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A Guide to Coffee Beans

Aug 17, 2007
Comedian Bill Maher once observed that if your favorite drugged state is "wired" and you live in the United States, you are set for life. Starbucks on every corner, coffee aisle in every store. Energy drinks like Red Bull and Monster in every convenience store, and a coffee pot on the burner at every job. Americans may be deficient or ignorant in other matters pertaining to food and beverages, but when it comes to coffee, they're right up to speed... no pun intended!

However, working in a restaurant or even an espresso cafe isn't any guarantee that you'll know more about coffee than the average customer. Most businesses serving coffee in the US know nothing more about it than to pop open a bag of whatever the distributor ships, add water, and brew. So, really knowing one bean from another and something more about brewing will give you a competitive edge.

Coffee trees reach maturity between three and four years when their clusters of fruit turn a deep red. Farmers pluck the ripe cherries, as they're known, by hand and transport the full baskets by mule or truck to the processing plant. Since the coffee bean is the seed inside of the sweet cherries, the fruit is forced through a manual machine to extract the seeds much like pitting olives. While the cherry pulp is salvaged for use as fertilizer, the coffee beans are soaked in cool water to stimulate a brief fermentation process. Next the beans are spread over mats to dry in the open air. Next, the thick hull of the bean shell is removed to reveal a green coffee bean.

There are several species of coffee trees but most commercial coffee growers use mainly the Arabica and Robusta species. Arabica trees are said to produce the highest quality beans, but they're harder to grow. However, Robusta trees are more economically viable due to their hearty nature. But before we dive deeper, let's get some basic terms out of the way.

Coffee lovers mainly judge the quality of a cup of coffee on four criteria; that is body, aroma, snap, and strength. Body is the thickness of the brew, and the feel of the coffee in your mouth; the heavier the body, the thicker the brew. Aroma is the smell of the coffee, similar to how wines are judged. Snap is the acidity of the brew. Coffee with very little acid will be very bland and perhaps too smooth; snap, then, is a judge of how much 'kick' the flavor has. Strength is merely how it's brewed; the greater the ratio of grounds to water, the stronger it is.

And now for the different categories of beans:

Indonesian beans: Indonesian beans produced the heaviest, most full-bodied coffee. They come from Java and Sumatra, and the brew has more body but less aroma. It is a good dessert coffee and is very suitable to flavoring with milk and sugar.

Hawaiian beans: Better known as Kona, Hawaiian coffee is some of the most expensive in the world. Kona offers average snap and body but is in huge demand worldwide because of its powerful aroma and high concentrations of caffeine. To brew espresso with Kona beans and inhale the sweet aroma will bring tears to the eye.

African beans: Growers in Africa produce a coffee of about medium aroma and body with a sharp, tangy snap. Those who like more flavorful coffees will like those from Kenya and Tanzania.

South American beans: Coffee beans grown in Central and South America are the middle of the road in all respects, offering moderate body, aroma and snap. Most of the coffee served in the United States is South American; particularly store-bought brands use Columbian. This is less out of preference and more because it's cheaper to import from Columbia.

The soil and environment conditions play such a large role in flavoring the beans, that all coffee beans are labeled according to their geographic origins. Kilimanjaro coffee comes from the Tanzanian foothills near Mount Kilimanjaro, Java coffee derives from the Indonesian islands, and so forth.

For many years, consumers bought green coffee beans and roasted them at home. Today nearly all beans are roasted by the manufacturer. Roasting the beans enhances the coffee's flavor and releases the pungent oils, saturating it with their essence.

The different roasts are a matter of preparation and have nothing more to do with region than the name. American roast produces a medium-bodied coffee, again in the middle of the scale; the standard pot of coffee in the States. Brazilian roast is a slightly darker roast than American. An increasingly popular roast is the French roast, where the roasted beans are the color of dark chocolate. This roast produces a deep, hearty brew and a touch of the bean oil should be visible on the coffee's surface. The darkest roast is Espresso, where the beans are roasted until they are nearly burnt which gives the roast its distinct, sharp flavor.

All coffee is best bought in the form of whole roasted beans. The very instant that the beans have been ground, their flavor diminishes. Whole beans should always be stored frozen, where they stay fresh for several months. Ground beans should never be stored, but used immediately. However, grounds can be stored in an air-tight container and not lose too much of their essence for a maximum of seven days.

The foil-sealed bags of brown powder you get delivered to an office job or convenience store just doesn't qualify as coffee anymore, since the cases of ground bags have sat for six months in the racks of a warehouse somewhere. Sorry to bust your bubble. This needs to be made clear: if the beans were ground more than seven calendar days ago, they are stale. It doesn't matter after grinding if you freeze them, put them in foil bags, vacuum pack them, freeze-dry them, suspend them in dry ice, crystalize them, or send them to the moon. Yes, you can taste the difference. You can smell the difference. Your body can feel the difference after you drank it.

And now for the different brewing methods. Your average Joe likes straight coffee. The ideal cup of straight coffee depends upon preference, but the standard ratio is two tablespoons of coffee grounds per three-quarters a cup of water. Espresso is made by brewing espresso-roasted beans under high pressure, resulting in a strong, black coffee served in small cups. There's no shielding you from the naked characteristics of the coffee beans with espresso - the shot delivers the full impact of the body, aroma, snap, and strength.

The remaining varieties of coffee-based drinks involve the same espresso with different things added to them. Machiatto is espresso with a touch of steamed milk, and whatever you do, don't try to explain this to the Starbucks barista. Cappuccino is composed of even thirds of espresso, steamed milk, and a head of milk foam. Cafe latte is one-third espresso and two-thirds steamed milk. The favorite French drink, Cafe au Lait is made with strong coffee instead of espresso and generous portions of hot milk. The flavored coffees are produced by adding flavored oils, which are usually artificial, to the beans during roasting.
About the Author
Freelance writer for over eleven years.

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