in the Bible. Honestly, so is the same statement when it is spoken of coffee. I think when people have said that, it's because they don't understand how vast the world of coffee really is. "World of coffee?" Yea, there's a whole world out there. And trust me, it's a lot bigger than your grocery store brands, Starbucks, and even your local coffee shop that roasts their own.

Now, I guess when people say that I know everything about coffee, they just mean that I know a lot. And that's true, depending on your perspective. I know a lot in comparison to the average person, but I only know a little compared to some people I'm familiar with (e.g. Tom Owen, James Freeman, Kyle Glanville). I guess, if you're one of the average people reading this, you might have wondered, "What is there to know about coffee?" Well, let me just begin to answer that question in five stages: (1) origins, (2) production and trade, (3) roasting, (4) brewing, (5) cupping.

1. Origins

Origin simply refers to where the coffee comes from. Coffee is grown all around the world, ideally between the two tropics, and is consumed by nearly all ethnic groups. The best coffee is grown at high altitudes in rich soil and in warm climates. Here's many of the countries that coffee is grown in: Hawaii, Jamaica, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Yemen, India, Indonesia (i.e. Bali, Java, Sumatra, etc.), New Guinea. Those are just countries of origins, but origin is as specific as the farm where the coffee is harvested. What's interesting about coffee is that every origin is distinct from  the other. That is why you may have heard people describing (or at least trying to describe) their cup of coffee with phrases like: floral aroma, notes of brown sugar, hints of lemon, wheat, spice and so on. Even if they're making it up, what they're doing is proper in the world of coffee. It's called cupping.

Unfortunately, most people don't get to experience the unique flavors of all the varieties of coffee, because they prefer something kind of rancid instead, which is burnt coffee. It used to be that many people would tell me that my roasts were not dark enough for them, probably because they grew up on dark roasts. So I guess after drinking burnt coffee for so long, you can actually come to enjoy the negative qualities of over-roasted coffee. However, bitterness and astringency are not the marks of good coffee. And just in case, dark coffee only tastes stronger, but it's not going to help you wake up any more than a light roast.

One benefit to roasting coffee darkly is uniformity of flavor. Every coffee comes with its own flavor, and that flavor is difficult to predict. By over-roasting, commercial brands are able to compensate for flavor variances. By doing this, they actually minimize the coffee's natural flavors and maximize another flavor which all coffees have in common - burnt sugar. There's not really a good term to describe the flavor of burnt coffee, but carbony is one. When you burn a marshmallow, the black surface has been carbonized. That flavor of smoking, black sugar is what I'm referring to. "Over-roasting" is putting it kindly, since burning the coffee is what is literally occurring. Does your stomach ever hurt after drinking certain coffee? It is possible that it's because the coffee was too burnt, and the bitterness and eroding acidity were too much for your stomach to handle.

2. Production and Trade

The coffee you drink is actually extracted from a seed. We call it a bean, I guess because it looks like a bean, and maybe because beans sounds better than seeds. A coffee seed comes from a coffee cherry, which grows on a coffee tree, which looks like a bush when it is small. These trees, like any other fruit trees we eat from, are typically grown on farms and in mass quantities. To this day, every single cherry is still picked by hand. They're ripe when they reach a deep red color. These cherries are then put through one of three processes: wet (or washed), dry (or natural), semi-dry.

The wet process processes the cherries directly after they're picked. The cherries are placed into a machine that separates the seed from the pulp. By using a wet process, the bean is less likely to be acidic, and to carry less of the fruity character of its surrounding pulp. The pulp is then often used for cattle feed.

The dry process waits for processing. Once the cherries are picked, they are then spread out across the ground or suspended netting and left to dry. This process is more likely to extract the natural character of the cherry into the seed. After they've dried, the cherries are put through the same process of separating the pulp from the seed.

The semi-dry process processes the cherries directly after picking, but only removes most of the pulp. The layer left over is then left to dry on the seed. Then the seeds are put through processing once more to remove the rest of the pulp.

Although all coffee is traded at some level, only some are traded Fair or Direct. If a coffee falls under one of these trading types, it will be advertised to you. Both of these forms of trading are meant to increase the revenue of each coffee farm. Fair Trade takes the different crops of the country, pays a reasonable price to the farmers, throws it into one large mixed pile, then exports it with the name of the port its being exported from. This can lead to sub-quality coffee, due to well-farmed coffees being mixed with other lower quality crops. Direct Trade, on the other hand, places the dealer in direct contact with individual farms and is often exported with the name of that farm. This seems to be a better form of trade because you're able to purchase what you want, without the lower quality crops compromising yours. However, some countries won't allow either, and instead take control of the farms and pay out less to each worker. So although Direct Trade is great, Fair Trade is also good because it helps the sustainability of the country's farms.

