Written by Nathan Leveritt
Originally Published in the Bury Free Press - June 2018
With a new wave of coffee sweeping across the country, comes a fresh approach to the much-loved drink. Today roasters and baristas are much more knowledgable about not only how your coffee is served, but also how it is grown and processed. The effects of this change are shown in what we communicate to you, the customer.
You may have noticed there is now much more information on the bag, especially so if it comes from a speciality roastery. Whereas once you might have been lucky to know the country of origin, it is now common to share the location of the co-operative or estate, sometimes even the farmer’s name. As we’ve become more aware of where our coffee comes from, we’ve been able to gain a better understanding of why we may prefer one coffee over another. Here, I hope to offer a simple guide of what information to look for on the bag and how you can use it when choosing a coffee.
Being a tropical plant, coffee is only grown in certain parts of the world. Among other factors, differences in climate and altitude can have a massive impact on how your coffee tastes. Generally, coffees grown at higher altitudes have brighter acidity and more flavour, although this is a trend rather than a rule.
The country of origin can be a good indicator of what to expect. For example, coffees from Brazil are known for their nutty and chocolatey flavours, whereas those from Kenya are known for their crisp acidity and berry flavours. Notably, most Brazilian coffees are grown at about 1,100 metres above sea level, while Kenyan coffees are grown at over 1,700.
Every coffee plant that is grown today is a descendent of the shrubs that were first discovered on the slopes of the Ethiopian highlands. Humans have cultivated two species of coffee: Arabica and Robusta.
Most of the coffee grown in the world today is Arabica and that relates to it having more desirable characteristics, such as more antioxidants and less caffeine. In speciality coffee, we only really concern ourselves with Arabica.
Ever since we first cultivated coffee, the plants with the best characteristics have been picked out by growers. Over time, we’ve given each lineage of Arabica a name, and we refer to these as varietals. While this isn’t as easy to follow as origin, it also gives us an idea of what to expect. For example, the gesha (or geisha) varietal is highly sought after. A combination of more desirable flavours and scarcity means it’s expensive, regardless of origin. However, price doesn’t always reflect quality!
The best indicator is the Q grade score; this is given by people whose role is comparable to wine sommeliers. While a score above 80 is generally considered speciality, I’d recommend trying coffees closer to and above 90 if you want to get an idea of what speciality coffee is about. Q graders and roasters also share tasting notes. Simply put, this is us trying to describe the coffee to you. We use familiar flavours and textures in an effort to help you imagine it before you try it.
Coffee beans start their journey as the seeds of cherries. Once picked, the flesh is removed from the seeds by one of two main processes. The old-school method is called the natural process, wherein the fruit is laid out on large beds to dry under the sun. This can lead to wilder and funkier flavours, which can be quite surprising. The washed process involves de-pulping with a machine, then fermenting in a water tank. This can result in crisper acidity with the citrus flavours more pronounced. In my experience washed coffees are universally enjoyed whereas naturals divide opinion – both are worth trying. There are other processes, such as honey (which doesn’t involve honey) and pulped natural. These processes incorporate aspects of the two main ones, and – in my opinion – are closer to washed coffees in taste.
The last bit of information included comes from the roaster. We develop roast profiles specific to each coffee, with some suitable for espresso and others for filter. The biggest difference is that espresso roasts are slightly longer in duration, which leads to less acidity, more caramel flavours and a syrup-like body. Although you don’t have to follow this strictly, you’re more likely to get better results if you do.