Are You Sure You Want A Strong Coffee?

“I like my coffee strong”… I’m sorry to say this, but what you’re saying and what you mean, doesn’t match up. Let me explain…

After learning about the way coffee grows (catch up here and here) and how it’s processed (also, here), you now know that there is a lot of time, energy and effort behind a single coffee bean. I’ve also mentioned that each coffee tastes differently according to its country of origin, varietal, process method… 

However, there is yet another variant in the coffee equation. When the coffee bean is shipped to caffeine consuming countries, we obtain what is called “green coffee”. If you were to brew this green coffee, you would get a bitter and acidic beverage which you would not want to have. On that note, there are some countries and companies that have been experimenting with green coffee. It does not taste like the traditional coffee taste though.

In order to get that coffee taste, we need to roast the coffee. What roasting does to coffee is that it extracts the moisture out of the bean. This causes the bean to release the natural sugars, which are converted into CO2 gas and then caramelised (Maillard reaction). This happens with other foods, like meat or bread.

Coffee roasters have identified several stages that coffee beans go through. The most important are: first crack and second crack. These “cracks” sounds like when doing popcorn in the microwave. After this second crack, the coffee starts to burn.

There is a common misconception that the “darker” the coffee, the “stronger” it is. This is actually not true. Depending on how you brew the coffee, it will be more or less “strong”. You can use more or less coffee, water and time to brew it, and you will get different levels of strength in the coffee.

Now, when people say they like their coffee “strong”, I think they generally refer to the taste. And yes, it is true that if a coffee is dark roasted, the bitterness will be more intense.

This is because the sugars and fruity notes within the coffee bean are the lighter compounds and easier to extract. The more you roast the coffee, the more bitterness you’re going to be able to extract.

In terms of the caffeine, there isn’t really that much of a difference between a dark roast or a light roast. But there is, in terms of flavour, between burnt coffee beans and a specialty coffee beans 😉

How Does A Coffee Bean Arrive To Your Cup?

Last two post were the origins of coffee and its family. Now I’m going to tell you how it actually became the full grown bean that you grind and make coffee with.

There are several processes and each coffee farm will do it their way. However, there are three main processes that make it easier for everyone in the coffee industry to understand what we’re talking about.

  • Natural (dry): 

This involves leaving the entire coffee cherry to dry in the sun, allowing it to draw in all the flavours of the fruit. In order for the coffee cherries not to spoil, they are raked and turned throughout the day and covered at night or if there is rain or storms. It takes from 3 to 6 weeks until the moisture level is from 10-12%. After that it is hulled and sent off. 

It is the most traditional method of processing coffee and it’s the most environmentally friendly since it does not use water. It originated in places where water was not easy to access and it works best in low humidity. There are also issues with this method like for instance: if the coffee cherries are not raked enough, they can spoil; and also the resulting beans are often inconsistent in flavour.

The flavours of this type of method turns out to be a full body, almost winey texture and also lasting and intense flavour.

  • Washed (wet):

In this method, the cherries are removed from the seeds before the drying process. Once this is done, the seeds are moved to a tank where the remaining mucilage is broken down by fermentation. Then, the seeds are washed again with water to remove the mucilage from the seeds. After this, the seeds are dried in the sun on patios, raised beds, or in machines. Once dry, they are ready to be sent off.

It is the most reliable in terms of consistency in flavour and the quickest. The issue is the amount of water that they use.

The body is lighter than the natural method and has a cleaner texture, with more acidity and more crisp flavours.

  • Honey (mix):

The name comes from how sticky the beans get during this process. First, the cherries are removed from the seeds and then directly left to dry in sun beds. Because the mucilage is still on, there is some fermentation that occurs and this is where the stickiness is coming from. 

This method is particularly popular in Costa Rica right now, but they are used by other countries like Brazil, for example. In recent years, subcategories of this method have developed and you can find yellow, red, black, white honey depending on several factors like the amount of mucilage left on the seed or the amount of sun received.

