Roasted coffee beans were first brewed in the Middle East, centuries ago. What they called ‘Qahwah’ was made by boiling coffee beans in water till it started to foam up- and a few more times after that. This concoction was a strong, rather bitter beverage in comparison to what we drink. Since then, coffee has travelled through South Asia, Africa and Europe. Each region has shaped this beverage with it’s own twist. The fascinating transformation that the coffee bean goes through, to get to our cup, is worth exploring. Join me here and dive in, to understand what goes into your favourite morning drink.
Tree of Caffeine Interestingly, the chemical that makes this beverage so dear to us- caffeine, is produced by the coffee tree as a defence mechanism against insects feasting on it. Aside from waking us up every morning, caffeine also allows the cherries to fully ripen on the tree (by protecting them from predator insects). Ripeness of the cherry is one of the strongest factor in determining the outcome of your drink!
Cherry to Beans Pitting cherries essentially means stripping the cherry down to its bean. Over the years, passionate coffee makers have developed 3 methods to do this- Dry/Natural, Wet & Pulp Natural. Wet and Dry methods bring out contrasting flavors of the bean. Pulp Natural is used for the ‘best of both worlds’, yielding a good balance of sweet and acidic notes with a robust body. Once out and dry, these green beans are ready to be roasted.
Move over, Green Tea! Sometimes, the pulp and leaves from the tree are dried and used to make tea. Coffee leaf tea is quite low in caffeine but high in antioxidants-even more than green tea (This could soon be the new ‘It’ beverage!). Many regions in Sumatra & Ethiopia harvest leaves from this tree, not cherries!
Coffee dispensing Gut(?) Asian Palm Civet, is a small raccoon-like animal that has developed an appetite for the ripest of all cherries. A rather curious person once realised that the animal’s excretions contained coffee beans (Yikes!), processed in a way similar to the wet method. To make what is called Kopi Luwak, or Civet Coffee, the beans are fished out, washed (thankfully!), dried and stored for processing. Selling at over $600 a pound it makes the most expensive (& most imitated) coffee in the world. Large scale production of these beans is discouraged for animal rights concerns.
Roasting All the 800+ flavor compounds of coffee, that make it so interesting wouldn’t be discovered if it weren’t for the passion, care and critical control that goes into roasting the beans. The way each raw (green) bean interacts with heat is different. The temperature window, for each roast is so narrow, that judging the beans by their colour, aroma and temperature & knowing when to pull them out of the drum, requires great skill. Look into some details of roasting, to truly appreciate the experience, skill & hard work that went into making your morning coffee.
At 196°C- a Cinnamon Roast signifies the first crack of the bean. At this stage, they generally have underdeveloped sweetness, grassy notes and their acidity is prominent.
At 205°C- a Light roast, as the name suggests, gives the bean a light brown colour. This roast does not overpower the natural flavors of beans and so, is preferred by some roasters. This is a great roast if you’re in, only for the caffeine (I know, I am, sometimes!)
210°C gives the bean, what we call an American Roast. At this stage, it’s acidity starts to subside, while still preserving the original flavors of the bean.
The City Roast, at 219°C gives the coffee hints of roasted flavors. A good blend for specialty coffee, it preserves the character of the bean while bringing dimension to the flavor.
The roasted flavor is very prominent at 225°C- Full City Roast.
AT 230°C- Vienna Roast, all of the original characteristics of coffee have disappeared. The bean gets an earth-brown colour with a slight gloss (from the oils, that migrate towards the surface in roasting).
A French Roast at 240°C shows a dark brown coloured, shiny bean that has burnt undertones.
A thin body, distinct burnt tones at 245°C is an Italian Roast.
A 4th kind of roast made specially for Espresso-Northern Italian Roast is similar to the Vienna roast in terms of its temperature.
Ah! Espresso. Just the thought of espresso, to me inspires an image of a laid back, cozy, beautiful morning and waking up to the intricate aromas coming from the steaming cup in my hand. Well, it was invented to do the exact opposite of that! The meaning of ‘Espresso’ can be summed in 2 English words- ‘quickly’& ‘pressed-out’. It was first made, to be the fast-food of coffee!
How’s & Why’s Espresso is small drink made by passing water under high pressure, through finely ground Northern Italian roast coffee in a 2:1 ratio. The geek that I am, I was fascinated to know the secret behind crema (the reddish-brown foamy liquid formed on top of an espresso). Freshly ground coffee contains CO2(always ground fresh for espresso). When water passes through the coffee in an espresso machine, it is under pressure causing the water to saturate with dissolved CO2. Once the espresso pours into its cup, it comes to atmospheric pressure, and releases all dissolved CO2. If it wasn’t for suspended solids in an espresso (melanoidins), this sudden release of CO2 would cause it to fizz like a soda. Thanks to the melanoidins, its aroma lingers around, till we take our first sip. (take a minute to be amazed by that next time you sip on an espresso)
Espresso beverages The drinks available at most coffee stores can be quite confusing (so many choices!). New coffee drinkers brave through some rather unpleasant beverages as a result of being unaware of what all the fancy names of these drinks really mean. The info-graphic above, by www.annystudio.com, is an accurate guide to espresso beverages available at most coffee stores. It makes a good ‘ordering guide’ so you won’t have to chug another cup of a ‘specialty beverage’ that you regret ordering (we’ve all been there!). Also, ask questions to your barista about what to expect from your drink. Having a little sense of humour and an open mind to try new things helps!
Brewed coffee. Strength of a coffee is something of a personal preference and at times misinterpreted too. Many people who like strong coffee, believe strength to be the degree of roast & gravitate towards dark coffee. Strength of coffee, is a factor of its brewing ratio ( amount of ground coffee used for a cup of water). Strong coffee can be brewed from beans roasted light, medium or dark. Bitterness and sourness in a brew aren’t a factor of roasting either- they come from over & under extraction, respectively (affected by brewing time).
If you brew your own coffee, read on for a few pointers on brewing a cup that’s a perfect fit for you- Start with 2 Tbsp (27gm/2oz) of ground coffee (roast of your choice) and 2 Cups(500gm/16fl oz) water. Increase (to weaken) or decrease(to strengthen) this ratio till you get ‘the one’!
Another factor that sometimes loses our attention at home is the shelf life of ground coffee. Ideally, 10 days after roasting, the quality of beans starts to deteriorate (vacuum packaging to the rescue!). To avoid a sour cup of coffee at home, it is important to use the coffee up in 10-15 days of opening the pack.
A bite to go with Coffee. On one winter morning in New Orleans, at Café DuMonde, my husband and I enjoyed a steaming cup of chicory French roast coffee with sugar-dusted beignets. It got me thinking about how we rush through our coffee and miss out on the unique gastronomic experience that coffee can bring to us, when thoughtfully paired. Food & coffee pairing is a very wide ranged topic and I intend to write a separate blog on it. But a few pointers are worth mentioning here.
Coffee & food pairing doesn’t have to be as fancy or elaborate as it sounds (neither does food & wine, but we’ll get to that later). It is in the little things, like, say instead of gulping down, your coffee or espresso in a rush, you savour it-with a biscotti or a tiramisu or a bar of dark chocolate or a small bowl of cherries or a scoop of whipped ricotta with nuts & raisins! Coffee can provide a great gastronomic experience, if mindfully paired with the right food. (My fave? A strong Light roast brew with lemon meringue pie!)
So much to know about coffee, so little time! While I was doing some research for this blog, I came across many more intriguing facts on coffee. I’m saving them for another day, another blog. For now, what are some of your coffee favourites? Leave in the comments below!