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How to Buy the Best Coffee for You

A look at what coffee farming, processing, origins, roasting, and brew methods means for your coffee

There are many other reasons why we love coffee.  However, the actual coffee brewing has remained stagnant. Many people still drink subpar coffee from places that mass produce it simply because they don’t know any better.

Maybe you know there is better coffee out there, but are intimidated by all the choices or the grocery store has too many choices but not enough help.

Some of the questions you may ask are:

  • Why different regions change the coffee bean’s flavor
  • What is processing method & what difference do they make
  • How does roasting affect the coffee
  • What difference does the brew method make

Once you understand some important factors you can make educated decisions on which coffee is best for you and understand how to buy great coffee on a regular basis.

What is coffee?

coffee cherry beansCoffee is a fruit. They grow on trees and look like cherries. They are tart, so they’re not eaten.

You probably haven’t seen a coffee tree because it’s not mass produced in America. Farmers all over the world try to grow these crops and face the difficulties of extracting the beans out of the cherries.

Understanding how farmers processed the coffee beans makes a huge impact on how the coffee tastes in the end.

Understanding how farmers processed the coffee beans makes a huge impact on how the coffee tastes in the end.

Coffee Processing

There are two primary methods how coffee is processed. The first one is the most prominent and that is called washed. washed coffee processFarmers will take the cherries and put them on a bed and wash them with water. This process removes the pulp, fruit, and skin off of the cherry.

They are then left in the field to dry for 30 to 40 days. They are isolating the coffee bean in this technique, therefore the taste in the cup is unhindered by anything else. It’s just the coffee bean. The pit of the cherry is influencing the taste.

The other method is natural. Just like it sounds, it has very little human involvement. To illustrate how this process works think what would happen if you take a cherry and put it out in the sun for about 10 or 20 days. What would happen?

It will start to ferment or decay. This is a process that farmers take advantage of. There are bacteria that live on the cherry. When allowed to ferment out in the sun for 10 to 30 days it metabolizes the sugars in the cherry. This produces byproducts that influences the taste of the bean.

natural coffee processAfter 30 days of drying, the farmers will remove the fruit, pulp, and skin. What they’re left with is a bean that’s still very characteristic of the taste that washed method might have. It will also influenced by the fermentation process. There is some sweetness that rounds out the bitterness, there is a kind of a creaminess to it. So if you’re looking for a sweeter less intense cup of coffee the I recommend looking for a natural processed bean.

This isn’t to say that coffee from there is bad. There’s a lot of great coffee that comes from Indonesia. It makes a great traditional cup.

How does the origin of coffee affect its taste?

We’ve discussed the process of getting the bean out of the cherry, but what about where beans come from? This is an important part.

When you are buying coffee you may see words like Java and Sumatra. You may see some more common places of orgin that you know, like Guatemala and South America.

Even though it’s the same coffee plant growing and all these different regions it actually makes a huge difference where they’re grown and how that influences your cup.

coffee originsLet’s take two origins and compare them side by side, for example let’s take Indonesia and Ethiopia. Both countries are both mountainous, but coffee in Indonesia is grown in the lower altitudes of the country. Starbucks grows almost all of their coffee at low altitude farms in Indonesia. Unlike Indonesia, the coffee is grown at very high altitudes.

What difference does altitude make on coffee?

 

At low altitude we have lots of oxygen and carbon dioxide. These gases are more dense there. We know this because when you’ve gone hiking it’s easier at the beginning. However, as you get higher up the mountain the air starts to become less dense. Less oxygen makes it harder to breathe.

Now these coffees are grown and low altitudes have high turnover rates and this is what makes sense for Starbucks to be down there. Other heavy hitters like Folgers grows their coffee there and even Lipton makes their tea there. They have high demand so they have to make lots of coffee beans.

This isn’t to say that coffee from there is bad. There’s a lot of great coffee that comes from Indonesia. It makes a great traditional cup.

On the other hand Ethiopia, where coffee beans are grown at a high altitude in the mountains. Without oxygen coffee plants cannot experience normal respiration. In this case respiration is another term for making energy.

When you try to make energy without oxygen it’s called an aerobic respiration. This is what happens when you lift weights. Our bodies don’t have enough oxygen and so it has to make energy a different route. It’s done by making lactate. Lactate is then broken down in to lactic acid. You probably remember that lactic acid is what makes your muscles sore.

high altitude coffeeCoffee plants do the same thing. Instead of lifting weights though they’re trying to grow coffee cherries. In this case they don’t have enough oxygen and CO2, so they have to make their energy without oxygen via anaerobic respiration.

This produces lactate, which is broken down into the lactic acid. Lactic acid might not sound like a desirable trait in coffee, but it actually imports wonderful flavors to your cup.

Lactic acid is known for imparting that same creaminess that we talked about in natural coffee. It imparts a fruit like acidity and a lightness to the body of the coffee. More importantly it also balances out the bitterness that you may find in a traditional cup.

Let’s take a step back, now you know if you’re looking for a fruity cup of coffee, something that’s sweet, light in your mouth but not as strong; then we know we’re looking for coffee using the natural process. This is because we know that there are natural flavors from the fermentation process.

Next we’re also going to look at the origin. You could get a coffee from Indonesia, but if you’re looking for something with a little sweetness to it. So maybe with something with a little higher elevation; Ethiopia, Kenya, some of those African countries where the coffee is grown at very high elevation.

