Coffee – the basics

Coffee is grown all over the world, and each varietal has its own characteristics, from the tiny round coffee beans of Tanzanian peaberry to the much larger Columbian beans. As well, the region it is grown with its unique weather and soil, adds another layer to a distinct character.

Broadly speaking, there are two major species of coffee beans, Arabica and Robusta. For all intents and purposes, Arabica is the fine wine of the coffee world and Robusta is the cheap plonk. Arabica is a much more delicate plant and required cool subtropical climates with lots of moisture, rich soil shade and sun, and only grows at higher elevations. Robustas are hardier  plants, capable of growing at lower altitudes and are much more tolerant of pests and rough handling and yield more pounds of finished beans at a lower cost. Within that there are over a hundred varieties of Arabica and two varieties of Robusta.

Pretty much anyone who is seriously into coffee will turn their nose up at Robusta, although there is a case to be made for putting a small percentage of Robusta into an espresso blend, but more on that later. For the purpose of this starter guide, some broad brushstrokes are that Arabicas tend to have a sweeter, softer taste and have complex flavours whereas Robustas tend to have a stronger, harsher taste with less nuances. Like all broad brushstrokes, there are exceptions to the rule, but you won’t go too far wrong using it as a guideline. Your average big can of coffee in a supermarket will tend to be Robusta, unless it is labelled otherwise. Oh – one final note, Robustas tend to have a much higher caffeine level  – up to double that of Arabicas.

coffeeplantCoffee starts its journey growing on a plant that looks like a small Christmas tree. The coffee plant tends to be around 5-7 foot tall and the beans grow in clusters on the branches and look very much  like a cherries. Most coffee is still picked by hand and the coffee cherries are picked when they reach ripeness.

The outside of the ripe coffee cherry is covered in a thick skin, underneath that is a jelly-like flesh and inside that, covered by a thin protective layer called parchment and another thin layer called silver skin is the coffee bean.

The first step in the process of making your cup of Joe is to remove everything off the bean itself. There are two ways to process the cherry, one is called wet processing and the other, surprise surprise is called dry processing.

Lets talk dry first. The cherries are spread out for up to three weeks in the sun and stirred regularly to allow them to dry evenly. They are then hulled, either by machine or hand to remove the dried out pulp and parchment. This is the traditional way of processing coffee and hasn’t really changed in centuries.

The other process is known as the wet or “washed” process, where a few hours after the coffee cherries have been harvested, the pulp is removed and then the beans are repeatedly washed and rinsed. The washing process involves a type of fermentation that softens the pulp and skin and allows it to be easily rinsed off..

greencoffeeOnce this is completed, you have what is known as green coffee, that is sorted, graded, bagged and shipped off to suppliers all over the world. Yup – as the picture shows, it is actually green and doesn’t attain that lovely brown color until it is roasted. It also doesn’t tend to smell of anything either.

This is where you come in. You will be buying green coffee and doing the rest of the work yourself. This is good, because green coffee doesn’t go stale – it can be stored for months before use, and it is only once it gets roasted that the clock starts running.

Next we will talk about roasting – especially roasting on the cheap.