The flavor of your coffee depends in large part on the characteristics of the beans from which it is made-on the species of the bean, how and where it was grown-and how it was harvested and processed. The buyer’s guide describes the flavor of the coffees you are likely to encounter in specialty stores. A glossary explaining the terms used by professional tasters is also available. There are, nonetheless, some general factors affecting coffee flavor.
Although there are about 100 species of the genus Coffea; only four are used to make the drink we call coffee. Almost all of the coffees sought by gourmets are of the species commonly called Arabica. These coffees are comparatively low yielding and flourish at higher altitudes, but their flavor is easily the most complex and delightful. The hardier and higher-yielding Robusta and Liberica strains are high in caffein but low in flavor. They should seldom be seen in a gourmet shop.
The Robusta beans betray their presence in the cup by foaming slightly and sometimes by leaving a tarry ring. In recent years, the Colombians have developed a dwarf sub-species called Caturra. It matures much more rapidly than an ordinal Arabica plant, but has a shorter mature lifespan. It was created mainly to break the economic cycle linked to the five-to-seven-year period it takes before a newly planted Arabica is ready for its first harvest. In the past, a profitable year meant that everyone would plant new Arabica trees, and the new beans would glut the market exactly five to seven years later. A staggered introduction of the faster maturing trees means a more even spread of the increased supply. The Caturra beans now account for about a third of Colombia’s annual production, and in flavor they are the equal of other Colombian beans.
Just as important as species to the quality of coffee are elevation and climate. Here is where the grades that the wholesale dealers sometimes give to coffees can come in handy. Designations like Supremo, Excelso, AA, and Jumbo specify the size and uniformity of the beans being offered. Since uniform size is important to correct roasting, such grades do have meaning for the gourmet. The size of a bean does not generally affect the taste. Gradings that refer to the elevation at which a bean is grown or to the hardness of the bean are more meaningful. Designating a bean as high grown or strictly hard should mean that the bean has been grown at the optimum elevation of 700 to 1,850 meters (between 2,000 and 6,000 feet) and in the best soil for it to develop a fine flavor. The two designations really go together, because a hard bean is usually high grown. A hard bean is not only more flavorful, but it will also roast more evenly, liberating its full flavor potential more consistently.
Different countries use different grading systems, and some fudging of the grades may occur at the retail level. It is therefore best to consider grading information together with other information about a coffee before deciding on its probable quality. Take the Costa Rican grading system, for example. From best to worst, it includes strictly hard bean, good hard bean, hard bean, medium hard bean, high-grown Atlantic, medium-grown Atlantic, and low-grown Atlantic. Thus, a “high-grown” Costa Rican coffee may not be the very best Costa Rican grade. The smart buyer, however, will note that Costa Rican coffees are generally excellent and might take a chance on a coffee described as high grown Costa Rican.
Species and grade can be good general guides to a coffee’s quality, but no pedigree will help if the coffee has been improperly harvested. Even with the utmost care, however, not every season’s crop will produce equally healthy beans. The ripeness of the beans when they are picked is extremely important, and the methods generally employed to pick the beans will influence the quality of the coffee. A bean that has been picked before it is ripe may look fine after it is roasted, but it will have an unpleasantly sharp or herbaceous flavor.
Some crop-to-crop and tree-to-tree variation cannot be avoided, but growers who strive for quantity above all else will often end up including a noticeable proportion of unripe beans in a given sample. The Brazilians, for example, pick beans by stripping whole branches, despite the fact that coffee beans can mature at very different rates, even on the same branch. Most Colombian coffees, on the other hand, are still picked manually by skilled laborers who select only the ripe beans for plucking. In Jamaica, the pickers don’t start work until local bats descend on the trees to suck the coffee cherries, thus indicating that they are ripe.
The processing necessary to remove the skin and pulp of the cherries from the bean also affects flavor. The ancient dry method, called unwashed today, specifies that the cherries be spread in the sun until the skin and pulp wither and can be removed. This process can produce fine coffee, but it is difficult to control. If the beans are packed too close together or if air circulation is insufficient, they may ferment beyond acceptable levels. producing a sour flavor referred to as rioy by tasters. Some gourmets prize this flavor, but most agree that it is unpleasant.
The modern wet method. which results in beans called washed, controls fermentation and thus reduces the chances of getting a rioy flavor. Such washed beans have their skin and pulp removed mechanically, but the remaining pulp is removed by soaking the beans in tanks. They are then dried to stop further fermentation. The designation washed bean on a label -then- will guarantee coffee of a more consistent quality than that called unwashed.
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