3. Roasting

Roasting is both a delicate art and a particular science that has become one of my favorite hobbies. It is not something that can just be done automatically, like heating up a microwave dinner on a two-minute timer. Yet it is something that anyone can do, if they're willing to be patient and learn. There really is no match for freshly roasted coffee, because all stale coffees fail in comparison. Coffee will oxidize, and therefore it is best between 24 hours to 2 weeks after roasting. Roasting is a craft that requires your eyes, nose and ears. It roasts between 450 and 475 degrees F. It must be agitated constantly in order to produce an even roast. An unroasted coffee seed begins pale green, and it is roasted to varying depths of brown. Their colors range from a light cinnamon color to very dark (close to black) brown. Most coffees reach their full flavor profile between City to Full City. Full City roasts are often labeled as light, and French roasts are often labeled as dark. French was about how Starbucks normally roasted much of their coffee for a long time, just minutes away from literally becoming actual charcoal in the roasting process.

Sight, smell and sound are necessary senses during the roasting process. During the process, the coffee seeds go through two stages known as cracks, which just sound like pops. The first crack is a release of the coffee's own moisture content, and the second crack is a release of its own natural sugars and oil. The two cracks are slightly distinct in sound and 1st crack is separated from 2nd crack by a dormant stage in which the coffee is not cracking. This dormant stage can last for minutes or for just a few seconds, depending on the coffee and the roasting environment. For this reason, coffee should never be left unattended. Of these three senses, sound is the most telling for me, but sometimes I need to see the coffee to gauge the roast. Coffee, like meat, has to be roasted and rotated evenly. Temperatures too high can scorch the outside of the seed without touching the inside. Temperatures too low will roast the coffee too slowly, producing a stale and bready flavored taste. If roasting your own coffee interests you, Home Coffee Roasting: Romance and Revival (Kenneth Davids) is a great book to learn from, and Sweet Maria's website has a lot of materials to read.

Storing freshly roasted coffee is essential if you want to enjoy it for the following week or two. Interestingly, due to some chemical reactions from the roast, coffee emits carbon dioxide for a few days after roasting. My mason jars pop when I open them because of the built-up gas. Coffee is best kept in air-tight, glass containers and stored in places away from the sun. Don't put your coffee in the refrigerator or freezer after you've opened it. That can be a quick way to diminish the quality your fresh roasted coffee, if moisture from the air condensates onto your coffee inside the container.

4. Brewing

There are many styles of brewing: drip, total immersion brewing and espresso. I'll start with the latter.

Espresso is made by forcing ~ 200 degree water through a very densely packed wafer of finely ground coffee, also known as a puck. The coffee is ground so fine and packed so tightly that it takes about 135 lb of pressure to force the water through. The result is a fully extracted cup of coffee in just 2 oz of liquid. A typical double-shot of espresso takes about 25 seconds to extract. This extraction process is known as pulling a shot. This too is a craft. It takes time to learn how to grind the coffee in proportion to its mass and the applied pressure. If a puck is formed incorrectly, water will find its way through too quickly, resulting in watered down espresso.

Total immersion brewing is something you might already be familiar with, if you've ever heard of a french press, AeroPress, vacuum pots or syphon brewing. Total immersion simply means that all the coffee grounds are immersed in the water before the coffee is filtered. A french press uses this method.

The drip method is the most common. This is done in your coffee maker, but can also be done better if done manually in a drip cone (e.g. Hario v60, Bee House), also known as a pour-over. Again, like the other methods, the coffee must be ground to the proper size. A finer grind will increase the surface area to be extracted from, and will slow down extraction. A coarser grind will do the opposite. For a cup of drip coffee, the pour-over should take between two and three minutes. The water really needs to be between 195-205 degrees. And a slow, even pour will help the water extract the most from your coffee.

5. Cupping

Lastly, there's cupping. This is a term used for tasting coffee, like one might do at a wine tasting. The list of terms for describing coffee is endless. There's really no limit to describe coffee, except that it communicates accurately to another. In order to cup coffee well, lots of oxygen has to be incorporated, so slurping is often used in order to oxidize the coffee immediately before in hits the person's palate. At first, cupping takes a lot mental effort and a lot of practice with fresh, well-roasted coffee. I often describe cupping coffee as one's home. Your home has a distinct smell that others notice when they walk in, as does everyone's home. However, you are so accustomed to that smell that you are no longer noticing only what others smell, but also other things. You may walk into your home and smell left overs of a meal or a candle from a distant room. Cupping coffee is much the same way. After drinking good coffee for a long time, you start noticing not only the coffee's overarching flavor, but other things about it as well. You may taste something that reminds you of soil in a cup of Bolivia, or blueberries in Ethiopia, or the flavor of Lemon Heads candy in Kenya. After cupping long enough, you no longer have to try. When I used to exercise my palate, it was like the flavors shouted out to me. But the less I practice, the more time it takes for me to pick up on flavors.

Well, that's it. I apologize for the abruptness and poor transitioning from paragraph to paragraph. This blog post was not meant to be exhaustive. By only scratching the surface, though, its purpose is to point out that there really is a vast world of coffee. I'm hoping that some will read this and be enlightened to something they thought there was little to, and realize that the world of coffee is to them a world unknown. But maybe, and I hope, this post will create a curiosity in its readers to know that world a little better.

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