Where does your coffee come from? Anisha Oommen puts together a bean to cup guide for the coffee nerd: Everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask.
In a country of tea drinkers, being the only person carrying a stainless steel south Indian filter on vacation often felt a bit isolating. But growing up in the country’s coffee belt meant that a strong coffee tradition was instilled into our routines. Every summer, my sister and I were packed off to the coffee estates of Chikmagalur, where my grandparents lived. Summer vacations meant racing to rake coffee cherries with our toes as they dried out in the sun, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee at dawn, and mist-shrouded hills of white coffee blossoms under silver oaks and snaking pepper vines. The scent of pulping coffee still transports me to the plantations.
For many centuries, coffee remained a closely guarded secret. Word of warrior tribes gathering coffee cherries in Ethiopian highlands carried to the Middle East, Persia and Turkey. Stories of coffee houses in Constantinople piqued curiosity in Europe, and before long the Yemenese port of Mocha became a flourishing marketplace for coffee. The Arabs, who controlled the coffee trade, demanded adherence to strict laws; berries were forbidden to leave the country unless they were first roasted. But in the early 1600s, a coffee plant was smuggled out of Mocha to Holland, and later that century, from the Sufi monasteries of Yemen where coffee drinking was practiced, a Sufi mystic named Baba Budan smuggled seven beans to India in the folds of his long robes.
Today, the four southern Indian states produce more than 8,000 tonnes of coffee, and the Indian palate has evolved from drinking traditional South Indian filter kaapi, to Coffee Day and Starbucks, and now, to a third wave of artisanal coffee. Artisanal coffee is made in smaller batches, where controlled production allows for a measure of creative expression. Every stage is closely monitored and regulated, to intensify flavour, body and aroma. If like us, you’ve been intrigued by coffee but didn’t know where to start, here’s everything you need to know, from bean to cup.
KEEPING IT GROUNDED
The flavour of coffee is a blend of many subtleties, including the crop it is cultivated with. Was your coffee grown in a citrus patch, or near a vanilla plantation? The flavour of coffee in heavily wooded areas is different from coffee grown in patches that receive a lot of sunlight. While you may not be able to pick out these notes individually in your cup, they come together to produce flavours that are unique and distinct, in much the same way that terroir affects wine.
Coffee processing refers to the preparing of the coffee cherry using one of three methods: The Natural method that involves drying out the entire cherry in the sun, allowing it to soak in the fruitiness of the pulp and bitterness from tannins in the skin, yielding a coffee with heavy body, fruitiness and strong flavours. Another method, called Wet Processing, washes away the pulp and skin of the coffee cherry, retaining only the green bean and its delicate parchment covering that is then dried out, to yield a coffee that is mellow, with less body, but higher acidity. The midpoint between these two methods is Pulp Sundrying. Here, the skin of the cherry is removed, and pulp is left to ferment on the bean before it is put out to dry. The fruitiness from the pulp seeps into the bean to create a more balanced body, without the bitterness of tannins from the skin. Fermentation allows for a lot of play in flavours – coffee makers use the juice of different fruits grown on the farm to kickstart the fermentation process and lend another note to the flavour profile of the coffee.
Where and how the coffee beans are stored affects the flavour. During the British Raj, when coffee beans were shipped from the Western Ghats to Europe, transported over sea during the monsoon months, the humidity of the ocean air turned the green beans to a swollen, pale yellow. The resulting coffee, a mellow, smooth brew, low in acidity, was christened the Monsooned Malabar. Now coffee-makers often store their beans near the coast, to develop those exotic notes in the cup through exposure to moisture-laden ocean air.
Roasting aims to draw out the inherent flavours present in each particular strain of coffee – acidity, floral notes, molasses and earth. Close to 900 chemical reactions take place during a roast, but three of the most common reactions happen in kitchens everywhere: the Maillard reaction, Strecker Degradation and Caramelization, that lend coffee its aroma, flavour and sweetness. Maillard is a browning reaction that gives coffee its rich brown colour and toasty flavour. Caramelisation is the breakdown of sugar molecules, to release those sweet, bitter and nutty flavour components. These processes convert starch to sugar, and controlled adjustments of temperature allow the sugars to melt slowly and caramelise.
The first crack (an audible signal at a particular point in the roast) draws out the coffee's flavour potentials. Further roasting is done to bring the right amount of body and sweetness to the surface. Most artisanal coffee makers don’t go beyond the second crack, because all those nuances they’ve worked so hard to develop will be lost in the cup, dominated by the bitterness of a dark roast.
