Quality Coffee—From the Tree to Your Cup
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN BRAZIL
THE Finns call it their national drink. For many Italians, preparing it is a ceremony. In France, Germany, Mexico, the United States, and many other lands, it is an essential part of breakfast. After tea, it is the world’s favorite drink. What is it? For about one third of the world, there could be only one answer—coffee!
Regardless of how you personally feel about it, there is no denying coffee’s popularity. What is involved in making quality coffee available? Where does it grow? How is it produced? Is there really a big difference between types of coffee? What factors affect its quality, flavor, and price?
Where Does It Come From?
Coffee is made by roasting the seeds of the coffee tree, a large evergreen shrub that has glossy deep-green leaves and grows in semitropical regions. When in bloom, the tree is covered with beautiful white blossoms that emit a delightful jasmine fragrance. After only a few days, the flowers are replaced by clusters of cherrylike, green fruits that progressively grow and change from various shades of green to golden-brown to red or yellow when they are fully ripe.
Although there are about 70 different species of coffee trees, from dwarf shrubs to 40-foot-tall [12 m] trees, only two species, Coffea arabica, or simply Arabica, and Coffea canephora, also known as Robusta, account for about 98 percent of the world’s production. The finest coffees come from the Arabica varieties, especially those grown at higher altitudes. These trees grow to heights of from 14 to 20 feet [4 to 6 m], although they are usually pruned to keep them at a height of about 12 feet [4 m]. Robusta, which is used mostly for instant coffee, has a higher caffeine content and is more neutral in taste.
Cultivating Quality Coffee
What is involved in producing quality coffee? In a word, work! It all starts with planting specially bred seeds in a nursery designed to provide just the right amount of sun and shade. After about six months, the seedlings are transplanted to the field, the soil of which has been prepared with fertilizer and minerals. The coffee seedlings are planted in rows that follow the contour of the slope. These are spaced to allow room for growth and the maintenance of the trees and soil and to make harvesting easier.
To be productive, the trees must have constant attention throughout the year. This includes the removal of weeds that would compete for nutrients in the soil and the regular application of fungicides and insecticides to protect against pests and disease, such as the bean borer and coffee rust.
It takes at least two years for the young plants to begin to produce. When harvesttime arrives, the work increases dramatically. The ideal process is to handpick only the ripe cherries, one by one, as is done in such countries as Colombia and Costa Rica.
Cherries harvested in this way are usually processed using what is called the wet process. In this process the cherries are placed in a pulping machine, which removes most of the pulp from the seeds. The seeds are next placed in tanks for a duration of one to three days, during which time naturally-occurring enzymes decompose the remaining pulp by fermentation. The seeds are then washed to remove the last traces of pulp. Some are dried by being exposed to sunlight on concrete terraces or drying tables, and some by passing through hot-air dryers. The layers of dry skin around the seed, consisting of the parchment and the silver skin, are then removed mechanically. The fermentation, which occurs during the wet process, together with the use of only fully ripe cherries produces a mild coffee of excellent quality.
In Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer, most growers use a harvesting method known as derriça. The coffee is harvested manually by stripping all the cherries off the branch at the same time, regardless of their stage of ripeness. More recently, some producers are turning to mechanized or semimechanized harvesting methods in order to improve quality and productivity. One method employs a hand-held pneumatic tool that has a long arm with vibrating “fingers” at the end that shake the limbs, causing only ripe cherries to fall to the ground.
The fallen cherries must be raked up and sifted, either manually or mechanically, to remove leaves, dirt, and sticks. The cherries are then put into large 15-gallon [60 liter] baskets. The sifted cherries are washed, in either a concrete trough or a machine designed for this purpose. The washing process separates the ripe cherries from older dry cherries that have started to rot.
Once washed, the coffee is spread out on a large concrete terrace to be dried in the sun for between 15 and 20 days. During this time the beans are turned over every 20 minutes or so, to assure uniform drying. Mechanical dryers are sometimes used to accelerate the drying process. The moisture content of the coffee must be monitored to avoid overdrying, which causes the beans to become brittle and break, decreasing their value. Once the ideal moisture content of between 11 and 12 percent is reached, the coffee is mechanically hulled to free the seeds of their covering. The seeds are then put in 130-pound [60 kilogram] burlap sacks. At this point the coffee is usually transported to a cooperative, where it is classified and processed further.
