A truth about coffee (for beginners) – part 1

When people ask me about my job, I often have to explain what it is about (particularly in France where it is still quite unknown, but not only). Almost every time, someone asks me “So what do you advise me to make good coffee at home?” I have many answers in mind to that question, but to begin with, I usually say that coffee actually is a fresh product and not something you can drink within a year after you buy it in the grocery store.

This mean two things. The first one, which I’m going to talk about in this post, is that coffee actually comes from a fruit picked during just a few months in the year (well, it also depends on different variables like countries, varietals, altitude of growth). The second one, which I’ll talk about in another post, is that the roasting part is essential. In Costa Rica, the high time of the year to pick coffee goes from December to February. Without going too much in details (for now), here is what happen, summarized and illustrated by pictures because it is by giving knowledge that you change the world! If people would know more about everything that happens to the coffee before they get to drink it at home or at their local shop, I am pretty sure it would have an influence on the quality of coffee from the seed. Everything is connected, and talking to coffee producers here makes me even more convinced about it.

So where do the brown powder you use to make coffee come from? No big surprise, coffee grows on a coffee tree! It is actually a shrub not a tree, often growing in the shade of other bigger trees (often fruit trees like banana trees in Costa Rica). On this shrub, the fruits are called coffee cherries, since they look like cherries. To sum up, the higher the coffee grows the better.

There are many types of coffee plants, but only two of them are used to make coffee: Coffea canephora (robusta is one sort) and coffea Arabica. Costa Rica is known for a reason for the quality of its coffee. It is (in theory) legally forbidden to grow robusta species here since it is coffee of a much lower quality (it means it is more bitter and has less delicate flavours than Arabica varietals, it also contains more caffeine). Then again, researches are being held about those facts). Everything I say here concerns the Arabica type and I took all the photos in Costa Rica in the Tarrazu province.

Here is a small field of young coffee shrubs. Since the best coffee usually grows quite high up, it usually is in beautiful areas in the mountains (but not only).

 This is what a coffee plantation usually looks like in Tarrazu, Costa Rica (here in an organic plantation). You can see a banana tree on the left hand side (yes right, the one with bananas hanging), surrounded by lemon trees, clementine trees or guava trees.

Just like wine, there are several coffee varietals that won’t taste the same and can be really different (the taste also depends on a few variables like altitude, the composition of the soil, the climate and the way it is roasted and brewed).

The green coffee cherries you can see on the photo are not ready to be picked because obviously they are not ripe. Most of the varietals are red when ripe, but they can also be yellow like you see in the middle. To make quality coffee, just like to make a good jam, you should only use ripe cherries, which is often a challenge, but I’ll get back to it.

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 Here are two coffee cherries, a yellow one and a red one. Those are two different varietals, one is a yellow catuai, the other one a caturra. In Costa Rica, both varietals are often mixed in the plantation.

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Here is what you see when you open a coffee cherry in two.  There are most of the times two beans in a cherry, facing each other. As you can see, it is inside the fruit flesh and the skin.

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The fruit is not really good when eaten raw, it is quite bitter and not super sweet, but it does smell really good to me, something like a sweet flower smell and a red berry.

If you squeeze the cherry, the beans will come out. Usually there are two against each other, more rarely three like on the right hand side of the picture. When the beans are taken out of the cherry, they are covered by a sticky layer that is usually removed.

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To remove the gluey layer, the beans are washed to prevent fermentation. Well, obviously, not this way. But I’ll get back to it more in details; it’s more complicated than that, there are other options.

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Once they’ve been washed, look at the difference: on the left side, the beans look quite smooth, whereas on the right hand side, they still look more shiny, don’t they?

Anyway, at this point, the beans are still not quite ready to be roasted because they are too humid (around 20 to 24). They need to be dried, and that is a very important step (again, I’ll get back to it later) but to sum up, one option is to spread them  on the floor to let them dry in the sun and the wind until the humidity goes down to 9,5 to 10,5%. At that point, the green coffee is imprisoned inside a thin dry layer like a shell called parchment that will be removed before roasting. But we’ll talk about this later.

That’s all for today, I hope you found this as interesting and fun as I do. Please please please let me know if you have any question or remark!

And keep in mind that if you drink a really good cup of coffee, that is the result of a long process involving many expert individuals, taking important decisions at decisive steps. That’s the reason why I am spending time in a producing country, to think more in terms of “savoir faire” like we say in French, which literally means “know do”, sort of like skills,  than processes like we usually talk about in the coffee world. But again, I’ll get back to it!

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