Coffee by Hannah Taylor photo by dellas
Legend has it, circa A.D. 800, an Ethiopian goatherd, Kaldi,
Legend has it, circa A.D. 800, an Ethiopian goatherd, Kaldi, was lazily tending to his flock when he noticed the herd prancing and hopping from one coffee shrub to the next. They were munching on red berries containing coffee beans. Kaldi tried a few of the berries himself and was soon awakened from his lethargic condition. He decided to share his discovery with monks from a nearby village. The berries made them feel so alert they began to use them to keep from dozing through prayers.
Coffee hasn’t always been the strong, dark tonic known and adored today. Initially, it was prepared from ‘green’ beans fresh from the berries, unlike our roasted beans. This method generates a tea-like beverage. Not until the 13th century did Arabians began roasting and grinding the beans in order to prepare coffee. At this time, Arabian men brewed coffee for the women to drink in order to assuage menstrual pain.
The use of coffee spread quickly throughout the Arabian Peninsula and into Turkey by the 15th century. Consequently, Kiva Han, the world’s premier coffee shop, opened in Constantinople in 1475. Coffee consumers at this time enjoyed it both as a ritual drink and for its curative properties. Additionally, the Turkish maintained that coffee was an aphrodisiac, thus men kept their wives in constant supply. It is said that if a husband refused to provide his wife with coffee, she would have legitimate grounds for divorce!
Coffee was grown solely in the Arabian Peninsula until the 17th century. According to legend, the Arabs refused to allow fertile seeds to leave their country, punishable by law. In spite of this, an Indian Moslem pilgrim, by the name of Baba Budan, stole and snuck seeds out of Arabia and into his Indian homeland. His plants flourished in the Mysore hills, hence initiating the development of coffee as a primary crop.
To genuinely appreciate the complexity of coffee, it is beneficial to understand its interaction with our senses–beyond that of caffeine–as well as the characteristics that distinguish coffees. To begin with, coffee can be one of the following types: arabica or robusta. The latter is a lower grade coffee grown in mass quantities at low elevations, thus sold for less. Robusta coffee, such as Maxwell House, has twice the caffeine as arabica, but lacks most of the aromatic compounds found in specialty coffee, implicating a sizeable decrease in the general flavor. Conversely, arabica is a high-grade coffee grown in small batches at high elevations. Where coffee is concerned, the term specialty refers to arabica beans. These high-grade roasts are distinguishable by their unique aroma, body, acidity, bitterness, earthiness and overall flavor.
What may be considered the most significant attribute to specialty coffee, aroma is accountable for all flavor elements apart from body and the sweet, salt, bitter and sour sensations apparent to the tongue. Notably, there are over 800 aromatic compounds in arabica coffee recognized today, perceived by two distinct olfactory mechanisms. Initially, aroma is observed nasally, just as any bouquet. Subsequently, it is detected ‘retronasally,’ which occurs both when coffee is in the mouth and after it has been swallowed, viable due to the aromatic compounds that drift upward into the nasal passage. In another more general context, aroma is identified with a delicate floral tone, discerned at the first sip.
Body, or mouthfeel, is a sense of weightiness–a thickness–at the back of the tongue. Ranging from thin and light to heavy, body is best sensed when the coffee is massaged between the tongue and the roof of the mouth. The body of a coffee is dependent on its roast–the darker the beans are roasted, the heavier a mouthfeel they will have when brewed. Furthermore, the coffee’s body masks its acidity. Consequently, lighter roasted coffees tend to be more acidic than dark roasts–key in choosing blends that please your palate.
Acidity is best described as the sharp, reedy notes of desiccation felt at the back and under the edges of the tongue, similar to that of a dry wine. A greatly appreciated trait in Central American and East African coffees, acidity is associated specifically with arabica beans. The acid content of a particular brew is contingent upon body, roast degree, roast style and brewing method. Sourness, or acute acidity, is considered an extreme deficiency.
In addition to body, acidity can be somewhat tamed by low levels of bitterness. A ubiquitous aspect of coffee, small amounts of bitterness add a preferential dimension of flavor. At high levels however, the bitter compound subjugates other attributes, yielding an inclusively acrid flavor. Another trait that contributes to flavor in some coffees is earthiness. This term pertains to a brew that imparts a trace of soil, but not to the point of being dirty, acerbic or severe. Flavor, a naturally elusive term, is manipulated by aroma, body and acidity, as well as roast temperature and brewing method. When attempting to discern a coffee’s specific characteristics, flavor is gauged in the topics of richness, intricacy and balance.
As aforesaid, the overall flavor of the coffee is affected by the brewing method. More specifically, flavor is dependent on the ratio of coffee to water used, brew time, type of water and temperature range. The following guidelines apply to most standard brewing processes, and ensure a perfect cup of specialty coffee every time.
Ratio 2 Tbs. coffee per 6 oz. water
Brew Time 4.5-5 minutes
Temperature Range 195-205˚F
Water Recommended spring or filtered water
Although not as convenient as an automatic drip brewer, the French Press is the best way to guarantee controlled temperature and perfect extraction time. Furthermore, because it does not use a filter, the French Press is one of the only coffee brewing mechanisms that delivers the volatile oils necessary in creating a velvety, golden-brown film, or crema–a vital element of the specialty coffee experience. Best of all, the French Press is the least expensive of all standard brewers.
More than just a caffeine boost, coffee delivers an unparalleled sensory experience. To take the time to realize the complex balance of aroma, body and acidity within an arabica blend is to truly appreciate the intricate composite that is coffee. Moreover, learning which coffee characteristics please your palate aids in choosing the ideal specialty blend for any occasion. Enjoy!