KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 31 — The smell is the first thing that hits you. Nutty, lively, sometimes smoky – there is nothing like the fragrance of freshly-ground coffee beans being brewed at a café.
Your other four senses are not left out either as you marvel at the hiss of the steam wand and the whirr of the grinder; the roughness of the worn wooden benches at the bar; the sight of a barista pulling an espresso shot and pouring latte art; and, of course, the flavour of the coffee itself.
Good coffee can taste sublime and be a revelation. “Whatever am I talking about?” some of you may ask. Isn’t coffee simply coffee? What’s the big deal?
Let me give you the lowdown on specialty coffee.
The devil’s brew
Legend has it coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia when a goat herder named Kaldi observed his charges were friskier than usual after eating berries from a bush. Curious, he tried some and found himself buzzing with energy.
Truth or myth, it wasn’t till the 15th century in Yemen that coffee drinking became common and spread to North Africa and the Middle East. In Turkey, folks figured out roasting coffee beans over open fires, then crushing and boiling them in water produced a better beverage.
In Europe, Catholics called coffee the “bitter invention of Satan” but to their dismay Pope Clement VIII blessed the beverage in 1600, arguing, “This devil’s drink is so delicious... we should cheat the devil by baptizing it.”
This formerly infernal brew then became a drink for intellectuals. Coffee houses mushroomed all over Europe as centres of creative discourse for the great minds of the continent.
Across the Atlantic, the Americans declared coffee their national drink during the days of the Boston Tea Party in protest of the exorbitant taxes on tea imposed by British colonialists.
Three waves of coffee
Today, coffee is the second most traded commodity worldwide after petroleum. From humble beginnings, this modest brew is now the world’s most popular beverage with over 400 billion cups consumed every year. Coffee is big business; more than 20 million people are employed in the international coffee industry.
This global domination began with the spread of convenient, freeze-dried coffee that took off after World War II. This is commonly known as the first wave of coffee, exemplified by instant coffee brands such as Nescafé and Maxwell House.
The second wave saw the proliferation of better-quality Arabica coffees in market-friendly café chains. Starbucks is the poster child for this wave, introducing tall, grande and venti into the coffee drinker’s lexicon, along with all manner of flavoured espresso beverages.
Perhaps as a retort to the homogenization brought by the former, the third wave is a movement to heighten the culinary appreciation of specialty coffee as an artisanal product, not unlike wine. Key features include single-origin beans (rather than blends), improving all stages of production from farming to brewing, and sustainable coffee farming.
The bean belt
Sustainability is crucial as coffee cultivation is confined to “the Bean Belt”, growing regions demarcated by the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Here, mild temperatures around 20°C, moderate sun, abundant rainfall, and a rich, porous soil create the perfect environment for coffee planting.
The two major varieties of coffee trees are Arabica and Robusta. The hardier Robusta trees are grown at lower elevations, and yield more beans per tree. However, Robusta beans produced are considered lower in quality and mostly used for commercial coffee blends.
Arabica beans are considered better quality, but their trees are more fragile and have a lower bean yield. Arabica coffee trees must be grown at higher elevations (500 metres or more).
From farm to café
Before being permanently planted, coffee seeds are generally sown in shaded nurseries. In about 3-4 years, the trees begin to bear fruit called the coffee cherry. When ripe and ready for harvesting, the cherries turn a deep red.
Harvesting in most countries is done by hand, which is labour-intensive. Where the land is flatter such as Brazil, machines are employed. After picking, the cherries are processed either using the dry or wet method. If the wet method is used, the beans must then be dried to prepare them for storage.
The processed coffee beans are next sorted by size and weight, and graded for flaws or other imperfections, before being exported. The coffee is also continuously tested for quality and taste in a process known as “cupping.”
The green beans that are imported to our shores must then be roasted to transform them into the brown beans we recognise. Before brewing, the roasted beans are ground to bring out the most aroma and flavour.
The brewing method dictates how coarse or fine the coffee is ground. The finer the grind, the quicker the coffee is prepared. Hence coffee brewed using a drip filter is ground finer than that ground for use in an espresso machine.
A good cup
Clearly many hands are involved in delivering perfectly crafted coffee to you, from seed to cup.
But then again, I like to keep it simple. The best advice I’ve gotten from a barista in terms of appreciating coffee is simply, “Do you like it?”
If you do, then the rest is a bonus. Find a comfortable café with a friendly barista who is happy to answer your questions and, most importantly, make a good cup of coffee you truly like. Enjoy!
This story was first published in the print edition of The Malay Mail, August 30, 2013.