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Coffee Primer: What Makes a Coffee the Best in the World


GREAT COFFEE, FROM SOIL TO CUP

It is important for any coffee enthusiast and for anyone discovering the fascinating world of coffee to understand the essentials of how it is actually made - from soil to cup. Despite the usual routine behind our morning cup of joe there is a whole new perspective being developed around it. A gripping one. It starts with the beans.

JOURNEY OF COFFEE FROM SOIL TO CUP

There are over 100 varieties of coffee however the two main ones that are widely produced and sold are: Coffea Arabica and Coffea Robusta. About 30% of the world’s coffee is grown from Robusta coffee plants. The Robusta plant bears fruit earlier, grows in a wider range of climates and is hardier than Arabica beans. Robusta is a less sought-after than Arabica and is used in the least expensive kinds of coffee. Many commercial growers looking to make cheap coffee mix Robustas with the more expensive Arabica beans.



Arabica beans, on the other hand, take approximately two years longer to come to fruition, have deeper roots (versus Robusta’s shallow roots), grow at higher altitudes, and are handpicked by coffee farmers rather than harvested by machines. Arabica also yields fewer cherries per tree than Robusta varieties. Arabica’s more delicate flavor potential make them absorb the tastes of fruits, flowers around them, and are enriched by the soil content, sun, rain and climate levels; and have many layers of flavor because of these conditions. In ideal growing conditions, with perfect care and processing, extraordinary beans may result. About 60% of the beans used today are Arabica beans.

Of course, even coffee grown in the best places will have varying grades of quality. Farmers sort the best from the lesser and sell it to different roasters at different prices. The best beans go for the highest prices and more defective beans go for less. As a result, coffee companies are willing to pay more to source these beans in an effort to bring the best coffee to their customers.

WHAT MAKES COFFEE THE BEST IN THE WORLD?

The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) has very specific grading metrics for the quality of the coffee. There are specific rules for grading coffee in a 300 gram sample. Here's some sampling criteria:

  • Body - How heavy or light mouthfeel is (e.g. milk vs. water).
  • Aroma/Flavor - Main odor and flavor features (e.g. fruity/winey vs. chocolaty/sharp).
  • Acidity - Arguably one of coffee’s most complex features, usually confused with bitterness, determines cup’s liveliness.
  • Moisture Content (9-13%) - A crucial aspect when it comes to determine roast profile.
  • Size of beans - Measured in sixty-fourths of an inch, the most sought-after beans are the biggest, with sizes ranging from 12 to 18.
  • Insect or water damage to the bean - This is considered a defect and even one single bean can significantly affect a cup’s taste.
  • Roasting Level - From light to dark, roasting level must be adjusted to take into account the above-mentioned criteria (plus other technical details) in order to bring up the best attributes in each bean.
  • Stones and sticks in the coffee - Specialty grade coffee must be free of foreign objects to meet this certification level.
  • Number of quakers or un-ripened beans - Bean consistency is key when roasting coffee. Smaller, more dense beans will translate in an uneven roast, affecting cup’s quality.

This rigorous process of hand picked harvesting to specialty grading leads to what is called 
today the third wave of coffee, which treats coffee as an artisanal foodstuff - like cheese - rather than the standardized commodity we have drunk for decades. The recent evolution of coffee could be explained as a natural extension of consumers’ desire of knowing where their food is coming from and what their contents are like. Demand for better beans coupled with price surges have allowed growers and roasters to experiment by tweaking the traditional processes while recurring to data-driven tools in order to find the right recipe for each bean.


FACTORS AFFECTING FLAVOR OF COFFEE

  • Region where it is grown: Each region where coffee is world has different terroir and features that define its cup quality. For instance, high-altitude Andean rainforest give coffee cherries a distinctive flavor; while drier, sunnier weather in the rolling hills of East Africa - where red clay soils prevail - give it a different taste. Similar to wine, the climatological conditions play a big role in coffee cherries sweetness, chemical composition, and attributes. Here is our entire collection of coffee and its regions.

  • Processing method: Probably the most influential factor in coffee's cup quality. By fermenting coffee cherries in water or on raised wooden beds, the coffee's aroma, flavor, and acidity vary greatly. Also, the way it is dried (sun or mechanically) has a big impact on the cup's quality. Our Ethiopian beans have a very distinctive flavor because of the method used to process them.

  • Elevation: The higher the elevation where coffee shrubs grow, the more intense it's flavor will be. The temperature delta between daytime and nighttime forces to tree to make bigger efforts in terms of nutrient intake. This effort is translated in a sweeter, more fruity bean. Our Indonesian coffee was grown at 5,230 ft. last year.

  • Rainfall: Wetter years tend to have an important impact on blooming and therefore, on bean production. This leads to an uneven ripeness in coffee cherry production, which makes the sorting process more challenging. Wetter years have also the side effect of bringing more diseases, with coffee bore eating its way into the beans. Affected beans lower cup's quality. Our Nicaraguan coffee had rainfall at 69” last year.

  • Cherry picking:  There's two ways of picking coffee cherries - either by hand of in machines. By hand you can control fruit ripeness levels. Homogeneous, red fruit have a huge impact in cup's quality. In some cases a few unripe beans can have significant effects when tasting. Growers are paid more for their work if they make an extra effort when selecting the beans. Also, ripened beans left unchecked in coffee tree are prone to diseases.

  • Variety: One of the most contested fields of study by coffee enthusiasts, some say coffee varieties play a significant role in cup's quality. Other major players in the industry (like Federación Nacional de Cafeteros) say the difference is minimal and growers should focus on production and disease control. The third wave of coffee has been experimenting with these natural mutations of the plant throughout its history in search of more refined tastes and nuances. Varieties like Red Bourbon, Gesha, Mokka, SL-28 (try ours, from Kenya), Maragogype et al have been praised for their cup quality. As a matter of fact, coffee cherry flesh has slightly different taste among varieties.

Our goal is to connect our audience with our own (caffeinated) perspective by sharing the tales of legacy, courage, hope, tragedy, determination, heritage, happiness and human ingenuity behind the people responsible of growing great coffee. Each farm, each family and - as a result - each bag of coffee beans delivered to your doorstep has its own tale. Ours is still in the making and waiting to unfold. A white, blank one indeed. We'd love to invite you to be part of it.


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