Where did coffee come from originally?
The earliest known mention of both coffee drinking and the coffee plant surfaces around the 15th century in Yemen, and within a century it made its way through the Middle East, Africa, and eventually to Europe – it took no time in becoming a worldwide sensation during a time period in which the spread of new things took substantially longer than they do today. When you consider the time it took for travel in the 15th century, the spread of coffee around the globe in a single generation can only be described as meteoritic. The history of coffee discovery is steeped in myth and legend, and healthy debates remain to this day about how it really came about.
What type of coffee plants produce the best coffee?
The coffee plant we know and love belongs to the species Coffea, which is a genus of plant in the family Rubiaceace. Within this species are several types – more than 100 in fact! The coffee plant shares its lineage with another plant most of us are familiar with, the sweet-scented Gardenia. If one compares their leaves and strongly jasmine scented flowers, the similarities are astonishing. The most popular types of coffee drunk today belong to the Robusta (Coffea canephora) and Arabica (Coffea arabica) species.
The Robusta coffee plant is a truly hardy type of coffee plant, with less disease susceptibility and higher crop yields. It is also far easier to care for, having less need for shaded areas and a tendency to be unperturbed by growing at lower altitudes. Naturally, when you can grow a crop in direct sunlight on ground level – it makes harvesting a whole lot easier and cheaper!
However, this convenience comes at the expense of flavor – while Robusta coffee beans are lower in acidity and have more antioxidants than Arabica beans, they are also much higher in bitterness and have a much harsher flavor than their smoother cousins. Part of their extra bitterness comes about because they also have a higher caffeine content, and caffeine itself is a famously bitter substance.
Robusta is mostly used in the production of freeze-dried instant coffee, though it can also be added as an accent flavor in Arabica-dominated blends, and as a filler in ground coffee blends. While Robusta is fairly unpleasant to drink on its own – it tastes a little like burnt popcorn – it can be an extremely complimentary flavor when added to an Arabica blend in a small amount. In small doses Robusta beans contribute a higher caffeine and oil content to a coffee blend, as well a bolder flavor. This can result in a richer, creamier brew that many would describe as punchy, earthy, and Italian- espresso style.
The Arabica coffee species is a more delicate plant, needing more shade and higher altitudes to grow at than its tough Robusta counterpart. For this reason, it usually prefers to grow in amongst natural vegetation in areas high above sea level, such as plateaus and slopes located on mountainous and volcanic regions. While this is great for the environment, it makes it much tougher going to care for and harvest. It yields fewer coffee fruits that Robusta plants do, but because the beans are considered to be much higher quality where the flavor is concerned, the lighter crop yield is no concern to growers.
Arabica accounts for the majority of global coffee supply at around 60%, and is the most common type of coffee bean used for fresh coffee brewing. The true appeal of Arabica coffee beans is that they have a higher acidity content along with flavor profiles that are smooth, sweet, and delicate. This makes that are a far more popular option amongst coffee lovers, which in turn increases demand and prices.
Where is coffee grown?
Coffee is grown and usually processed at origin – meaning the farm where they are grown will process, dry and age the green beans before they are sold to brokers or direct to coffee roasters.
The main coffee-producing countries include Brazil, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Honduras, Columbia, Guatemala, Peru, Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea. There are also a number of smaller coffee-producing countries mixed in with the larger producers, and all are located in what is referred to as the ‘bean belt.’
The Bean Belt is the section of the globe that provides the perfect climate for coffee plants to flourish and tends to be both tropical and mountainous in nature. Warm temperatures, high altitudes, and heavy rainfall are what make coffee plants happy and keep producing high-quality coffee beans. The Bean Belt is located between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, placed slightly either side of the Equator.
Once coffee beans have been processed at the origin, they are then either sold to brokers or direct to roasters and shipped to countries all over the world to be roasted by thousands of coffee roasting houses.
How is coffee harvested?
Coffee fruits – commonly referred to as cherries – are picked only once the achieve ripeness. Most cherries take on a deep red, pink or purplish hue when ripe, though other varieties can be bright yellow or orange. Unlike many other fruits, coffee cherries will not continue ripening after being picked, and the cherries do not tend to ripen at the same time. This means that growers face a clear choice: Strip their coffee plants’ branches of cherries, and risk losing a significant portion of their crop because many of the cherries were still green at the time of stripping, or selectively pick them by hand as they ripen at different stages.
Selective picking involves workers picking only the ripe cherries from a coffee plant by hand, and leaving the cherries that still need more time to ripen. Workers will generally return every 8-10 days to pick the next batch of ripe cherries, until all of the fruit from the tree has been harvested. This is a far more labour intensive form of harvesting than stripping, but for valuable Arabica coffee crops is the most popular practice. Arabica crops attract a high price point, and that makes every ripe cherry inherently valuable. For this reason, selective picking will continue as the main form of harvesting for many years to come.
Strip picking is usually performed by workers, but can also involve machinery on larger farms. Much like the name suggests, the method involves stripping the tree branches entirely of coffee cherries – regardless of what stage of ripeness they are all at. While efforts are certainly made to wait until the majority of cherries are ripe, there are always substantial crop losses using this method. Due to the cheaper production, bean quality and intended uses for Robusta coffee beans, it is far more likely that this method is used on Robusta crops than Arabica ones.
How is coffee processed?
Coffee is processed in three main ways: washed process, honey process, natural process, and decaffeination process (for decaf coffee). There are also some less common coffee processing methods that include wet-hulled and fermented.
