By Ethan Cullingworth
Ah, coffee. If you’re reading this I assume it’s a familiar word that evokes in you a wash of emotion, unique to each individual’s particular experience with the beverage and industry as a whole. It’s hard to not have had some experience with it. Coffee is one the biggest industries in the world, and on the large list of commodities we humans enjoy, it ranks at #98. As a species, we consume a lot of the resources found on our planet and with coffee it’s no different.
How did we discover it? How is it processed? How does it work? What makes coffee good, or bad? Should you even care about any of this? What even is coffee, actually?
The world of coffee is a rabbit hole and I could go on forever. That being said, having been a barista these past few years, and gone through the process of learning this info for myself, I’m going to attempt to give a brief intro to coffee without drowning you in jargon and bewildering you with theories and gratuitous detail.
Coffee is a beverage made from the seeds of the fruits, called cherries, of the Coffea plant. Commonly believed to have originated in Ethiopia, though some evidence points to Yemen, largely through the efforts of colonialism we now enjoy this beautiful food worldwide. Legend has it a goat farmer noticed his herd getting amped after eating coffee cherries and tried them himself; starting the eventual spread of the ritual between man and coffee we have today.
The two varieties of coffee we will speak about consist of C. arabica. and C. robusta. As is stands, you’ve probably had both. Arabica is the star of the show; more delicate, this variety thrives in high elevation, humidity, and care. It has half the caffeine content of its family member, robusta, but twice the flavor capacity, making it one of the new standards of specialty coffee (a term I will cover at another point). It’s also more prone to disease and bugs, however, and needs intentional attention to cultivate properly. Often you will find arabica advertised as a selling point in store bought coffee, though, at any somewhat specialty coffee shop or roaster it’s expected and need not be stated.
Robusta, on the other hand, is a little more... robust. This variety does well at lower altitudes, less humidity, is more resistant to disease and pests, and is easier to grow in basically every way. And it’s got twice the caffeine content! The world of specialty coffee - for now - isn’t focused on it, though. It doesn’t taste that good. Robusta is often found in gas station coffee, cheaper blends, and the like. It’s that coffee you drink too hot ‘cos when it cools down it’s like turpentine that your dad drinks.
Okay, wind back a little. Coffee is essentially a fruit, remember? Or, at least, the seed of a fruit. That means in order to get the seed we need to remove the rest of the fruit after having harvested it.
Coffee is processed in many ways, each lending themselves to a particular tendency in flavor profiles. For example, natural processed coffees tend to have vibrant, acidic, fruit forward profiles due to the fact the fruit is left on the seeds for a period of time before being removed, allowing the seeds to absorb some of the flavour. Washed coffees, on the other hand, require using water to remove the flesh almost immediately, in order to start the drying processes sooner and prevent the seeds becoming spoiled from rotted fruit. Some people completely negate natural processed coffees because of this factor. I would wholeheartedly disagree, as I believe you can find some phenomenal natural coffees. In fact, if you decide to try a bag of the natural processed Ethiopian Ardi we have from Revel Coffee Roasters at Black Dog, and mention to someone behind the bar this blog is why, I’ll happily extend a 10% discount for a bit of encouragement. It’s a personal favorite, and a lovely cup, whatever the occasion.
However, as I mentioned above, before we can process coffee, it must be harvested. Coffee is almost entirely sustained by human efforts. Human hands pick and sort thousands upon thousands of cherries, process, package, and then send them. Almost all of these farmers live below the poverty line. The humble origins of coffee do not match the lavish setting in which we consume the food; in fact it’s rather obtuse. Coffee has over 800 flavor capabilities at the molecular level, which is three times that of wine. You know what the wine industry is like, and also how expensive it is. Most of us have zero problems spending a good amount of money on nice wine, yet balk when a coffee is above five dollars. Coffee is seriously underpriced, for a few reasons I’ll cover another time, and it is an issue that the industry should start addressing seriously. That being said, the coffee world has come some way in this regard and shows much promise of further progress.
I hope you found this information insightful — exciting even — and perhaps have garnered a bit more appreciation for your cup. Whether you continue learning is up to you, but you are welcome to keep reading along as I journey myself, sipping (as I’m writing this) my natural anaerobic processed Columbian, which I find reminiscent of pinot noir, cranberries, and milk chocolate.