Coffee, like all products, has no shortage of specific terminology and buzzwords. When you want a nice brew and come across a grocery aisle of hundreds varieties, you might be inclined to simply pick what your wallet dictates and be done with it. However, if you find that your coffee needs a quarter cup of cream and two tablespoons of sugar to avoid tasting like an ashtray, you may want to consider a more analytical approach. I had the pleasure of speaking with fellow coffee nerd Jeremy Florida of Brass Horn Coffee Roasters to break down some of these terms and talk about the specifics of making quality coffee.
What is Arabica and Why is it Everywhere?
There are two main species of coffee plants that are harvested and sold: Coffea Arabica and Coffea Robusta. Arabica makes up 75% of the world’s coffee farms, whereas Robusta is about 25%. This is for a simple reason: taste. Robusta is a hardy plant. It can be grown in open plains, at low altitudes in full sun, and under extreme heat as long as it gets enough water. It has almost double the caffeine content of Arabica which repels insects and pests, but many humans will find it a bit repelling as well. Caffeine is bitter! Additionally, Robusta’s sugar content is nearly halved, compared to Arabica. This is why the majority of coffee declaring itself higher end will be labeled “100% Arabica,” but the statement doesn’t really mean much. Robusta will genuinely only be found in cheaper coffee blends—easy to farm means cheap to farm—and specific brands whose main selling point is lots of caffeine and pitch-black roasts. When it comes to a bean that doesn’t taste great on its own, you may as well blast it with smoke.
Processing Coffee: Drying Makes a Difference
Coffee is grown in cherries, which hold the bean we roast and brew. There are four main ways that farmers will process the cherry into a bean. They are:
- Natural Process
- Washed Process
- Wet-Hulled Process, and
- Honey Process
Natural processing, or dry processing, promotes a sweeter flavor. Cherries are picked, then laid out in the sun to dry for three to six weeks. As the fruit ferments, sugar is absorbed into the bean inside. This creates a very full-flavored cup. The opposite of this is washed or wet processing. In this method, beans are immediately removed from their cherries, washed thoroughly, and then spread to dry in the sun. Because the beans aren’t given any extra fruit flavor, the result is a “cleaner” taste—there is more acidity to balance sugar, and it is easier to differentiate those notes.
Wet-hulled and honey processes are different blends of these two. In wet-hulling, beans are removed, but not washed, and left to ferment while the remains of the fruit become a husk around the bean. After this, those husks are removed and the beans are dried finally in the sun. This gives wet-hulled coffees a full, savory, and nutty flavor. Honey processing is more complex and demanding. Beans are removed but not washed, and immediately left in the sun. Fermentation occurs there as the beans are raked and rotated, and finally, they are hulled. The end product can vary greatly based on how often beans are rotated, but honey coffees will generally be sweet, but have a cleaner taste than naturally processed. Even at this early stage of the coffee’s production, plenty of differences are being made in the flavor of the bean.
Sourcing Coffee: Fair Trade? Direct Trade?
The vast majority of coffee farms are in developing countries. This means widespread child labor, labor exploitation, and low, low prices. It’s estimated that one out of five children in coffee farming countries is a victim of labor exploitation. A report from the U.S. Department of Labor found that nearly five thousand children under the age of fourteen are growing coffee in Brazil. This report also detailed that on the Ivory Coast of West Africa, children are frequently taken from home unwillingly and forced to work for little or no pay, under threat of violence. Fair trade coffee is the Western world’s first response to this horror. Essentially, fair trade buyers promise higher pay to farmers as long as they adhere to a set of standards and practices on their farms. This is how it works to help sustain coffee farms and promote a better quality of life for the people who operate them. Fair trade is quickly rising in popularity, and it’s easy to see why.
Some will argue that fair trade is not enough, and global inequality still rises as producers are made to enter the arena of international law to sell product. Direct trade is the answer to this. As the name suggests, direct trade means cutting out the middleman. Instead of a farmer selling to a conglomerate, who sells to a distributor, who then sells to a coffee retailer, a farmer will sell directly to the retailer. This generally means a few things: 1) a higher quality product; 2) a more unified approach to the business; and 3) a stable supply of coffee and money to both parties. Because farmers work directly with retailers the two groups enter a partnership, working together to develop products and methods over time.
Jeremy Florida of Brass Horn Coffee Roasters makes use of specialty coffee importers who practice direct trade: Ally Coffee, CoTrade Imports, Mighty Peace Coffee, and Catalyst Trade. He prefers to rely on importing experts who he knows have made relationships with their coffee farmers. He explains that he is “not a broker” but that Brass Horn “makes a point to source green coffee that speaks to [them].” He admires CoTrade Imports for their practice of allowing farmers to set their own prices for the coffee they sell. Catalyst Trade is 40% owned by an Ethiopian coffee producer.