Think of coffee as a perishable item – never buy coffee that’s been on the shelf longer than two weeks of its roast date. (That bag in your freezer should probably go in the bin.)
Coffee is one of the most complex foods we ingest, chemically speaking. It has twice as many flavour compounds as wine, and like wine, terroir plays a key role – the soil, earth and water of the region lend the coffee its distinctive flavour. Not all coffees are blended, but blended coffees attain a flavour balance that single-bean coffee often can’t achieve. A single bean could either be predominantly fruity, bold, acidic or aromatic. Blends are created to combine dominant flavours from various coffees to produce a more balanced cup.
Freshly ground coffee is simply unparalleled. Grinding kickstarts the oxidising and ageing process, and coffee is best brewed within 15 minutes of the grind. Grind size affects the surface area of coffee exposed to water – smaller particles have more contact, and allow for a faster 'extraction' of flavour. Too much extraction (from brewing too long, or from a grind that is too fine) can make the coffee bitter and chalky, while too little extraction can create a lack of depth, with sour, vinegary flavours.
TALK FLAVOUR TO ME
The flavour we taste in coffee corresponds to foods we describe because coffee contains the same flavour compounds as the foods they remind us of. What does your cup of coffee remind you of? Is it bright and delicate, like citrus fruit, or is dark and heavy like chocolate and nuts? If it is sweet, what sweet things can you compare it to? (Taste is subjective, so don't over think it). I might taste a cup of coffee and be reminded of warm bread, while you might taste apple pie. Both these foods indicate butter and caramelised sugars, and coffee shares many of these flavour components, so we’d both be right.
When you take your first sip, pay attention to aroma. As the flavours fill your palate, think about top notes – like the sharp, acidic notes in an espresso. Pay attention to the heavier, bottom notes. Coffee with heavy body is like a stout beer that feels thicker on the palate when compared to a lager that has a lighter mouth-feel. Ideally, a good, clean cup of coffee has no overlap or muddle of flavours in the mouth.
JUST BREW IT
The kind of equipment you use to brew coffee affects the flavour profile in your cup. We recommend choosing apparatus based on your flavour preferences.
1. Espresso Machine: An espresso machine sends water through coffee grounds at high temperature and pressure over the span of 30 seconds, extracting only the top notes in a blend. If you enjoy the acidity of coffee, an espresso will hit the spot every time.
2. Pour-over: The pour-over, when compared with an espresso machine, allows the heavier bottom notes to come through. This technique employs gravity instead of heat or pressure, and water is constantly replenished into the conical filter using a spouted kettle. This kind of control allows for more flavour and body to come through, and covers more of the palate than an espresso would. If you’re looking for a coffee whose flavours stay with you a bit longer, choose a pour-over. Learn how to use it here.
One of the biggest secrets to creating a perfect cup of coffee is the coffee bloom. Coffee retains carbon dioxide when it is roasted, and coffee bloom is an effervescence that results from the escaping carbon dioxide. When coffee is ground the gases are released; when hot water is poured on the grounds, they release even quicker. This also serves as a visual tip to the home brewer that his batch of coffee has been roasted recently.
3. Aeropress: The aeropress is a favourite with home brewers, and is the perfect travel companion given its size and ease of use. The contact time between water and coffee is more than in an espresso machine, and the flavour extraction is often more rounded, with a flavour profile that covers more of the palate. The aeropress is ideal for someone who is just discovering coffee because it offers clean flavours in the cup, and is versatile in that it can be used for an espresso shot, black coffee, or coffee with milk. Get an aeropress here.
4. Cold brew: A cold brew steeps the coffee grounds in cold water for 12-24 hours. Since there is no heat source to extract bitterness and acidity, a cold brew remains low on both counts, making for a smooth, mellow drink. Conversely however, a cold brew has very high caffeine content, and while it is perfect for the summer, does require a fair amount of planning! Learn how to make a cold brew at home.
There is also the electric filter, the mocha pot and the south Indian filter – you can learn to use them here – but they offer less control over the process of brewing, or tailoring a cup to your taste. But don't be afraid to experiment with equipment and different kinds of coffee – coffee's history is chequered with intrigue, adventure, and even a bit of illegal criminal activity, so go forth, be brew-tiful and get cracking.
[Thank you to Ashish D’Abreo of The Flying Squirrel for facilitating this post.]
Anisha Rachel Oommen is a food writer and co-founder of The Goya Journal.
Illustrations by Jiří Zralý. Photographs courtesy Seemal Karthik and The Flying Squirrel.
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