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
| By Sam Gugino | From 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").

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.

The ecologically popular Swiss water process uses carbon-filtered water. It is more expensive and produces a coffee that is less flavorful but has more body. Less frequently used, though very promising, is a technique that employs highly compressed carbon dioxide; it allows flavor components to remain in the bean, but it is expensive.

If you are throwing up your hands in confusion, you might be comforted by the fact that cheaper robusta beans contain up to 40 percent more caffeine than quality arabica beans.


Relatives of that first coffee plant in Ethiopia found their way to the far-flung corners of the world, from Antigua to Java. But as Kenneth Davids writes in Coffee, a Guide to Buying, Brewing & Enjoying (101 Productions, 1991, 254 pages, $11.95), "the plant has remained extraordinarily true to itself through five centuries of plantings around the world."

What accounts for the differences is what the French, in referring to grapes, call terroir--the soil, moisture and climate of a particular region. The following is a list of the major coffee-growing regions of the world and the characteristics of the beans of each.


Mexico--Their snappy acidity and light body make Mexican berries appropriate for straight, black morning coffee. But most often they wind up in blends with richer, more full-bodied beans. Look for Altura Coatepec and Oaxaca Pluma as well as organic coffees from Chiapas.

Guatemala--One of the world's great coffees, with high acidity balanced by heavy body and accented by a distinctive smokiness. While Antigua is the best-known name, more coffee is currently coming from Huehuetenango. Cobán is another name to remember.

El Salvador and Nicaragua--Both produce coffee that is generally of medium body and undistinguished flavor, though the high-grown Nicaraguan coffees of Jinotega and Matagalpa can be quite good.

Costa Rica--"Almost too good," says Timothy James Castle, author of The Perfect Cup: A Coffee Lover's Guide to Buying, Brewing and Tasting (Addison-Wesley, 1991, 256 pages, $12.50). The best exhibit a superb balance of bracing acidity, full body and deep richness. Especially prized are coffees from the Tarrazu, particularly La Minita, and Bella Vista from the Tres Ríos.

Jamaica--Home of Jamaican Blue Mountain, alternately (and perhaps concurrently) called the most expensive, most celebrated and most overhyped coffee in the world. Also the most imitated, so watch out for "Blue Mountain-style" coffees that may not have a single Blue Mountain bean. And don't confuse it with the lesser Jamaican High Mountain. If you insist on Blue Mountain, look for the Wallensford or Silver Hill Estates brand.

Dominican Republic and Haiti--Both produce soft-beaned coffees with a mellow sweetness that makes for good dark roasts. Cibao, Bani, Ocoa and Barahona are the best-known Dominican coffees. Haitian coffee may be difficult to obtain due to political strife.

Colombia--The second-largest coffee-producing country. Colombian is noted for its consistency, good acidity, medium body and full aroma. Supremo is the highest grade. When mixed with the next best, the rare grade Extra, it becomes Excelso.

Venezuela--Making a comeback now that its oil industry has plateaued. The best-known variety is Maracaibo, and the best of that is Mérida. More often than not used in blends where its fair-to-medium body can be offset by coffees of higher acidity.

Ecuador and Peru--Both countries produce coffee of moderate acidity with light body suitable for blending. The Peruvian coffees exhibit Mexican-coffee characteristics. Organic coffees are available from northern Peru.

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.


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.


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."


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."


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.


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.


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.


For purists who think that flavorings are only for those who drink coffee in paper cups with Greek designs, history shows that seasonings--from cardamom to black pepper to ground nuts--have been put into coffee since the earliest days.

Today, flavorings are put in just after the beans have been roasted and cooled. David Dallis is fairly blasé about flavorings, explaining, "we don't want people to think we're grinding up vanilla beans with the coffee beans. It's just chemicals."

Since many flavored coffees are made with less-than-top-quality beans, a better alternative is to buy a first-rate coffee, then flavor it yourself with vanilla beans or cinnamon sticks. After all, it's not like sticking a lemon peel in a glass of Château Pétrus.

Sam Gugino writes about food and wine from New York.