Garden to Table: Coffee
Garden to Table
May 29, 2007
These days, ordering a cup of coffee at the local beanery takes some serious skill. There's the latte and the cappuccino, the sugary frosted and the straight-up Americano, the decaf and the half-caf and yes, the double hitter. With all of these choices, it's easy to forget that the actual journey from bean to brew is filled with more nuances than a triple caramel macchiato.
"Coffee production is as delicate and diverse as the cultivation of grapes for fine wine," says Craig Min, CEO of LA Mill Coffee, a boutique roaster in Los Angeles that caters to high-end restaurants, upscale hotels and cafes. "Every factor, be it soil, location, or climate, lends its own unique characteristics to the bean, changing things like aroma, acidity, body and flavor."
Grown all over the world, the coffee bean usually begins its life in a nursery on an estate. Varietals are chosen based on the style of coffee desired and the estate's geographical region. Premium coffees like Arabica are found in tropical, high-humidity environments, often between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer. Soils rich in minerals are also key, as are altitudes over 2,000 feet. Lower quality coffees, like Robusta, can thrive in harsher conditions.
Once planted in its permanent soil, the coffee plant takes at least five years to produce a decent coffee, says Min. Harvested at different times depending on the region (between September and March north of the equator and between April and May south of the equator), the coffee cherries, which contain two beans, are picked either by hand or machine. Since machine harvesting cannot discern the ripeness of the cherry, a secondary human inspection is often used to select only the perfect fruits. The average coffee plant only produces enough beans to result in two pounds of roasted coffee per year.
Once harvested, the beans go through either a wet or dry processing. Wet processing involves soaking the cherries in water to remove the skin. Dry processing involves raking the cherries on concrete patios, repeatedly turning them over time until only the bean remains. While wet process beans are known for their "cleaner" flavor, dried beans tend to be more full bodied. From there, a variety of roasting styles can be applied to further enhance the bean's distinctiveness. Longer roasting, for example, provides a darker-looking bean, a spicier brew and a more intense flavor. Finally, various brewing methods - a matter of personal preference - are applied.
"Personally, I like the hand drip method because it allows me to brew small batches while using a lot of coffee in the extraction process," Min says. "Hand drip, as opposed to the French press process, also gives a cleaner cup without a lot of solids in the beverage."
For optimum storage, Min suggests keeping coffee airtight in a dark, cool place, but not in the freezer or refrigerator. Condensation, which deteriorates the coffee, starts to form when the beans are removed from cold storage. To preserve freshness, purchase only enough for one week, and grind it fresh, he adds. Ground coffee loses 40-50 percent of its true aroma in the first 10 hours.