Florida makes a special point of speaking on Mighty Peace, a company that was formed specifically to benefit producers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mighty Peace works directly with farmers in order to increase the quality of the coffee they grow. “We try to showcase and honor the work that these farmers have put into their coffee,” says Florida. He is happy to outsource trade to ethical, quality importers so he has more time to spend on roasting and profiling.
Roasting Coffee: Medium is Just a Color
Most bags of coffee will indicate a light, medium, or dark roast. While this can tell you how “cooked” the taste will be to a degree, Florida expands on the notion: roasting is about developing sugars, lipids, and acids in a green bean to varying degrees—and not just Fahrenheit. While Brass Horn and many specialty coffee providers avoid dark roasting (that’s “treating it like a barbecue smoker,” Florida laughs) the difference between light and medium-roasted coffee is generally only about five to ten degrees in temperature. The real key to coffee roasting is in the development-time ratio. Development time is the time that the coffee roasts after “first crack,” or when the coffee beans begin to crack and pop. This is read as a percentage of the entire roasting time.
For example, Brass Horn’s Moonwalker roast has a slower rate of rise in temperature to 410°F after first crack, taking about two to two and a half minutes in development time—20-21% of the total time. The longer development time mutes acidity and makes Moonwalker a sweet medium roast that is great for espresso. The Pegasing Anaerobic, a very light and fruity coffee, is heated much more quickly and developed for only about a minute and a half—15% of the total roasting time. These two coffees are roasted for about the same ten-minute timespan, but come out with entirely different flavor profiles as a result of their development times. This is the degree of attention to detail a roaster must have to be able to truly note what a coffee tastes like. “Light, medium, and dark only refer to color,” explains Florida. The three blanket terms can be awfully limiting for consumers attempting to make a selection.
Another factor that will completely change the flavor of a coffee is the degree of airflow in the roasting drum. More is better here: with greater airflow, one can taste the actual coffee as opposed to the smoke it created during the roast. Florida notes that roasting combines science and art, making it a true craft. “It comes down to how the coffee tastes in the cup,” he remarks.
Serving Coffee: Different Tastes for Different Brews
At this point, it should be clear that not all coffee is created equally. Different methods of growing, processing, and roasting coffee will develop a number of flavors. Even within one region, vast differences can occur. Florida makes mention of Unravel Coffee, an Ethiopian-only roaster making a point to showcase the variety in only one area—a wide range of elevations makes a wide range of beans from the get-go.
With all of these variables in coffee’s journey from crop to cup, it only makes sense that each high-quality roast will have a brewing method that makes it shine. For example, a more acidic and “fruity” roast is fantastic for a refreshing iced coffee or flavorful drip, no cream needed. That same acidic roast would make for a pretty offputting espresso, which calls for a full, sweet flavor. Florida explained that for the first year of Brass Horn, they did not offer cold brew for the sole reason that they didn’t have a roast perfect enough for it. Luckily, that has changed very recently thanks to the Villatoro family farm in Colombia. The Huila Fortune roast is a very light, sweet, washed coffee with a hint of acidity—perfect to spend a night infusing into cold water that results in a cup comparable to a good tea.
Buying Coffee: What Do I Do Now?
The complexity of coffee production, trade, and roasting is more than most care to analyze on a daily basis. The buzzwords we see on brightly colored packaging have a place: to make things simple for any average consumer. Unfortunately, simplification can translate to oversimplification. Never fear! All of the above can be condensed into simple directions with the disclaimer from this writer that the most important thing to do is whatever you want to do. If what you want is advice, I am here.
- Direct trade coffee will always be better quality because the retailer and the farmer have a partnership.
- Trust your roastmaster. Good coffee will list tasting notes for you, so you know what you’re getting beyond “light, medium, and dark.”
- Know how you’re going to brew it! If you need espresso, you want more sweetness and heaviness. If you need a drip, a little fruit will shine nicely. For cold brew, a clean balance of the two is perfect.
That’s fairly simple, no? Maybe for the first time now, you can enjoy coffee truly, guiltlessly, and without five pumps of caramel syrup. And if you want that caramel, hey—I’m not judging.
Bonus Track: Taste Coffee Like a Nerd
- Take some coffee into your mouth and, without swallowing, flatten your tongue so it touches the entire surface.
- Take one long inhale through your nose.
- Do not do this with Folgers.