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Decoding Coffee 1: Coffee is Food

7Jan10

As with a whole range of food products these days, the way we buy coffee is completely removed from its primary source. Whether we’re buying freeze-dried, granulated instant coffee, vacuum-packed ground coffee, or even a regular cappuccino, what we’re buying has come a long way from the shrub the coffee ripened on.

The coffee fruit is called a cherry.

The cherry is washed,

pulped,

fermented,

dried,

rested,

shelled,

graded,

transported,

roasted,

and ground.

I don’t know about you, but considering how far the coffee goes from crop to cup makes me marvel at human ingenuity!

Because of this long process, we sometimes forget that coffee is a food product. No we don’t! You might be saying. Of course coffee is food! Yet the way we often treat coffee says otherwise. As a food product, coffee is:

  • seasonal – that is, not strictly available all-year-’round;
  • perishable – that is, it goes stale (and faster than you’d think!);
  • variable – that is, one year’s crop may be completely different to another’s.

These simple facts have quite serious implications for how we ought to buy and consume coffee.

Firstly, the fact that coffee is seasonal means that different beans are available to your local roaster at different times of the year. Beans from Indonesia are available at the beginning of the year (in Australia), whereas those from Ethiopia become available several months later. What does this mean for the consumer? Well, unroasted (green) coffee beans keep fresh for a while – but that ‘while’ tends to be less than 12 months, meaning that not all beans will be available (fresh) all year ’round. So if you see a roaster offering the same selection of beans year-in, year-out, ask them if they can tell you when the beans were harvested and whether they’ve been ‘cupping’ (ie. tasting) them periodically for deterioration.

Secondly, the fact that coffee (and here I refer to roasted coffee) is perishable means we need to know when the beans we are buying were roasted. Roasted coffee will stay fresh for up to 2-3 weeks if stored away from light, heat, moisture and oxygen – in a one-way-valve bag in the pantry, for example. But only as whole beans! Grinding coffee increases its surface area about 1000-fold so it is fair to conclude that the oxygen and water vapour in the air will ruin the coffee 1000 times faster. Thus, your 2-3 weeks becomes 20-30 minutes at the flick of a (grinder) switch! But even buying whole beans can be problematic. Most mass-produced coffee, including the imported Italian brands, allow 12 months on the use-by date of their coffee. You can be sure that after 12 months, even the best coffee will taste like burnt sawdust! I would recommend only buying coffee which has a ‘roasted on’ sticker showing that it is no more than 2 weeks old. Better yet, go to a local roaster and ask them to recommend you something fresh.

Lastly, the fact that coffee crops change from year to year means that what you drink this year will always be different from what you drink next year – even if you buy the same blend. This is actually a wonderful thing, as long as roasters and consumers are realistic about coffee as a crop and don’t yearn for absolute consistency. Unfortunately, both roasters and consumers are guilty of doing just that – and thereby treating coffee less like a food and more like a chemical essence with which we can flavour our lattes! As with wine-making, some ‘vintages’ will stand above the rest. Also as in wine-making, mere mortals like you and I will almost never get to taste these exquisite beans! But never fear: there is always high quality coffee available – the coffee-growing industry is huge a varied enough to ensure that there is never a bad year for coffee! Coffee production is a fluid thing – subject to drought, flood, frost and political and economic upheaval – so what is available and delicious one year may not be so the nest year. I am therefore somewhat suspicious when roasters claim to have a ‘special’ blend recipe created by monks in the Middle Ages (slight exaggeration). Rather, I think it should be the roaster’s task to use the best of what’s available (and fresh) at any given time to create a great product. The recent trend for roasters to offer seasonal blends and ‘in-season’ beans is a good example of people doing this.

So, coffee is food. So what? I guess the point of this article is to inform you, the coffee consumer, of a few ways to make sure you’re getting the best. To re-cap:

  • Buy from someone who can give you the info you ask for;
  • Buy fresh (and store your beans appropriately);
  • Grind only what you’ll use immediately;
  • Don’t bother finding a ‘favourite blend’ – embrace the diversity and ask for the freshest and the best!

The images used in this post are from the following sources:

cherry: http://www2.ctahr.hawaii.edu/forestry/demo.html
washed: http://blip.tv/file/1722136/
pulped: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonx/2441471707/
fermented: http://blip.tv/file/1722136/
dried: http://blip.tv/file/1722136/
rested: http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/k7hvnZZy0shiKbRLVBk9gQ
shelled: http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/e0foIqYN9pwcvrSZqn5YwQ
grading: http://cnsblog.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/nica-coffee-sorting.jpg
shipping: http://www.miami-ocean-cargo.com/stockxpertcom_id749141_size1.jpg
roasting: (mine)
grinding: http://www.dkimages.com/discover/previews/776/183925.JPG

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