At the cooperative, the bags of coffee are unloaded from the trucks one at a time. Before depositing their load, the workers pass by a person who sticks a long, pointed tool into each bag and removes a small sample of its contents. The samples removed from all the bags in the same truckload are then combined into one sample, which is labeled and classified.
Once the samples have been taken, the coffee from different truckloads is combined and further processed to improve its quality. It first passes through a machine that removes impurities, next through a mechanical sieve that separates the beans according to size, and then onto a vibrating table that separates them according to weight. After that, the beans are conveyed to an electronic separator, which removes any black or green beans that would spoil the flavor of the brewed coffee. The rest are next conveyed to a storage reservoir and, later, poured into bags. The bags contain beans of uniform size and quality that are ready to be sold to exporters or to local buyers.
How are those samples that were taken earlier used? They are classified to determine the price each grower will receive for his coffee. First, the samples are graded by type, which is a measure of the number of defects in a ten-ounce [300 gram] sample. Defects include black, green, or broken beans and impurities, such as husks, sticks, and pebbles. Next, the beans are put through a series of sieves and separated according to size.
Finally comes the taste test. The sample is lightly roasted and then ground, and a portion is measured into each of several glasses. Boiling water is added, the contents are stirred, and an experienced taster smells the aroma emanating from each sample. After allowing the sample to cool and the grounds to settle, he uses a small ladle to dip out a sample, which he sucks into his mouth and quickly spits out, moving rapidly to the next glass, where he repeats the process. After tasting all the samples, he rates the coffee from mild (pleasant, smooth, almost sweet) to harsh (sharp, with an iodinelike taste).
A taster must have a refined palate and a great deal of knowledge and experience in order to distinguish the many subtle flavors of coffee accurately. Besides serving as a basis for determining the price of the coffee, tasting is essential for the next step involved in producing quality coffee.
Blending and Roasting
Blending, which is usually done with raw beans, is the art of combining coffees with complementary characteristics to produce a balanced product that accentuates such favorable qualities as flavor, aroma, body, and appearance. The challenge for blenders is to be consistent in producing a delicious beverage with exclusive characteristics.
The next step, roasting, is also crucial to the quality of the coffee. During this step complex chemical transformations take place within the bean, liberating the characteristic coffee aroma. The roast can be light, medium, or dark, depending on the flavor desired and the brewing method used. However, overroasting can cause the bean to have a shiny appearance, caused by the loss of aromatic oils. This results in a bitter coffee with little aroma.
Proper grinding is also essential for producing good-quality coffee. The size of the grounds is determined by the brewing method to be used. For example, medium grinds are used for coffee to be prepared with cloth or paper filters, while a fine grind is used for Turkish coffee, which is not filtered.
Once ground, the coffee is packaged and shipped. Coffee packaged in plastic lasts for about 60 days, whereas vacuum-packed coffee lasts up to a year. Once opened, coffee should be stored in tightly sealed containers, preferably in the refrigerator.
Preparing That ‘Perfect Cup’
After all the work of planting, cultivating, harvesting, processing, classifying, blending, roasting, and grinding, we finally come to the part you have been waiting for—preparing that ‘perfect cup’! There are many different brewing methods, such as Turkish, automatic drip, and Italian moka, to name a few—and each requires a different means of preparation. In general, however, it is recommended that you use between six and eight tablespoons of coffee per quart of water. Prepare only the amount you plan to serve right away. Never reuse the grounds, and always wash the coffeepot, filter holder, and other utensils with water immediately after use.
The next time you sit down to savor the flavor and aroma of your favorite coffee, whether it be Brazilian cafezinho, Colombian tinto, Italian espresso, or your own special brew, why not pause and reflect on all the hard work that went into making that quality coffee available—from the tree to your cup.
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At the nursery, seedlings get just the right amount of sun and shade
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Groves of mature coffee trees
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Coffee cherries are harvested by stripping them from the branches
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Brazilian harvester sifting cherries by hand to remove leaves and dirt
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Samples are classified by counting the number of defects in ten ounces [300 grams] of beans
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A taster must have a great deal of experience