Express yourself

“There are almost as many types of coffee drinkers as there are coffees.” So says A.j. Zambito, owner of the Grind House in St. Clairsville.

It’s true. Some people drink it to get going; others to relax. People drink a cup a day for the health benefits, and some have a caffeine addiction, uh, brewing. If coffee means more than stumbling into a mini-mart every morning for joe-to-go, read on.

Flavor matters to most coffee drinkers, and it’s created on several levels. First, location or origin of the beans. The plant Coffea is grown mainly in tropical areas at high altitudes. The original C.arabica bush is native to Africa, specifically Ethiopia, but is grown throughout the world and produces the desirable “Arabica” beans. “Robusta,” C.canaphora, is a hardier species grown for the large, commercial coffee industry. It stands to reason, as in wine production, qualities in the soil-minerals, other vegetation, sand, clay, run-off-will reflect in the fruit receiving its nourishment from the roots of the plant. Therefore, aside from differences in bean species, coffee from South America will not taste the same as coffee from Vietnam or Africa or Hawaii.

The following list is a very general guideline for world coffee characteristics. Africa: Ethiopia (also labeled Sidamo, Harer or Kaffa,) bold, full-bodied; Ivory Coast (largest producer of robusta in the world,) used for espresso and dark roast blends; Kenya, sharp, acidic, fruity, full-bodied. Arabian Penninsula: medium to full body, good acidity, chocolate undertones. Indonesia: (Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi,) rich, mild acidity, full-bodied. South America: Colombia, mild, balanced acidity; Brazil, medium-bodied, low acidity. Central America: Costa Rica (grows only Arabica beans,) premium, very well-balanced; Guatemala, rich flavor. Mexico, light body, possibly acidic. Hawaii (Kona,) medium-bodied.

Though coffee originated in Ethiopia, that country is fifth in world production. Brazil leads with over 2.2 million tons annually, followed by Vietnam (just under 1 million tons,) Columbia and Indonesia.

Harvesting of the green coffee berries also affects the flavor in the end. Traditionally, ripe berries are picked by hand, which is labor intensive but insures quality. Most large commercial producers strip pick, using machines or laborers, stripping all of the berries from all of the bushes. The seeds-called beans-are extracted from the fruit, washed then dried (methods vary.)

Roasting is the next step and probably is most influential in establishing a coffee’s flavor. Several changes occur during roasting. Any remaining moisture in the bean evaporates, and the bean itself expands but becomes less dense. Heat caramelizes the starches in the bean, turning the bean brown. While many of the natural oils dissipate, the roasting process creates another oil called caffeol, developing the bean’s flavor and aroma.

The lighter the roast, the more actual bean flavor comes out in the brewing. A light roast is achieved when the hot beans audibly make a “crack.” The coffee is higher in acid and medium-bodied, and the beans are still dry looking. A medium roast coffee is the most popular roast, well-balanced, retaining some of the bean flavor and dryness. Full roasted beans begin cracking again, and the coffee loses complex flavors, picking up more roast taste and body. Medium roast beans shine as oils are released. The beans begin to smoke and appear oily for a dark roast. The coffee will taste smokier and more concentrated, though original bean flavors become indistinguishable.

This is also where the difference between hand-picked and strip-picked coffees may come into play. Because hand-picked berries are ripe and consistent in size, the roasting process will also yield consistent results. Strip-picked berries could be unripe, over-ripe or just right. The beans will all be roasted together, meaning that the smaller beans will most likely be burnt, and the over-ripe beans will be bitter.

As with all foods, the only way to determine one’s favorite is to taste many. Coffee connoisseurs have developed “cupping,” a standard procedure to bring out the optimum, purest taste of roasted beans. Pour five ounces of near-boiling water over .25 ounces of fresh, coarse-ground coffee in a circular motion, slurping half a spoonful of the liquid into the mouth to mix it with air. Hold it in the mouth, swish it around the mouth once, then spit it out. Concentrate on the tongue and what flavors you taste. The back of the tongue determines bitterness; the front, individual flavors; the sides, staleness.

Coffee tasting terminology brings to mind those in wine: body (heaviness or lightness in the mouth,) acidity (a bit of life or even bite in the flavor,) richness (a texture beyond body-full, velvety,) aroma (smell of brewed coffee,) fragrance (smell of ground coffee.)

After determining your coffee “personality,” what should you look for when purchasing? Coffee economics are similar to the business of chocolate: large corporations, which generally pay as little as possible, don’t ask about the beans’ backgrounds in poor countries. Hence, fair trade organizations have stepped in. Products with the fair trade logo insure that the growers are receiving a living wage and there is no slavery or child labor involved. Many fair trade farmers also practice traditional and organic farming, using the “shade grown” method that protects forests and wildlife habitats as well as insuring limited use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Brands like Green Mountain and BuyWell are examples sold in local shops and grocery stores. Independent coffee shops, however, are the best source for the freshest, socially conscious coffees, since they buy in smaller quantities and may roast on the premises.

The final flavor influence (in this article) is storage. Zambito is adamant, “Don’t over-buy, and don’t freeze it!” Air and moisture are the worst enemies of coffee. In fact, coffee already begins losing flavor in as little as six hours after roasting. Freezing coffee creates unnecessary moisture (condensation) if you’re using the coffee on a regular basis. Coffee is almost as good as baking soda in the refrigerator for soaking up odors, so that isn’t a good place either, nor is the other extreme, next to an oven. The best practice for freshness is to buy enough coffee beans to get through two or three weeks. Store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark cupboard, and grind only enough for each use.

Quoting Zambito again, “There’s so much more to coffee than just getting up and getting your cup.” Coffee, heavily traded in futures as a commodity, is the third most popular beverage in the world, following water and tea. Experts have identified 800 flavor characteristics in coffee, twice those of red wine. To wake up or wind down, as a treat or as life blood, coffee is a drink of the masses with individual taste.