|Your morning motivator is a drink with a past.
Indeed, the beans that make the beverage that invigorates your senses, that serves as an after-meal meditator, that urges me on even as I write these words, are often reticent to reveal the secrets of their former lives. You might find out someone once rejected them as being under par, that bugs nibbled them while they were still green and locked away in a warehouse, that someone who cared less about quality once burned them into oily blobs. But if you look closely, you can unlock the history of the beans that now swirl in your cup as coffee.
First, the basics you should know when you shop for specialty coffee beans.
There are two primary types of coffee plants: Robusta and Arabica. These are like the great-great grandparents on the family tree of the bean in your brew -- the stock from which your cup comes. To generalize, Robustas are heartier plants and tend to produce beans a bit more bitter in flavor. Arabicas are considered the prized specialty coffees Americans drink in abundance. You may see coffees labeled "100 percent Arabica." But beware the salesperson who tells you Robustas are bad. Less expensive to grow, perhaps, but most espresso coffee blends certainly contain a goodly amount of Robusta beans, which impart the hearty flavor and thick crema intrinsic to great espresso. My advice: don't sweat whether a blend has some Robusta in it so much as how the completed cup tastes.
You'll also find coffees touting a certain country or region of origin, like 100 percent Kona, Guatemalan Antigua or Jamaican Blue Mountain. This is your coffee's birth certificate and reveals much about its upbringing during its formative years. These are coffees blended from beans grown in specific regions of the world. Or at least they should be. (Recently, some coffee growers got in trouble for selling coffee labeled Hawaiian Kona -- a prized, expensive coffee -- that was actually an inexpensive and abundant Costa Rican blend.)
All beans are not created equal, and the price of a coffee will often reflect these differences. As with wine grapes, beans receive certain characteristics from where they're grown -- from the soil, sunlight and altitude -- and certain flavors from their processing. And this is why most specialty coffees receive a location designation. Some coffees go so far as to promote the precise estate on which the beans were grown. Even supermarket coffee has jumped into the act, mostly calling itself 100 percent Colombian.
Once harvested, green (or unroasted) coffee beans are most often exported to other countries, where they're roasted and blended (or not) and sold as coffee. These processes would be akin to the influences during the angst-ridden teenage years. If a bean ends up with the wrong crowd, like a roaster who cares little for quality, there's no telling what might become of it.
A coffee without a location designator is generally a blend of coffees. If you buy something labeled as, say, "espresso roast," it's likely a blend of beans toasted to the particular characteristics of an Italian espresso roast.
There are six basic degrees of roasted coffee. From lightest to darkest, they are:
Cinnamon -- which is light brown in color with a "green" flavor and a high level of acidity.
American -- which is also high in acidity and is chestnut brown in color.
City (or Full City) -- is dark brown and without a trace of oil on the bean's surface (often called "medium" roast).
Vienna -- is dark brown with a hint of oil on the surface of the bean.
French (or New Orleans) -- is sable brown, sharp in flavor, low in acidity and shows an oily sheen on the surface of the bean.
Italian -- is black, shiny, pungent and slightly bitter.
Choosin' Your Weapon
I asked James Ferrara, owner and master roaster of Unique Coffee in Staten Island, New York, how to unlock the history of beans when you go to your local coffee roaster or café or even the grocery store to buy for your morning brew. Stressing quality and consistency, he suggests you start by looking for uniformity in size and roast shading. If you're buying, say, a Full-City roast, make sure all the beans are the same dark brown color. If you're buying a blend, which may have both light and dark beans among the bunch, focus more on sameness of size.
Next, smell the beans. "Aroma should be there at all times," Ferrara says. "A good, fresh aroma, that is. If there's a sour smell, the coffee's not fresh."
Then feel the beans. Once you get to know roasts, you'll be able to tell if beans were cooked correctly. Say you're buying American coffee, but the bean is dark brown and leaves an oily sheen on your fingertips when you rub it. "Over-quickly roasting, which isn't good, will bring the oils out of the coffee," Ferrara says.
As a beginning taster, Ferrara suggests you compare two very different types of coffees. If possible, buy some Guatemalan beans and some Celebes Toraja from Indonesia. Have them ground to your specific coffee maker, whether it be a French press or drip maker. (If you're using a drip, be sure to tell the person grinding your beans whether you have a cone or flat-bottomed filter basket). Brew up the two coffees not long after grinding and sip them, first black and then prepared to your preferences. With the Guatemalan, you'll learn about acidity and body texture. With the Celebes, you'll experience an earthy, full-bodied, low-acidity coffee that's both clean and syrupy. It's known as the prize of Indonesia.
How will these specialty coffee beans be different from a tin-can supermarket coffee? "There's a high percentage of low-grade Robusta coffee in those," Ferrara says. "Certain Robustas, like those used for espresso, are good, clean, expensive coffees. The [supermarket roasters] often use broken, bug-eaten, fruity, young beans." Evidence of a scarlet past indeed.
Without a doubt, coffee beans bring a history to your mug. They can tell you tales of being raised in a nursery, about growing up on verdant mountainsides, stories of storms or droughts, elaborate on how people treated them as they made their way from farm to burlap sack, whether they were gently coaxed into toasted prizes or harshly roasted. All you have to do is listen.