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The ABCs of Coffee

The Search for a Great Cup of Coffee Must Consider the Type of Bean, The Country of Origin and the Roast
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

(continued from page 1)

Brazil--Though it produces one-third of the world's coffee, only a fraction of it is good enough to be considered specialty level. Bourbon Santos is the name to look for, but don't expect more than a decent cup of coffee with medium body and moderate acidity.

ARABIA and EAST AFRICA

Yemen--Home of the famous Mocha, which, along with Jamaican Blue Mountain, is one of the most misunderstood and misused names in coffeedom. True Mocha is hard to get and expensive. Much of what is sold as real Mocha is actually Ethiopian (sometimes called Mocca). Of the two familiar types, Mattari and Sanani, the former is the more pronounced, with higher acidity, winier flavors and more chocolate notes. Both are naturally processed.

Ethiopia--The birthplace of the coffee bean and home of some of the world's most exotic coffees, which are the result of wild plants and natural processing. Yirgacheffe has vibrant acidity and a floral aroma. Harrar is earthy and fruity, at its best comparable to real Yemen Mochas. Washed Ethiopian coffees exhibit less intense characteristics of the above and are sold as Sidamo and Ghimbi.

Kenya--Full-bodied and rich with floral aromas and the winy taste characteristic of the region. A great straight coffee with all the flavor you could ask for. Look for AA grade.

Tanzania--Becoming more available now, especially in peaberry (single whole berry) form. Sharp, winy acidity with medium body.

Zimbabwe--Also coming on strong in recent years. Similar to Kenyan coffee, but with fewer winy qualities and more body.

MALAY ARCHIPELAGO

Sumatra--Mandheling and Ankola varieties are considered among the world's finest for their deep richness, full body and long finish wrapped with just enough acidity. If you want your coffee to come howling through milk or cream, this is it. Some connoisseurs fault its consistency.

Sulawesi or Celebes--More balanced than the Sumatran coffees, with livelier acidity and slightly less body. A superb coffee.

Java--Medium body with good acidity and a creamy though somewhat short finish. When possible, seek out old Java that has been aged and exhibits greater body with sweet, rich flavor.

New Guinea--Also called Papua New Guinea, it's a less intense version of Celebes and Sumatran coffees. But according to Timothy James Castle, these "sleepers may have the potential to be among the best."

HAWAII

The Kona region on the big island of Hawaii produces some of the most fragrant coffee in the world. At its best, it can also be richly flavored with winy notes, moderate acidity and medium body. But it suffers from Jamaican Blue Mountainitis, with prices far beyond its worth and imitations labeled "Kona-style" and "Kona blend."

INDIA

Once considered the source of one of the better aged coffees (sold as Monsooned Malabar), India has been scrambling to recover from its close ties with the former Soviet Union. Jim Reynolds of Peet's, who once bought a lot of Indian coffee (sold mostly as Mysore) hasn't seen any Indian beans worth buying for a dozen years.

ROASTING

Without roasting there ain't no coffee, just caffeinated water. Because coffee beans are a complex combination of components, what happens in the roasting process is not entirely understood. Essentially, roasting releases moisture in the beans and brings oils to the surface.

As roasting continues, more oil exudes from the beans, which is why dark-roasted beans look as if they've been lubricated with motor oil. Sugars are burned, making darker roasts more caramelized in flavor. Caffeine is burned up, too. As much as 15 percent of the caffeine in coffee beans goes up in smoke; the longer and darker the roast, the less caffeine.

Most roasting equipment is fairly primitive because the technology of coffee lags far behind that of wine. Dallis Brothers uses a drum roaster, circa 1940, that looks like a miniature steam locomotive. It heats the beans to about 500 degrees Fahrenheit and rotates them in a drum (not unlike a clothes dryer) so they don't roast unevenly or burn.

When to take the beans out depends on the style and skill of the roaster. West Coast roasters typically roast darker than those in the East. Peet's, the legendary San Francisco Bay Area roaster and retailer, probably roasts its beans darker than anyone in the country.

The names of the roasts may vary and can be as inconsistent and confusing as the labels butchers put on cuts of meat. Here are some general guidelines:

Light (also called New England, cinnamon, half city.) The color of the beans is light brown or pale cinnamon. No oil appears on the surface. The roasted flavor is very subtle, with minimal body and noticeable acidity, almost sourness. The roast most commercial coffees use.

Medium (also called full city, American, regular, breakfast, brown and medium high.) Here is where things start to get tricky. Though full city is a common term for medium roasts, interpretations of it are all over the map, from just above light to right up there with Viennese. The color is deeper, with little or no oil on the surface. There is a more pronounced roasted flavor, with a touch of sweetness and bright acidity.

Darker (also called light French, Viennese,* continental, New Orleans, high and light espresso.) The bittersweet tang of darker roasting begins here. There is a light sheen of oil on the surface. Acidity is considerably softened.

Darkest (also called Italian, Espresso,** French, Spanish, Neapolitan, heavy.) Very dark brown, almost black beans, with oil virtually gushing from them. This roast also has burned or charcoal flavors with a heavy bittersweet tang and no acidity.

* Viennese or Vienna may also refer to a blend of beans, usually one-third dark-roasted beans and two-thirds medium-roasted.

** There is no such thing as an espresso bean, only a type of roast. In fact, a very good espresso can be made from lighter roasts as well.

BLENDS

Just as most of the great wines of Bordeaux are derived from blends of two or more grape varieties, many of the great coffee brews are blends of two or more beans. (Jug wines are also blends, as are commercial coffees.)

There are few "complete" coffees that have sufficient body and acidity to stand up on their own. The best Guatemalans and Costa Ricans are two examples, as are the Kenyan AA, Sumatran and Celebes. But even these coffees are used in blends.

The idea behind a great blend is to achieve a perfect balance of richness, aroma, body and acidity by combining strains that complement their partners.

Many Central American coffees, for example, have plenty of racy acidity, but need a little oomph to carry the day. Indonesian coffees are more noted for their body and are frequently matched with Central American coffees, as in the very popular Major Dickason's blend used at Peet's.

But maybe your coffee is too balanced, almost to the point of being boring on the palate. Try throwing in some wild Ethiopian Harrar. But don't combine two distinctive coffees, such as the Harrar and the Yemen Mocha; they will clash. Similarly, don't put together coffees that accentuate one characteristic only, such as a blend of highly acidic Central American coffees would do.

Most roasters blend beans before roasting, while many consumers like to blend on the spot, often combining different styles of roasting. Blending before roasting tends to even out the distinctions between the coffees, while blending after roasting (combining different roasting styles) tends to maintain the character of the individual coffees--assuming the beans were roasted properly to begin with.


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