The coffee assortment at “Coffee Friend” is exceptionally wide: from brands famous all over the world to small local roasters, from coffee beans roasted moments ago to capsules, pads or pods, from coffee blends to unique specialty coffee varieties. To make discovering your favourite coffee a little bit easier, we’re inviting you to trace the journey of coffee all the way from a coffee cherry to your favourite cup — this way, you’ll find out what aspects of coffee are worth paying attention to and what kind of criteria can be applied when choosing the right coffee for you.
Coffee Starts From a Coffee Cherry
Even though coffee is definitely magic, unlike other magical stuff, it grows on trees. However, there’s a long and interesting journey separating a humble coffee cherry from the beautiful roasted coffee bean that most of us are used to seeing. Technically speaking, coffee beans are, in fact, the pits of coffee cherries. In most of these cherries, two beans can be found, although there are also cases when a single bean forms — such beans are called “peaberries”. Regardless of how many beans there are in a cherry, they’re removed using several different methods, which have a huge impact on the final taste of the resulting coffee.
Processing is, in other words, the pitting of coffee cherries. There are several processing methods, which farmers choose and employ based on the features of their coffee’s flavour or the traditions typical of their native country. One of the most popular processing techniques is the so-called “washed process”. When processed in this way, the coffee bean is removed from the cherry after soaking the latter in water prior to the beginning of fermentation. The soaking stage lasts for around 48 hours — afterwards, the skin and pulp of the cherry are removed, leaving the farmers with a bean that is then dried out in the sun for a few days. The washed method endows the coffee with some fruity acidity, while the notes of berries and fruit tend to dominate in its flavour.
Natural, or dry, process is the very opposite of the washed pitting of coffee cherries. Using this method, the cherry is left out to dry with the skin and pulp still on. Once the bean reaches the required moisture content (around 11%), the cherry is then pitted. This processing technique usually unveils sweet notes in the processed coffee. Such drinks are often characterised by the flavour of chocolate or nuts, and if they’re marked by a fruity taste too, it’s usually reminiscent of dried fruit.
The third processing method, which has gained popularity recently, is the so-called “honey process”. When processed in this way, the coffee cherry is stripped of its skin, yet not its pulp. This allows the coffee bean to absorb the flavours hidden in the flesh of the cherry. Depending on how much of the pulp is left on the bean, this technique is further divided into the categories of “black honey”, “red honey” and “white honey”. The higher the percentage of the pulp covering the bean, the wider the resulting palette of flavours. These flavours are often particularly well-balanced: the characteristics of such coffee are right in the middle between the nuances of taste typical of coffees processed using the natural method and the washed technique.
Between the honey and the dry process, there’s the so-called “pulped natural” method. It’s made unique by the fact that what’s left to dry out in the sun here is the whole cherry, skin and pulp included. This method is extremely popular in Brazil, so if you like Brazilian coffee, you’ve definitely tasted beans processed in the pulped natural way. Notes of chocolate and nuts usually dominate in the flavour of such coffee.
Once the coffee’s been harvested, coffee farmers must make a decision: they can either sell their product to a large group of companies, which buys the coffee produced in the surrounding farms, blends it and then puts it on the market as single-origin coffee, or they can sell their coffee exclusively as their own. For the second option to work, the coffees produced by the farm must not only be of an extremely high quality and exceptional taste, but they must also be well-known in the world of coffee.
In both cases, the processed green beans are packed in jute bags and made ready for transportation. More often than not, each of these bags holds 60 kg of beans, but in some South American countries, such as Colombia or Costa Rica, the bags are larger and can hold up to 69 kg: the farmers have calculated that such a weight is perfect donkeys, which have to carry one bag on each side of their back.
The packaged green coffee is purchased by reselling companies in large quantities — these companies are located in non-coffee-growing continents that are nevertheless populated by numerous fans of this drink. Most roasters buy coffee from these companies and not from the farms directly.
When it comes to the road that coffee has to travel, roasting is one of the key stages of this journey. Up to this stage, as numerous decisions are made regarding the growing, processing and blending of coffee beans, their flavour potential slowly accumulates. During the roasting, this potential is unlocked. The more experienced the roaster is, the more flavours he or she manages to unveil. Roasters can also choose a roast profile that hides the notes not suited for certain beans. Once the coffee’s been roasted, its taste is at its peak: no brewing method can make the drink tastier, so our task is to avoid ruining the qualities that the roaster has expertly unlocked.
The roasting process is divided into three separate stages: drying, the Maillard reaction (browning, or caramelisation) and development. Because the moisture content of green coffee beans amounts to around 11%, for the first 5 minutes, the coffee is dried, rather than roasted, in the roasting machine. Once this percentage goes down significantly, the coffee starts roasting and, as the sugar inside it slowly browns, caramelisation begins. During this stage, chemical reactions are produced within the bean, which allow it to accumulate the energy needed for the third and last stage — that of development. The beans begin popping like popcorn, while the energy released during this process unlocks the nuances of flavour and aroma hidden in the coffee.
