Edward Abbey was right when he said that for most of the 20th century, America ran “on coffee and gasoline, the first often tasting like the second.” However, the so-called “third wave” coffee movement that kicked in around 1999 brought a new emphasis to quality, sourcing, and roasting. These days you are never that far away from a great cup of coffee.
In the last 20 years or so, there has been a boom in small craft coffee roasters that has created a plethora of options for coffee lovers, including those in the Uncompahgre Valley. This bloom in options, however, can be confusing for coffee novices. But with a modicum of knowledge it is possible to fully appreciate the difference between a medium and light roast, or what to expect when sipping an Ethiopian coffee compared to a Peruvian.
The coffee plant can be traced to the ancient coffee forests of the Ethiopian Plateau. Legend tells the tale of a goat herder named Kaldi who noticed that his goats would stay up all night after consuming the plant’s berries. Kaldi then took this observation to his abbot and the idea of using coffee for its stimulant qualities was born.
In the mid-15th century, the first recorded account of a coffee beverage being consumed comes from Sufi monasteries in Yemen, where people drank coffee to increase their ability to concentrate during prayers.
The newly discovered drink would remain a closely guarded secret until the 17th century when coffee began to gain popularity throughout Europe. It was only a matter of time until the plant arrived in the Americas and began to be cultivated around the entire world.
Coffee Varietals and Processing
Since its appearance in Ethiopia, the coffee plant has taken root in many regions of the world. Varying elevations and growing climates along with the cross breeding of select plants created distinct flavors that are now firmly associated with certain regions. Coffee grown at higher elevations produces more poignant flavors and a higher acidity due to longer maturing periods and denser beans. With the onset of smaller farms producing single lot crops, it has become harder to generalize a single flavor for an entire region or country.
Coffee beans start off green, but processing is a major factor in what the coffee will taste like, regardless of region. The first and most traditional way that coffee beans are processed is by taking complete berries and drying them in the sun on outdoor racks. This is known as natural processing, and includes daily raking of the coffee and covering of the beans at night.
The other, more commonly used, method is known as washed processing. Water is used to rinse the beans free from the fruit immediately after harvesting. The beans are then dried on racks. Washed coffee doesn’t take on as much of the fruit characteristics as a naturally processed coffee, which tends to cost more due to the increased labor and the additional drying time required.
The flavor and aroma of any given coffee, no matter where it originates, is allowed to shine when a trained roaster applies their skill. The coffee roasting process can be broken down into a drying phase, a browning phase (called the Maillard reaction), and a development phase. The duration of each of these phases, along with the end temperature of the beans, will affect the final flavor of the coffee.
Most of the control for the roaster lies in the development phase, when the coffee begins to make a popping sound and goes through its “first crack”, a term that describes when the beans go through an exothermic reaction and release steam and energy. How far a roast continues beyond “first crack” will determine whether the roast is considered light, dark or medium.
A light roast is generally chosen to enhance the natural aspects of the bean and accentuate the flavors that are already there. Light roasts are known for their acidity, bright flavors and mellow body. Many high-quality beans will only be taken to the light roast level to show off the coffee’s inherent flavor.
A medium roast is an attempt to add more of the roasting flavors to the bean, and mellow out the natural flavors and acidity, while increasing body. Medium roasts, when properly done, encompass the traditional coffee flavor while maintaining subtle fruit notes from the bean.
When the roaster approaches a “second crack” of the bean, it has reached the dark roast level. A dark roast coffee has more of a dominant smoky flavor, as almost all of the original bean taste has been roasted out. Beans that are taken to a dark roast are very deep brown and are often covered in a sheen of oil.
The caffeine content of coffee isn’t altered much from the roasting process, but the density of the bean is directly influenced. This means that if a person measures coffee by scoops, a lighter roast will have more caffeine due to the higher density of the beans. Contrarily, if someone is measuring their coffee by weight, the same beans taken to a darker roast will have a higher caffeine level because more will be used in the brewing process.
Even after you have chosen the perfect bean and settled on the roast level you prefer, how it is ground and used can determine the overall quality of your cup. In fact, using the correct grind for your chosen extraction method is critical. Coarse grounds have relatively low surface area and take longer to extract flavor compounds. Too coarse of a grind and your extraction will be suboptimal which will create watery and sour coffee.
Immersion brewing methods, such as the French Press or Clever Dripper are best for coarse grounds. Conversely, finer grounds have a much higher surface area, which makes extraction quicker and easier. This can lead to the opposite problem of over-extraction and bitterness in the brew. A finer grind is best used for percolating methods such as pour-overs and drip coffee.
With so many crucial elements involved in producing a good cup of coffee, it’s no wonder that some people get overwhelmed and simply say they don't like the taste. A world of flavor awaits those who are willing to navigate the complexities of coffee. To begin the process and find the coffee best suited for you, speak to your local roaster and let the journey begin.