Each way of processing will result in a different flavour profile in the coffee bean, and often coffee processing is tailored to target particular flavours. However, sometimes the way that coffee is processed is less about flavour, and more about the types of equipment and amenities available to farmers. Usually, a combination of these factors will dictate the type of processing that coffee undergoes. Regardless of the process used, during the drying phase, the green coffee beans will be turned and raked regularly to ensure even drying and to avoid mold formation. The beans need to be dried out to around 11-12% moisture to be safe to store for long periods, which usually takes around 14 days of drying to achieve. Once dried, the beans are moved into large storage vats to rest for a period of between 60-90 days before being shipped out to roasters.
During a washed process, whole coffee cherries have their pulp and skin removed in a ‘de-pulping’ machine. The stripped green coffee beans are then soaked in vats of water for up to 24 hours to allow for a light fermentation, which breaks down the mucilage of the coffee cherry. The Mucilage is the remaining slimy pulp surrounding the coffee bean. Once the farmer has decided that the mucilage has been broken down enough, the beans are washed thoroughly with fresh water to halt the fermentation process and remove any remaining cherry flesh. They are then transferred to either raised beds, concrete patios of threshing mats to dry out in the sun. Washed or wet-processed coffees generally have a very clean aftertaste and lower levels of acidity making them extremely easy and smooth to drink.
The dry natural process is where no fruit is stripped from the coffee bean before drying – the coffee cherries are dried out in the whole form on the drying beds. Once they reach the desired level of moisture content, they are then sent through machines that strip the dried skins and fruit flesh from the bean, before moving into storage. Having dried out with both the flesh and the skin of the cherry wrapped around the bean, this style of coffee processing produces a full and complex flavoured coffee, often higher in acidity and with noticeable fruity flavours. They tend to have a heavier mouthfeel and linger on the palate after each sip.
Honey-processed coffee is where the coffee cherries are de-pulped, but not soaked to remove the mucilage or excess fruit pulp left on the bean. They are transferred directly from de-pulping to the drying beds, meaning that they dry out with varying levels of cherry fruit still wrapped around the bean, before being moved into storage. Depending on the amount of flesh left on the coffee bean before drying, this style of processing can be broken down into Black, Red, or Yellow honey process categories. Given the extra fruit that dries around the bean, this style of processing tends to give the coffee a slightly more acidic zing, with noticeably more fruity flavours in the cup and a buttery mouthfeel in comparison to a washed coffee.
All coffee can be decaffeinated, regardless of the processing method used initially (washed, natural, or honey). Coffee goes through the decaffeination process well after the first processing phase, and are sent to specialised facilities for this to be completed.
There are no species of coffee plants that produce caffeine-free coffee beans yet, though genetic research is being carried out fiercely in this area due to its undeniable marketability.
There are chemical and water processes used for removing caffeine from coffee, but the Mountain Water Process (MWP) or Swiss Water Process (SWP) are by far the most common methods used now. This involves soaking green coffee beans in large vats of water for a period of around 4-5 days. The water is then removed from the vats, and run through a series of filters which capture the caffeine molecules. The now-decaffeinated coffee is then dried out again to 11-12% moisture and readied for export.
The caffeine molecules captured during the process are then sold to companies that make caffeine-based products, such as energy drinks, pre-workout solutions and pharmaceutical products.
During the soaking process, the green beans lose some of their natural coffee oil as well as caffeine, and this is why decaffeinated coffee never has quite the same level of robust flavor or creamy mouthfeel that normal coffee does.
How do processing methods affect flavour?
It’s fairly unsurprising that the way the coffee is processed will have a big impact on its final flavor. As we spoke about during each different process, they all add or subtract something from the mix. The types of flavours – fruit, chocolatey, nutty, earthy – these will all be influenced on some level by the processing method. Of course, coffee beans have their own base flavours, but the way they are processed will either enhance or inhibit these to some great degrees.
Some processes will increase acidity levels, while others reduce it. Acidity is important in coffee – it’s what goes ‘zing!’ in our mouths when we drink it. Acids excite the palate and make us perceive something as more flavourful, which makes sense when you think about other foods that are high in acids – citrus fruits, apples, wine, juices, vinegars, and tonic water are only a few good examples!
The higher in acidity the coffee, the better it will pair with a milk-based drink. For those that prefer a latte to a long black, that’s a distinction that matters. In Australia, we overwhelmingly prefer out coffee made with milk, and so we also favour coffee that is higher in acidity.
What is the best kind of coffee?
The first thing to consider when choosing the best coffee is what type of drink you’re making. If you are going for a black coffee, then choosing a coffee that is lower in acidity is a great choice. Likewise, cold-brewed and cold drip coffee often tastes much nicer made on low acid coffees. For those that like a milk coffee, especially those made with hot brewing methods such as French press, stove top, filter and espresso – high acid coffees can often be a great choice.
However, you always need to weigh both acid levels and particular flavours when making your choice. If you don’t enjoy earthy or dried fruit flavours, don’t choose it just because the acid level seems right! You can always find a coffee that gives you the best of both worlds – and asking the experts like the team at Crema Coffee Garage is always a smart move to getting the answer you need as quickly as possible!
At the end of the day, there is no such thing as ‘the best coffee’. The best coffee is the one that you personally enjoy, and the easiest way to choose that is take great advice and keep trying new coffee blends and single origins until you find some winners.