Coffee grows in the sunny equatorial belt around the world. It’s 1.500 m big and runs from The Tropic of Cancer to The Tropic of Capricorn. Through the years many have tried and failed to proliferate this bean outside of its warm and snuggly comfort zone and thankfully failed, insuring that we have only the best.
Over 75 countries grow coffee and the world's only best farmers cultivate specialty beans.
These farmers are often from countries that are not the largest beans producers, but I believe they are the best. They nurture their plants with love and are fueling a quest to create the ultimate cup of excellence. Quality over quantity is what specialty coffee farmers are about.
In the wet process, the fruit covering the seeds/beans is removed before they are dried. Coffee processed by the wet method is called wet processed or washed coffee. The wet method requires the use of specific equipment and substantial quantities of water.
The coffee cherries are sorted by immersion in water. Bad or unripe fruit will float and the good ripe fruit will sink. The skin of the cherry and some of the pulp is removed by pressing the fruit by machine in water through a screen. The bean will still have a significant amount of the pulp clinging to it that needs to be removed. This is done either by the classic ferment-and-wash method or a newer procedure variously called machine-assisted wet processing, aquapulping or mechanical demucilaging.
Dry process, also known as unwashed or natural coffee, is the oldest method of processing coffee. The entire cherry after harvest is first cleaned and then placed in the sun to dry on tables or in thin layers on patios. The harvested cherries are usually sorted and cleaned, to separate the unripe, overripe and damaged cherries and to remove dirt, soil, twigs and leaves. This can be done by winnowing, which is commonly done by hand, using a large sieve. Any unwanted cherries or other material not winnowed away can be picked out from the top of the sieve. The ripe cherries can also be separated by flotation in washing channels close to the drying areas.
Semi-dry is a hybrid process used in Indonesia and Brazil. The process is also called “wet-hulled”, “semi-washed”, “pulped natural” or, in Indonesia, “Giling Basah”. Literally translated from Indonesian, Giling Basah means “wet grinding”. This process is said to reduce acidity and increase body.
In the final analysis specialty coffee will be defined by the quality of the product, whether green bean, roasted bean or prepared beverage and by the quality of life that coffee can deliver to all of those involved in its cultivation, preparation and degustation. A coffee that delivers satisfaction on all counts and adds value to the lives and livelihoods of all involved is truly a specialty coffee.
That’s right altitude. Have you ever wondered why some coffee labels tell you how high above sea level your coffee was grown? Well the reason for this can be explained using the diagram above. The majority of coffee farms lie well above sea level, on rain-soaked plains. There’s a natural reason for this and it also explains why altitude has a major impact of the flavour of your coffee.
Being a fruit, coffee plants are susceptible to attack from pests who are after their ripe and juicy cherries – not to mention some unpleasant micro-organisms too. So mother nature gave the coffee plants a natural insect repellent in the form of caffeine. Caffeine is an alkaloid, which on its own or in large doses is very bitter and quite unpleasant to taste.
Robusta coffee plants are loaded with caffeine, which allows them to survive at much lower altitudes (sub 1000masl). This is great for farming but not necessarily for flavour on its own. That’s why robusta coffee is commonly used for rich espresso blends, as it’s designed to give them a much ‘stronger’ flavour – side note, when we refer to ‘strength’ in coffee flavour, what we’re usually referring to is its bitterness. Believe it or not, some of the lightest tasting filter brews can contain just as much, if not more caffeine than the harshest tasting espressos.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that robusta coffee is a minor footnote to the industry however, roughly 30% of the world’s coffee produced is from robusta plants. It is most commonly grown in Vietnam, Indonesia and India, although these countries do also produce arabica coffee in smaller amounts as well.
Why? Arabica has a much lower natural caffeine content than robusta, so needs the advantage of growing at altitudes where less pests and threats to their cherries are less likely to survive.
At these altitudes the weather can play an even more important role too in developing the flavour of the coffee produced. On mountains and huge hills, valleys and secluded vistas in rain-forests have been carved (either by man or nature) to create the perfect micro-climates for growing coffee. Here the temperature, air moisture and rainfall can combine to create just the right conditions, consistently year on year.
This, combined with the lower caffeine content explains why it is easier to identify more sweetness and subtle floral notes in arabica coffees. Over time it has also become much easier to attribute specific flavour notes to the region where the arabica coffee was grown, just like wine.
It is these unique micro-climates that have consistently produced the world’s best coffees and even played a part in defining the criteria for ‘Speciality Coffee’. Once you get past the back-breaking effort of farming at these altitudes, they really are a picture of paradise!
We now know the the key ingredients for growing Speciality Coffee and we can point on a map to where most of these conditions come naturally. For the next article in this series we’ll take a closer look at some of the origins most famous for producing incredible coffee.