Gourmet Coffee

Gourmet coffee, meaning exceptionally flavorful and aromatic coffee pleasing to connoisseurs, is always arabica coffee, as contrasted with robusta coffee. Most lower priced off the shelf brands of coffee are blends of robusta and arabica. Not all arabicas are gourmet coffees. Some can be rather pedestrian, depending on where they are grown and how they are harvested, milled and dried, stored and marketed. Gourmet coffee is grown in several places in the world which are especially favored by Mother Nature with optimum environments – high elevation, well drained volcanic soil, partially clouded days, cool tropical temperatures, little wind and plentiful rains. These favorable conditions occur in Columbia, in parts of Central America and some African countries. Jamaica and the Kona coast of the Island of Hawaii are perhaps the best known of the gourmet coffee growing areas.

How did it all start? Who first dried and ground and brewed up some coffee to drink? No hard facts here for a food and beverage historian, but fairly persistent rumor has it that, in  the beginning, a goat herder in what is now Yemen noticed his charges eating some little red berries from a pretty bush with shiny dark green leaves. The goats then began to jump around very energetically. According to the legend, the goat herder decided to follow suit, and an industry was born.

Nowadays, who knows how many centuries later, the state of the art in this industry requires certain meticulous procedures in producing gourmet coffee. Harvesting is always done by hand. This way the green cherry (coffee is called cherry at this stage) can be left for a while longer and only the ripe cherry is picked. A gourmet coffee orchard may be picked in three or four rounds over a period of several months. Machine harvesting, used with lesser quality coffee, doesn't discriminate between ripe and unripe cherry, so that the unripe is processed into the product and lowers the quality.

Once harvested, the red cover on the cherry coffee is removed by a simple milling procedure (called wet milling) and the beans, beige in color at this point, are covered with water and left to soak in a fermentation tank for twelve to fourteen hours. Some naturally occurring bacteria causes the fermentation, loosening a sticky substance on the newly milled beans. The coffee beans are then agitated with hand tools to separate the sticky stuff, and the parchment (coffee is called parchment at this stage) is rinsed in fresh water and put out on a deck to dry in the sun. Here they are spread evenly and raked repeatedly to accomplish uniform drying. Depending on the quantity of coffee coming into the mill at any one time, a particular lot may be pushed off the deck into a mechanical dryer to finish the drying. Processors try to dry the parchment to twelve percent moisture content before bagging it up and placing it in storage. Parchment is very stable, and, if the storage facilities are adequate, it can be held for many months without loss of quality.

Peaberry. Some three percent of a crop of arabica is peaberry. This happens when only one bean is in a coffee cherry, instead of the usual two. These peaberry beans are round, rather than flat on one side like the other beans. The round beans are separated out at a later stage in the processing. Many connoisseurs believe that peaberry beans roast differently and as a result present a unique and very pleasing taste.

So what's next in the process of bringing gourmet coffee to the discriminating consumer? Parchment is subjected now to a further and more complex milling procedure. The beige husk on the beans is ground off in a machine and the resulting greenish grey beans, now called green coffee, are divided by another machine into different sizes (and, to get the peaberry, into different shapes). Size and weight determine the grade, and therefore the market value of the coffee. In Kona, the grades, in descending order of market value, are Extra Fancy, Fancy, Number One and Prime. Peaberry is in a class by itself and commands prices equivalent to Extra Fancy. Different countries have different grading systems. Weight is determined by yet another machine that separates out light weight beans that are of lesser quality. The green coffee is now ready for roasting.

Roasting coffee reduces the weight of green beans by twenty percent. Wet milling and drying already reduced the weight of the cherry by seventy five percent and green milling reduced the weight of the parchment by twenty percent, so that a one hundred pound bag of cherry coffee renders about sixteen pounds of roasted coffee.

If you just chew on a green coffee bean, it doesn't have much taste. Roasting releases the taste. The longer and hotter coffee is roasted, the more some particular chemical compounds in it extinguish and others come to the fore and can be tasted. So the duration and temperature of roasting are critical in achieving an optimum result. A good coffee roaster is an artist. A lighter roasting sometimes preserves more of the distinguishing features of a coffee from a particular location. These region specific coffees are called varietals. The darker a coffee is roasted, the more the results of some defects, like sour or immature beans, will disappear. Finally, irrespective of the foregoing, some coffees just present better at a certain level of roasting. For example, many discriminating coffee drinkers believe that the medium dark roast called Vienna is the best coffee roast for Kona coffee. 

Blending coffee. Another artist in the coffee industry is the professional blender. The most common blend on the grocer’s shelf is robusta mixed with arabica, the prior for economy and the latter for taste. Sometimes arabicas of lesser excellence are blended with small amounts of gourmet arabicas to produce a pleasing brew. The best way to drink a gourmet varietal is straight up – not blended. Some blends, unfortunately, are designed to deceive the coffee enthusiast. A blend is called by a well regarded varietal name, whereas it actually contains very little of its namesake gourmet coffee and a whole lot of something else. Caveat emptor!

After gourmet coffee is roasted it is usually packed in small heat sealed mylar/foil bags with one way valves in them. After it is roasted, coffee continues to release a gas (thus the wonderful aroma of freshly roasted coffee) for several hours. The valves release the pressure build up in the bags, preventing them from rupturing. The one way feature prevents the entry of oxygen into the sealed bag.

Why worry about oxygen getting into bags? Two things make roasted coffee go stale – oxygen and light. A see through bag is an attractive coffee package, but an opaque container safeguards the freshness much better. Coffee exposed to light and air, like one sees sometimes in bins or big jars on a grocer's shelf, is going to oxygenate and deteriorate from light exposure fairly quickly.

Freshness is a very important issue with gourmet coffee. The best of coffees eventually go stale and will not be very pleasing to drink. How long will it stay fresh? One major retailer in the US requires ninety day date stamping on gourmet coffee. Some purists say that gourmet coffee has to be drunk within three weeks of roasting. Some home roasters don't want to drink it after twenty four hours. Actually, a well packed coffee will stay good beyond the ninety days, but it is beginning to change by that time. Opinions vary on the merits of freezing coffee. The better part of wisdom in the matter seems to be that coffee that is frozen will stay fresh and taste good for a year or more if it is frozen early on and kept frozen for the duration. A good rule of thumb for freshness – protect your coffee from light and air and freeze it if you aren't going to drink it within a couple of months. Also, don't buy ground coffee. Buy whole bean coffee and grind it as needed. An inexpensive little grinder will do. Whole beans stay fresh longer.

Brewing coffee. Use a good water. Chlorine treated tap water, unless you have a good filtering system, is a no no. Drink coffee soon after brewing it. Coffee kept warm on a burner or heat disc loses something after fifteen minutes or so. A good gourmet coffee is enjoyable whether it is dripped or percolated, but a french press or a cold water brewing process can make it even better. Grind the coffee up fairly well. If it looks like granola, grind it some more. Experiment and enjoy!

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Ka `Io Farms
P.O. Box 390759
Keauhou, HI 96739
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