Coffee is one of the most complex food items we consume each day. It has more flavor molecules than red wine, is grown around the globe in countless varieties, and marketed and sold in every form imaginable. At the same time, coffee is simplicity personified. The seeds from a coffee tree are separated from their surrounding cherry, processed, cleaned and then heated or roasted until they are fit to brew.
Of course everything in between is where all the romance, technology, hype and heartbreak fit in. Coffee crops are affected by origin, species, soil quality, growing altitude, weather, blight, harvest technique, processing methods, and countless other factors.
The roasting method is also vitally important to the final quality of the coffee. Too much heat and you get tipping or burnt ends of the beans. Too little heat and the roast takes too long and the beans assume an unpleasant baked quality. Don’t over or under fill the roasting machine. Don’t cool the beans too slowly. Use water quench, don’t use water quench. Drum roasters vs. fluid bed roasters, infrared heat vs. ambient heat, pre-blend vs. post-blend. These are just some of the issues coffee roasters wrestle with daily and from the strum und drang posted on roasting message boards you’d think we’re dealing with life and death here.
Yet, fascinating as all this may be to some people, the average customer walking in off the street just wants a bag or can of coffee to take home and brew up in the morning, knowing it’s fresh, tastes good, wasn’t a rip off and didn’t destroy the environment or impoverish local populations. That sounds reasonable to us folks at groundwork.
So what do we tell a customer when they walk in and are confronted with an assortment of more than 24 different blends or varieties of coffee? Do we launch into a treatise on the advantages of Strictly Hard Bean Guatemala or do we lecture them on the unique qualities of a dry process Ethiopian Sidamo. I don’t think so. The irony of standing in a caffeine wonderland and having your eyes glaze over would be too much to bear.
So at groundwork we have developed an extremely simple, yet quite reliable method for helping a customer choose the coffee they want to purchase. The first question we ask (or should) is: Do you like a heavy bodied coffee that you can feel and taste on the back of your tongue, or do you like the brighter, lighter coffee that lights up the front of your mouth. Depending on the answer we can move to the next question and for the most part, the answer to the first question can narrow the issue down to a single continent or hemisphere of coffee origin. You see, coffee is grown around the globe within the equatorial belt that runs between the Tropic of Cancer to the north and the Tropic of Capricorn to the south. Virtually all the world’s coffee supply is grown along this geographic belt. Further south or north bad things like frost or drought make it almost impossible to grow coffee. Of course those things still happen within the growing belt but with far less consistency for now (Hello global warming).
Back to the first question: If the answer is “heavy” our highly trained baristas should wheel you away from Central America, South America, and Africa and land you somewhere in the Indonesian archipelago. This is where you find coffees such as Java, Sumatra, Timor, Celebes Kolassi and Papua New Guinea. All of these coffees share a common attribute of having heavy body and light brightness or acidity (more on acidity in a later post). This is real spoon sticking coffee, mud, Joe, the kind of coffee that can take a beating like a pre-1970’s Chevy. It‘s also delicious and will never confuse you about what you are drinking.
Now if the answer had been “brighter, lighter”, then the coffee tour would have most likely stopped at the African continent. This is the birthplace of coffee (man too apparently…coincidence?) Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, Tanzania, Rwanda are all East African countries that produce wonderful bright, lighter coffees with higher acidity. Think a dash of Fruit Loops in your cup. Although it is impossible not to generalize too much, East African coffee by and large have more fruity notes and are tasted on the forward areas of the human tongue. Want to make your own great coffee blend? Buy some good heavy-bodied Indonesian coffee such as Java and mix it 50/50 with a bright, fruity African coffee named after a Yemeni port, Moka. Presto, Mocha Java, one of the oldest and most popular blends in the world. Of course you also could have blended Sumatra with Ethiopian. Or Celebes (Sulawesi with Tanzania), but the point is the same.
What about Central American and South American you may ask. Well, through a combination of same species, altitude, soil and climate, most Central American coffees derive a sweet, medium bright quality to go along with medium body. Of course, intrepid growers have been cross breeding and experimenting with different combinations to come up with a wide variety of taste profiles (witness Panama Esmeralda Geisha, an Ethiopian transplant that thrived on the high side of a Panamanian volcano and produced the world record price for coffee three years running). But again, the norm is that Central American coffee is less heavy-bodied than Indonesian beans and less acidic than African coffee beans.
South American coffees have a wider flavor profile than those from Central America, yet they still fall within manageable parameters. Ever wonder why Colombian coffee was so popular for so long? (Okay, you have to be over 40 to remember this.) It wasn’t Juan Valdez and his mangy donkey. It was because Colombian coffee became known for having a flat-line flavor profile. It is distinctive for its even body, even sweetness, and even acidity. This should be construed as a good thing, and indeed it is. What’s not to like? Brazilian coffee, when it’s not low grade, robusta species, grown on mowed over rain forest land, is nice and earthy with enough body to be a favorite in espresso blends, and Bolivia and Peru have both been producing outstanding varietals for years.
The second question is easier; dark roast, medium or light? Depending on that answer our staff should be able to direct customers to 1-3 choices. From there it’s a matter of sampling until you find the flavor profile that’s right for you. Just don’t ask us to flavor it with some disgusting chemical nightmare like Vanilla Hazelnut or Irish Crème. What the hell is Irish Crème anyway?
So feel free to come in and grab a pound of your favorite varietal, make your own blend, or chose from one of the many groundwork blends we created at the expense of countless hours of slurping and spitting in our cupping lab.
Just remember; at groundwork, it’s “just” coffee.
-Richard Karno, Groundwork Founder