THE EVERYMAN’S GUIDE TO COFFEE SERIES: The BEAN, the roast, the grind.
What is it that you crave when in search of coffee? And please don’t just say the caffeine, but if that is what you are after then hopefully this may open your mind and your palate. It is amazing that a cup of coffee can taste floral like hibiscus or orange blossoms, tea-like (think Darjeeling with all its complexity), fruity such as blueberry or apple or even peach, or even brown sugary or smoky. The bean itself and where it comes from, how it’s grown, and how it’s processed all have something to do with the flavor profiles you know and love. Let’s begin by exploring the process and what that means.
There are three primary methods to process the coffee and extract the bean: washed/wet-process, natural/dry-process, and pulp natural. But let’s just focus on natural and washed for now.
Coffee processed “natural” tends to have more of the fruit-floral and fermented flavors because the bean has more time to interact with the natural sugars from the cherry as enzymes break down the mucilage around the bean. If producers don’t carefully dry naturals, turning them often and removing spoiled or overripe beans, then unappealing flavors will emerge in the roasted coffee and end up in your cup. These flavors can be as off-putting as fishy flavors and aromas which in coffee may not be what you are looking for.
The fermentation of “natural” coffees offers some of the more complex profiles which exaggerate the wild characteristics and is why most of these coffees are roasted light to help preserve those complexities, and in a way, offer respect to the way that coffee came into existence. Naturals offer a fuller-bodied brew, with notes of citrus, lime acidity, or a strong sweet, strawberry jam. Some finer notes can include tropical fruit, bergamot, black tea, and raw cacao. Think of wine and how the fermentation is controlled enough to turn a simple grape into something so memorable that you desire to find its equal. That is what drives me to find that next great espresso that all others are compared against.
Washed coffees on the other hand are prized for their clarity and vibrant notes with what is considered a low-fermentation. Removing all of the cherry and washing in stages prior to drying allows the intrinsic flavors of the bean to shine. Some fruit notes do come through but mostly the taste is of a silky smooth and delicate tea-like body, with a wide range of notes from the light tartness of starfruit to a deep, complex dark chocolate accompanied by a floral undertone. With controlling, and in some cases inhibiting, fermentation also decreases difficulty in creating a consistent coffee from cup to cup usually roasted in the medium to dark range. Expect clean, vivid and complex flavors in coffees labeled with low fermentation.
If you have yet to refine your palate start with a freshly roasted bag of light-medium roasted natural processed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe from a local roaster. If possible, have a cup brewed for you by the barista or see if you can get an espresso neat in that bean. Wait to taste your coffee until it cools a bit. Enjoy the aroma and try and detect the various profiles. Are you smelling citrus, floral notes, or perhaps do you smell chocolate? Taste the coffee when cool enough to hold in your mouth for a second and feel it. As you swallow you should taste the underlying notes of what that bean has to offer. Can you taste what you could smell or is it completely different?
To learn more about coffee roasting, as well as other culinary explorations, visit The Primal Gourmet.