This is the third installment in a series of articles.
*Disclaimer- If I am incorrect on anything mentioned here, I apologize, and appreciate being informed of such. I am still learning this fascinating industry, and hope to continue doing so for years. This was edited for content 7-25-2010.
So what's the big deal with specialty coffee? What separates it from the coffee you find on the shelf at the supermarket? Why do some people(including me) feel it is worth the extra expense to buy fresh, roasted coffee beans that have yet to be ground?
Well, let's start by talking about coffee as a plant. There are two main species of coffee: robusta, and arabica. Robusta currently makes up about 20% of the world's total coffee crop production. The reasons for raising this species are simple: Robusta coffee is, well, robust. It requires less care, and is more disease-resistant and drought resistant than its cousin, the arabica coffee plant. Robusta grows well on the plains, and produces large crops each year. It is a stable commodity in the world market. Arabica coffee plants, on the other hand, grow best at high altitudes, in areas less accessible to modern farming equipment,and are very sensitive to soil ph levels, rainfall, and disease. Arabica coffee farming is just high maintenance, and costs in production are higher.
In the United States, as well as in other countries around the globe, arabica coffee is considered superior to robusta, due to the considerable difference in flavor. The wonderful thing about arabica coffee is the sheer variety of flavor possibilities, due to soil acidity, altitude, rainfall, harvest and processing methods, shipping and packaging processes, and roasting processes. For instance, a specialty coffee roaster may include information on the package of fresh, roasted, beans you are holding in your hand. That information may include: country of origin, region of origin, FARM of origin, altitude at which grown, processing method, etc. (And a truly "enlightened" roaster will always include the "Roasted on" date, so you will know how fresh it is.) The wonderful thing is, two separate roasters can offer coffee from exactly the same place, the same batch of processed coffee beans, and due to their roasting process, may produce different flavor profiles entirely.
In most supermarkets, the most information you can expect to find is the basic geographical region of origin, and the "sell by" date, which is often WAAAAY too long for the coffee to remain fresh. However, if you must buy supermarket coffee, buy only enough for a week, and buy only whole bean. Invest in a grinder, and grind only enough to brew. Grinding fresh, and brewing immediately, is by far one of the most critical elements in enjoying a great cup of coffee. We will talk about grinding procedures later.
I still have not explained the different ways the coffee fruit is processed to access and dry the coffee beans. This is so important to what you taste in your cup, I am going to dedicate a separate note, just for that.
So until next time....
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