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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

In 1975, coffee giants like Maxwell House dominated the market with mediocre products, coffee prices were very low and health concerns about caffeine were rising. Taking these factors into account, Herbert Dallis urged his son David to reconsider his joining the family coffee-roasting business.

Then something remarkable happened. A frost in Brazil sent coffee prices skyrocketing. But instead of making matters worse for specialty coffee roasters like the New York-based Dallis Brothers, it turned business around. "People figured that if they had to pay a high price for ordinary coffee, they might as well pay a little more for terrific coffee," says David Dallis.

The coffee craze had begun. To be sure, there were elements other than Mother Nature at work. Baby boomers were coming of age (and income) and were developing a taste for good food and wine. Health-conscious Americans were drinking less of the grape, but enjoying a higher quality. (There are many similarities between wine and coffee, as we shall see.)

In fact, the increase in specialty coffees (as whole-bean coffees are called) has single-handedly reversed the decline in overall consumption in the United States. The year 1993 saw the first significant increase per capita since 1984, despite the fact that Americans drank less commercial coffee (essentially anything that winds up in a can) and instant coffee, according to Ted Lingle of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

Perhaps more telling is that restaurants are taking coffee seriously. David Dallis says the chef of the highly regarded Arizona 206 restaurant on Manhattan's Upper East Side personally came to Dallis Brothers to test coffee to match his food. And it took numerous tastings before New York's Gramercy Tavern was satisfied with its house blend (a full city roast of Costa Rican, Tanzanian and Sumatran beans).

Millions of Americans have gotten accustomed to Vienna roasts, Swiss-processed decaffeinated beans and doppio macchiatos over the past 15 years. Yet as coffee authority Kenneth Davids notes, many consumers are convinced that "freshly roasted, whole-bean coffees taste better than canned, but they still seem tentative on the details." In other words: How well do you know your beans?

Coffee 101 begins with the understanding that coffee beans aren't really beans at all but the seeds or pits of a berry (or cherry, in the trade) that grows on a coffee plant. It is here that the divergence between commercial and specialty coffees begins.

Coffea arabica is the original coffee plant, discovered in Ethiopia, where it still grows wild. It flourishes in volcanic soil in warm (but not hot) climates with moderate rainfall and is fond of high altitudes--that mountain-grown coffee Mrs. Folger talked about. Arabica (pronounced: a-RAB-ic-a) beans are the basis for specialty coffees.

Coffea robusta is the species used in commercial production. Robusta (pronounced: row-BUS-ta) beans are prized more for resistance to disease and the ability to grow at lower altitudes (more rain, higher temperatures) than for aroma and flavor, neither of which approaches arabica standards.

Professionals grade the quality of the bean (determined by where and at what altitude it's grown), its size, how well it's processed and how good the coffee tastes (often referred to as "cup quality").

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