Let’s take a step back, now you know if you’re looking for a fruity cup of coffee, something that’s sweet, light in your mouth but not as strong; then we know we’re looking for coffee using the natural process.

What’s the deal with Coffee Roasts?

Now we know where we’ve gotten our coffee from, but what about the roast? This might be the one we are most familiar with. Light roast, dark roast, or you might see something called a city roast. These are all just a scale. Very light coffee beans to very dark. The difference is essentially how long they were allowed to be in the oven.  Roasting coffee just means cooking coffee. This is done for one very important reason.

The chemical reaction that you and I are very familiar with even if you didn’t know it. It is called the Maillard reaction. What the Maillard reaction does is that it takes sugars from carbohydrates, glucose, sucrose, lactose and under high heat combines them with amino acids. This is what your muscles are made out of. Coffee beans have amino acids and sugars as well.

When this combination occurs at high heat, we can see and taste the difference. You know this because if you eat red meat this is the exact same reason you sear your stake before you grill it. You get a kind brown, almost burnt texture to it. You can taste it, you can see it. These are very desirable flavors. It’s a good type of burn.

This is the same thing that happens to coffee. And the flavors that are produced from this reaction are very desirable. These flavors are caramelized, and chocolatey. Almost bitter without being overwhelming. All are very savory flavors.

When you’re looking at coffee, dark roasted coffee has allowed the Maillard reaction to go on for longer. Therefore having more of those savory notes.

coffee roast differencesDark roasted coffee is great, but we need to understand there’s a tradeoff. To make those dark roasted flavors that we all love we’ve actually taken away the original taste of the bean. To make those savory compounds that we like we had to use up the sugars, and amino acids in the bean.

If you’re looking for a really fancy coffee and you really want to taste it, how they’ve been actually tastes then stick to a lighter roast.

When you’re looking at coffee, dark roasted coffee has allowed the Maillard reaction to go on for longer. Therefore having more of those savory notes.

The world’s favorite chemical caffeine

Caffeine is great, but caffeine at its simplest form is an imposter. It’s lying to your body. Caffeine works by tricking your body into thinking it’s a molecule called adenosine (wiki source). Adenosine is very useful to our body. We use it for a number of chemical reactions.

One of them is when we are trying to go to sleep. When the sun starts to go down our body sets off a set of chemical reactions that make us sleepy. One of those being released is adenosine. Adenosine will then go onto the brain and bind to its respective receptors. This triggers a set of chemical reactions that will decrease adrenaline.

We’re inhibiting all these excitatory molecules that keep us awake. Caffeine is a little tricky, caffeine is chemically similar enough to adenosine to bind into that receptor, but chemically different enough so when it does bind, it doesn’t have the same downstream effects.

So instead of inhibiting adrenaline, it allows the body to keep on making those as if adenosine was never released. It is true that coffee cannot give you energy, but the way coffee works, the way it makes us feel awake, is that it stops us from feeling tired.

French press coffee is commonly described as thicker coffee or well bodied.

Brew methods

Now we have a pretty good grasp on what type of coffee we’re buying. We can walk into a store and say we want a sweet cuppa coffee. I’m going to go with the natural process, and I’m going to get one from Ethiopia and I’m going to do a medium roast. This is because I don’t want too much of the savory stuff, but I don’t want it too acidic. So that’s a good balanced cup.

On the other hand, maybe I want a dark cup of coffee. So I’ll have a washed from Indonesia and darker roast.

But we haven’t brewed the coffee. We have to get an a cup somehow

What’s the difference between the brew methods?

 

Let’s look at two primary brewing methods, ones that represents polar opposite sides on a spectrum. The first one being a French press (find the best french press here).

French press works via brewing process called total immersion. We do this by allowing the coffee and water to sit with each other for a long amount of time. Around five minutes.

This allows everything soluble in the coffee to move over to the water. We end up with a very oily cup of coffee that gives a great texture and body. French press coffee is commonly described as thicker coffee or well bodied.

On the other end of the spectrum is a Chemex which uses the pour over technique. Pour over coffee is completely different from total immersion. Pour over is when the second the water hits the ground coffee it is on a straight shot for the glass, or in this case the carafe. Only the most readily available components in the coffee are going to be dissolved in to the water.

The difference here is that with the French press we allow the coffee and the water to mingle for about five minutes. Which is a pretty long time.

coffee brew methodWith the Chemex though, as soon as the water hits the grounds it starts going down. Therefore you’re only allowing the coffee and the water to sit with each other for a couple seconds.

What this does it only allows the most readily soluble parts of the coffee to transfer to the water. What we lose with this method is that full-body and great texture. However, what we gain is clarity. 

If you’re looking for a cup of coffee that’s going to highlight the complexities and you want to taste more of the flavors, maybe see how the coffee changes when it cools down; a Chemex is going to show those features off better.

These are just two different brewing methods that are able to accent different characteristics of the coffee. We can isolate different variables, textures and flavors. We have so many ways to do this. The options are unlimited.

If you’re looking for a cup of coffee that’s going to highlight the complexities and you want to taste more of the flavors, maybe see how the coffee changes when it cools down; a Chemex is going to show those features off better.

Conclusion

Armed with your newly equipped information you can order coffee at a coffee shop with confidence. You don’t have to look so confused when the barista is explaining the different roast & origin types.

Enjoy your newfound information and use it to buy the best coffee you can find in the world that suits your desire.

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