The coffees resulting of this method are halfway between a natural and a dry process coffee; it is fruity, has a rounded acidity and a complex body. 

What’s behind a coffee bean?

I was not into gardening until I came across a coffee bean. To be honest, I was the type that would buy grounded coffee and added a couple of spoons of sugar. I am not proud of it, but I didn’t know any better. Because I’ve worked with coffee for the past 2 years, and I’ve come to love it, I want to talk about it.

Some people who know (or not) about coffee often talk about the notes, and the flavour and the aroma… It all sounds super fancy and posh and almost feels like they are talking about wine. That’s because they are actually similar in that sense. Coffee cherries, depending on their variety, will give you different tastes, the same way a Merlot grape will give you a different wine to a Pinot Noir. 

This is the coffee’s family portrait. Gorgeous. Now, some of these are a natural occurrence, like Heirloom, which happens to grow wildly in Ethiopia; while others are experiments man-made. 

Are they different in flavour?

Yes. They grow at different heights, different countries, different farming methods… So they will have different taste.

Wow, so when you drink a cup of coffee, you know which country is it from?

Personally, no, not always, but after having tasted different coffees and compared them, I can tell there is a difference. For instance, Ethiopia and Honduras, particularly, for me, have a distinct smell. 

Now that we have an idea about the coffee plant, let’s look at the coffee cherry.

  • The skin or exocarp, which is green until it ripe and then turns to a deep red, yellow, orange or even pink, depending on the type or variety of coffee plant. 
  • Under the skin, there is the pulp and underneath it there is the mucilage. These layers are important during the later processes because they are full of sugars. 
  • We then reach the coffee seeds or beans. Usually, there are two beans in a coffee cherry, each of which is covered by the silverskin and parchment. All these fancy names are basically cells that support and protect the seed. Sometimes, there is one seed only inside a coffee cherry that is rounder and larger and it is known as peaberry. This can happen when there isn’t sufficient pollination and one ovule isn’t fertilised. It can also happen due to genetic or environmental conditions. 

After this, a whole other process starts to actually get to brew the coffee. But until then you can start trying different coffees and compare and contrast the flavours.

Did you know coffee is actually a fruit?

Many people start their day with a cup of coffee. I know I do. But few people stop and think what they are actually consuming. Granted that we just want our caffeine fix, so where the coffee is from won’t be the first thought that comes to mind. Maybe this article inspires you so that when your coffee machine is brewing that liquid goodness, you will give a thought to the producers that make your morning coffee possible.

Coffee comes from a plant from Ethiopia. The origin plant is known as Coffea. From this plant there are two important species for the commercial use: arabica and robusta. Arabica trees produce a fine, mild, aromatic coffee and represent approximately 70% of the world’s coffee production. The Robusta tree is more resistant to disease and parasites, which makes it easier and cheaper to cultivate. Robusta beans produce a coffee which has a distinctive taste and about 50-60% more caffeine.  

Okay, but I don’t care about some plant in Africa whether is strong or aromatic. Right. These trees have flowers and these flowers eventually turn into a a fruit: coffee cherries. Depending on the variety, it will take approximately 3 to 4 years for the newly planted coffee trees to produce a fruit. In most coffee tree varieties the coffee cherry turns a bright, deep red when it is ripe and ready to be harvested. There are a few methods to harvest coffee cherries, but the one with best results (and also more expensive) is to handpick the cherries. Other methods include strip harvest or machine harvest, however, you will get ripe and not ripe cherries and you might damage the coffee tree. 

Inside these cherries that coffee farmers have handpicked for us, there are coffee beans. Depending on their size they are classified and have specific characteristics. But that’s for another post… And these coffee beans are processed through wet, dry or mixed methods, which again, is for another post. 

The point is that these coffee beans are the ones the barista at your local coffee shop grinds to make your daily caffeine input. Or the ground version of them when you do your coffee in the morning.