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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)

In coffee lingo, the term "hard bean" describes arabica grown at relatively high altitudes--3,000 to 4,500 feet--and in cool temperatures. This produces a slow-maturing, unporous, hard bean. (Altitudes above 4,500 feet produce an intensified version called a "strictly hard bean.")

Generally, hard beans, such as those of Central America and East Africa, make a more flavorful coffee with the desired high acidity. But while hardness is important in beans grown in Central America, excellent coffee, such as that of Sumatra, also comes from "soft beans." Lower altitudes and warmer temperatures produce faster-maturing, more porous "soft" berries.

Similarly, there is no hard-and-fast rule about bean size. Buyers and roasters like large beans because they command high prices. But as Jim Reynolds, general manager of Peet's Coffee & Tea in Emeryville, California, notes, "customers and pros are making a mistake if they only look for bean size. I don't care what it looks like if it cups well."

Much of the best coffee in the world is estate-grown on small to medium-sized farms that often process the beans in much the same way that estate wine grapes are produced. Perhaps the most famous brands are from the Wallensford Blue Mountain estate in Jamaica. Excellent coffee is also grown on small plots of land by peasants guided by cooperatives to ensure that standards of quality are met.


Harvesting is an important stage in the coffee-growing process. Because coffee berries do not ripen uniformly, pickers must return again and again to the same tree--much as pickers in Sauternes keep checking to determine the perfect moment when the noble rot has achieved raisiny perfection. Overripe or rotten berries can spoil a batch of perfect ripe ones. The best coffees are still handpicked.

Once harvested, the flesh of the berries is removed by one of two methods. The dry method produces what is referred to as natural coffee: the fruit is removed after the berries are dried in the sun or in a mechanical drier. Then the remaining husk is disposed of.

The wet method produces washed coffee. Here, all pulp is scooped off before the berries dry, except for a slimy coating around the bean. This coating is soaked away in water in a process called fermentation.

While washed coffee isn't necessarily better than natural, it is more reliable. Yet when it's done right, the natural method can produce the most distinctive coffees on earth, such as Yemen Mocha, Ethiopian Harrar, Sumatra or Celebes.

Up to 98 percent of the caffeine can be eliminated from green beans by several procedures. Though many eschew the chemical, or direct, method in which methylene chloride is used to dissolve the caffeine, most coffee professionals think that this is the least harmful reactant for overall flavor. Roasting removes any traces of the chemical, but there is some concern about its effect on the ozone layer.

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