Once the last stage has started, coffee can be removed from the roasting machine a bit earlier (hence producing beans of a lighter roast) or a bit later (hence resulting in coffee of a medium or dark roast). However, this isn’t the only aspect that impacts the final flavour of the beans. If the Maillard reaction lasts for a period of time that is shorter than needed, even dark-roasted coffee turns watery and lacks the so-called “body”, while longer duration of this reaction makes medium- or dark-roasted coffee seem a whole lot stronger. The duration of the Maillard reaction isn’t noted on coffee packaging, so the best way to ensure that your beans have been roasted properly is choosing coffee that is more expensive, hence produced in a more thorough manner.
How to Choose the Right Coffee?
Based on the Type of Coffee
Depending on your preferred brewing method, you can choose from various types of coffee: coffee beans, ground coffee, instant coffee, coffee capsules, coffee pods or coffee pads. Don’t forget though that the tastiest coffee is the one that’s been brewed using freshly ground coffee beans. Wherever possible, we recommend buying freshly roasted coffee beans and grinding them separately prior to each preparation of a drink (unless, of course, you have a bean-to-cup coffee machine that does it all for you!).
Based on the Variety of Coffee
Once you’ve decided on the type of coffee, consider its variety too. Two words are frequently encountered on coffee packaging: “arabica” and “robusta”. Most coffee lovers have heard both of them at least once, but not many people can explain what they mean exactly and what’s the difference between them.
Both of these words refer to coffee bean varieties. The arabica variety is more expensive, characterised by more varied nuances of flavour and tasting notes that aren’t typical of the traditional coffee taste at all sometimes. It grows higher up in the mountains and is more sensitive to the conditions of climate and the surrounding nature, so its journey is six times more difficult than that of robusta. Nowadays, the word “arabica” is synonymous with high-quality coffee. Due to its exceptional flavour, many people are now looking for coffee packaging with the phrase “100% arabica” on it.
The robusta variety grows at lower altitudes, is less susceptible to various pests and has twice as much caffeine as arabica does. Even though robusta can be grown at a much lower cost, it’s never consumed on its own — well, except in Vietnam, where it’s mixed with condensed milk. More often than not, the robusta variety is combined with arabica. It’s robusta that endows our coffee with the classic flavour that most of us are used to, namely the stronger, more bitter notes. If you see the words “blend (arabica 70% / robusta 30%)” on the packaging of your coffee, know that this is the kind of taste that you can expect.
Returning to the topic of arabica, it’s worth noting the difference between arabica blends and single-origin arabica coffees. The flavour of blends is more subtle, not as vivid as the taste of single-origin varieties. Single-origin coffees of the highest quality are referred to as “specialty coffee” — they include some of the world’s finest varieties and are characterised by a higher number of unusual, unique tasting notes. Such coffee is particularly valued by true coffee connoisseurs.
Before you make the decision on whether you’re going to buy coffee made up of 100% arabica (blend or single-origin) or whether a blend of both arabica and robusta is better suited to your taste, consider the brewing method that you’re going to use. The flavour of blends (both 100% arabica and arabica + robusta) is best unveiled by bean-to-cup coffee machines, semi-automatic machines or moka pots. If you enjoy filter coffee or use various coffee brewing tools, single-origin coffee would be your best bet: each new brewing device will reveal different colours included in the complex, varied flavour palette of such coffee. If you decide to try specialty coffee, there’s no need to worry about the brewing method though: all preparation techniques are guaranteed to suit it.
Based on the Roast Level
Depending on your preferred brewing method, choose beans of a darker or lighter roast. The latter are best suited for drip coffee makers or pour-over coffee, while beans of a medium or medium dark roast are perfect for espresso machines and moka pots. You should also keep in mind that light-roasted coffee is usually fruitier and more acidic, while the darker the roast is, the more bitter the prepared drink will be.
Based on the Coffee-Growing Region
You can successfully guess the tasting notes of a certain coffee even if they’re not written on its packaging — all you need to know is where that coffee originates from. Coffee grown in different continents is characterised by different flavours typical of the beans of that region.
African coffee is usually more acidic. In it, you’re likely to encounter notes of lemon, currants, blueberries, lime, as well as other flavours found in coffee characterised by a lower pH.
Bitter, spicier notes are typical of Asian coffee. The dominant flavours include various spices, wood, tobacco and dark chocolate.
The flavour of South American coffee is particularly well-balanced: you can find both chocolaty and fruity notes in it. If you’re tempted to try out the coffee of this region, consider its processing method too: coffee processed with the help of the washed method is more acidic, while the dry process endows other South American coffees with a higher level of bitterness.
A bit higher up the map, in Central America, the features of coffee become “heavier” and unique notes of sweet tobacco, so typical of this region, appear. Flavours of various fruits and nuts are also common.
Based on the Tasting Notes
The descriptions of most coffees include their tasting notes too. It’s important to understand though that these are not artificial or natural flavourings — we’re talking about notes that occur in the prepared drink naturally, just like the tastes encountered in high-quality wine. Also, these are not vivid, instantly recognisable flavours of blueberries, blackberries or chocolate — rather, it’s something that might remind you of the listed foods. This is extremely subjective too! What might make one person think of blueberries may be associated with a completely different flavour when tasted by someone else. Such tasting notes are simply used to describe the flavour profile of a certain coffee. If these notes are chocolaty or nutty, the coffee will be characterised by a higher level of bitterness, but if its flavours are reminiscent of fruit or berries, the prepared drink will have a sweet-and-sour taste. In any case, you should allow yourself to be surprised and to discover the unique flavours that you can detect in the taste of your coffee!