The Road of the Specialty Coffee
Is coffee your cup of tea? Do you crave each morning a big latte or maybe a double shot of espresso? Regardless of your answer, the complex story behind every cup of coffee would certainly spark your interest in the coffee topic.
The ideal conditions for the evergreen shrub, the Coffee tree, to grow are found around the sunny Equatorial zone called "The Bean Belt". There exist numerous factors that can impact the quality and the taste of coffee, from environmental and genetic ones through the way the coffee cherries are being picked, processed, and stored afterwards. Coffee is grown in more than 53 countries since it is a highly enjoyed beverage and the second most-traded commodity in the world. The complex combination of factors that can affect its taste are the reasons why in some regions better quality coffee is produced. The iconic coffee region with the world`s best farmers who cultivate specialty coffee is by no surprise the birthplace of this beverage East Africa.
But what exactly sets this region apart? What gives specialty coffee its unique characteristics and can consumers make the difference when tasting their third cup for the day?
To gain a deeper insight into what gives specialty coffee its name and status, and the process that makes it possible for coffee to be such an important morning ritual for most of us, let`s follow the journey from the coffee tree to the coffee cup!
Starting at ground level, coffee trees seem to be very pretentious about the place where they`ll grow best. A unique and magical combination of the appropriate soil chemistry, altitude, heat and humidity is hard to be achieved just anywhere. This is the reason why countries located in East Africa and in general the regions that belong to "The Bean Belt", are so notorious for producing the best specialty coffee beans they happen to have these perfect conditions.
Having set up the foundations for specialty coffee, the next key element along the chain is harvesting. In order to preserve the potential that they cultivated, owners of small specialty coffee farms (which constitute the majority of farms in East Africa) encourage cherry-pickers to collect only the red cherries which are at the peak of their ripeness. Although this activity can be extremely tedious, harvesting the right kind of cherries can turn to be the most impactful factor, setting the difference between two cups of coffee.
After harvesting, several initial processing steps take place. An important factor in specialty coffee processing is the time that elapses between harvest and the delivery of the cherries to the wet mills. The quicker this happens, the higher the chances for the potential of good quality beans to be preserved. Once found their way to the wet mills, coffee cherries are being mechanically pulped (separating the bean from the fruit), left to undergo fermentation (so as to enhance the natural coffee flavor), washed and finally dried.
Why drying is such an important processing step? After the coffee is washed also known as parchment coffee, it is taken away and spread on drying trays, where the sun naturally reduces the moisture content in coffee beans just to 10-12%. Mistakes in this process can be disastrous to the final quality. Thus, it should happen slowly, evenly and consistently, eliminating the chances of ending up with a coffee dried unevenly, not dried sufficiently or dried too quickly/slowly.
Provided that the coffee makes it successfully through the drying process, it begins its next stage of transformation hulling, separation by size and packaging for shipping. The goal of hulling is to remove the skin that surrounds the coffee bean (also known as parchment skin). After the coffee beans are being hulled, they are separated by size and then an appropriate package is chosen. Many mistakes may arise at this point when it comes to the right selection of packaging or keeping the coffee in unsuitable storage conditions.
Finally, our coffee made it to the end of raw processing and it is time to enter one of the most exciting staged in specialty coffee production roasting. The roaster is a very important figure at this stage as he is responsible for identifying the potential of the coffee and by using the right equipment, heating the coffee beans to the right degree. If the roaster manages to preserve the specialty coffee potential, it will form its unique taste characteristics.
After roasting, coffee must be ground in order to be prepared for brewing and serving to customers. An important remark in this process is that grinding and brewing should be as close in time as possible, because many aromatic compounds are released during grinding. Also, the size of the ground particles matters a lot in the development of the coffee`s full potential.
So, here we are, waiting for the final process to take place brewing. Like every single stage, which brought our coffee up to here, brewing has its own specific standards to be met, if we wish to create a specialty coffee beverage. The exact brewing temperature, coffee to water ratio as well as the quality of the water, are all things to be considered by the final preparer.
Imagine someone asked you to define specialty coffee. Can you think of any straightforward answer? Well, technically, you can - specialty coffee is probably the one that has successfully passed all the tests along the long journey from the coffee tree to your coffee cup. In reality, all these processes are interconnected and a mistake at one stage can turn it all into a disaster. And like everything else in this world, in order to appreciate something we must fully understand it so, nothing else is left to say except for: Enjoy your specialty coffee cup and be grateful for it!