Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Coffee Plant

Coffea Arabica, the coffee plant. The plant goes through three different hands, the farmer, roaster and the barista. The farmer probably has the hardest of all the stages, like Zinho from Brazil, supplying our Brazil Zinho Peaberry. He has many things to consider: climate, harvest time, pollination, pests, processing (including picking ripe cf. unripe beans, fermentation time, water control…), selling and so on. It’s not easy and then he has to the worry over the cost he will get for just one pound of green beans produced on one coffee tree.
Although there are over twenty species of coffee plant, only two accounts for the majority of commercial coffee sold worldwide: Arabica and Robusta.

The story of Arabica (dealt with exclusively at Caravan) and Robusta coffee beans is really a story about quantity vs. quality. Up until the mid 1800s, Arabica coffee beans were the primary choice of beans. Then Robusta coffee was discovered in the Belgian Congo. They didn't immediately catch on because they lacked the flavor intensity of Arabica coffee beans. In fact, the New York Coffee Exchange banned Robusta beans in 1912, calling it "a practically worthless bean."

Robusta, or Coffea Cauephora, is a sturdier plant reputed to have an inferior taste and quality compared with Arabica, which is why we deal exclusively in Arabica. Also Arabica contains half the caffeine than any other commercially cultivated species of coffee.

Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Gentianales
Family: Rubiaceae
Genus: Coffea
Species: C. Arabica

Arabica coffee is a species of coffee indigenous to Ethiopia. It is also known as the "coffee shrub of Arabia", "mountain coffee" or "Arabica coffee". Arabica coffee is believed to be the first species of coffee to be cultivated, being grown in southwest Arabia for well over 1,000 years.

Wild Arabica plants grow to between 23-40 ft tall, and have an open branching system; the leaves are opposite, simple elliptic-ovate to oblong, 2-5 inches long and 1-3 inches broad, glossy dark green. The flowers are produced in clusters, each flower white. The fruit is a berry about ½ inch long, maturing bright red to purple, containing two seeds.

Coffea Arabica takes about seven years to fully mature and does best with 40-60 inches of rain, evenly distributed throughout the year. It is usually cultivated between 4000 -5000 ft altitudes, but there are plantations as low as sea level and as high as 9200 ft. The plant can tolerate low temperatures, but not frost, and it does best when the temperature hovers around 68°F. Farmers grow the tree to about 16 ft, and are frequently trimmed as low as 6 ft to facilitate harvesting.

The trees are difficult to cultivate and each tree can produce anywhere from 1 – 10 lbs of dried beans, depending on the tree's individual character and the climate that season. Did you get that, it takes 15 trees to make one 152 lb bag of green coffee beans. The berries themselves are edible. They are very sweet, with a texture somewhat like a grape.

"The coffee beans" are actually two seeds within the fruit. Sometimes these two seeds are fused into one, called a peaberry (we have a Brazil Peaberry at present) These seeds are covered in two membranes, the outer one is called the 'parchment' and the inner one is called the 'silver skin'.

Most Arabica coffee beans originate from one of three growing regions; Latin America (this includes central and south America), East Africa/Arabia and Asia/Pacific. Beans from different countries or regions usually have distinctive characteristics. These distinguishing taste characteristics are dependent not only on the coffee's growing region, but also on its method of process and genetic subspecies or varietal.

Latin American countries produce coffees that are generally light-to-medium bodied, with clean, lively flavors. They are prized for their crisp acidity and consistent quality; both these features make them ideal foundations for blending or to be brewed as a straight estate. My present favorite: Guatemala San Jorge

These are frequently referred to as Indonesian coffees. They are on the opposite end of the taste spectrum from Latin American coffees. They are typically full-bodied, smooth and earthy, with very low acidity and occasional herbal flavor notes. These are the "heavyweights" of the coffee world, providing deep, sturdy "low notes" when used in blends. My present favorite: Organic Sumatra Gayo Mountain

These coffees often combine the crisp, clean acidity found in Latin American coffees with intense floral aromas and enticing fruit-like or wine-like flavors. Most are medium to full bodied. The range of coffee experience is as varied as the African continent itself - from the elegant fine coffee of Kenya and Zimbabwe, the exotic fruitiness of Ethiopia Harrar to the original citrus taste of Ethiopia Yirgacheffe. My present favorite: Ethiopia Yirgacheffe

And this is why we cup coffee at Caravan Coffee. Each farm, in each country, in each continent is going to be very very different. And it is going to change because at its heart, coffee is a plant.

Zinho, of Brazil Zinho Peaberry

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Now A Q-Grader

I slide off the top of a wooden box to reveal 36 numbered vials of “perfume.” Each number in the kit corresponds to a different aroma commonly found in coffee, some positive (lemon and butter) and some not so positive (medicinal and rubber). So how do you describe coffee? This is one many reasons to become a qualified Q-Grader (Quality-Grader). Personally it takes my passion for coffee and anchors it to a worldwide standard.

I am presently one of 40 USA Q Graders, 400 worldwide. That means I can buy and cup coffee confidently because I have passed 22 challenging sensory tests in the course of three days, consistently distinguishing brewed coffees by taste and smell from each major coffee-producing region, and able to grade coffee using established criteria.

The Coffee Quality Institute is a nonprofit organization that is the educational arm of the Specialty Coffee Assn. of America (SCAA).This brings a confidence in purchasing green coffee from around the world and identifying its many distinctions so you we can purchase the best coffee.The CQI expects those it has certified to grade coffee consistently and objectively using its 100-point scale. Practically speaking, a coffee that’s graded at 79 is worth less than a coffee graded at 89. “Consumers pay for higher quality,” Lingle, director of the Coffee Quality Institute, says, “but don’t necessarily pay for other certifications, like organic or fair trade.”

There are a number of exams. The olfactory test uses 36 vials of coffee aromas. You have to know all. You are asked to match like aromas, drawn from four aroma groups.

The triangulation skills test is much like Sesame Street’s “one of these is not like the other”. Faced with three cups, you must pinpoint which coffee’s origin is not the same as the others. It could be three coffees from the same region of Ethiopia, but one’s from a different farm. You have to get five out of six sets to get it right.

Green grading requires you to sort through 350 grams of unroasted beans for defects and cleanliness. We are looking to remove black or brown beans, foreign objects and beans with insect or fungus damage.

Then there is cupping, This is where you measure the consistency of multiple cups of the same brewed coffee, keeping in mind the aroma, acidity, flavor, body, balance… For the cupping test, we simultaneously grade blind samples of five brewed coffees using the 100-point scale. Personal preference is not the point here.

Any coffee professional is eligible to take the exam, but industry experience doesn’t necessarily provide an advantage. It’s not a test to prepare for, you do it in your daily job and understand it, or you don’t.