Aug 25, 2009

Coffee Talk with Andy

Life's just too short to drink bad coffee or bad tea. Tea is covered in another article. Here are my tips on coffee.

Arabica or Robusta: There are two types of coffee plant (beans): Arabica, and Robusta. The Arabica coffee plant (Coffea Arabica), grows in semitropical climates near the equator, both in the western and eastern hemispheres, at high altitudes. Because ripe Arabica cherries (unroasted beans) fall to the ground and spoil, they must be carefully monitored and picked at intervals, which increases production costs. Robusta trees (Coffea Canephora), which are grown exclusively in the eastern hemisphere, also thrive in equatorial climates, but at low altitudes. Their cherries require less care since they remain on the tree after they ripen. Robusta beans have twice the caffeine of Arabica, but less flavor. Most generic, commercially produced coffee comes from the poorer quality Robusta plant. Think freeze-dried generic 'instant' coffee. Ugh! Good food markets and coffee shops generally use Arabica beans. Once you have tasted the difference for yourself, you will not need persuading to buy Arabica over Robusta.
Storage: I'm going to offend some old wives, but we take our coffee seriously at G4U Market, so here goes! Never, ever, no never, store coffee beans in the fridge or the freezer. I know, caught me out too! As soon as you get your treasured beans home, empty into an airtight container that does not let the light in. Keep on your counter top, or pantry at room temperature. The fridge or freezer will cause your beans to absorb moisture and spoil the flavor. We all know what water retention does for a girl. Same for coffee! If you do not want to store coffee in large amounts, find a good food market who will allow you to purchase loose beans by the pound. You only buy as much as you need and the price is typically better.
Daily Grind: Buy beans and invest in your own coffee grinder, or better still have the market grind it for you since commercial coffee grinders produce evenly sized grinds, affecting taste enormously. Ground coffee is best for only minutes after grinding the beans before the flavor starts to spoil. Ground coffee has a greater surface area exposed to oxygen than roasted beans. If you have had beans custom roasted for you, wait 2 - 4 days before grinding and consuming. This allows the oil in the beans to settle for optimum flavor.

The size of the ground coffee particles must match the type of brewing equipment you will be using. Brewing methods which expose the grinds to water for longer periods require a coarser grind than faster brewing methods. Beans which are too finely ground for the brewing method in which they are used will expose too much surface area to the heated water and produce a bitter, harsh taste. An overly coarse grind will produce weak coffee unless more is used. Long-brew methods are French Presses ("Cafetière") and drip coffee machines. A short brew method is an espresso machine. Home coffee grinders at the lower end of the price range use a rotating blade to chop the coffee beans. Blade grinders create coffee dust which can clog espresso machines and French Presses. Blade grinders can be purchased inexpensively these days and work OK for drip coffee machines. Finely ground coffee and coffee intended for French Presses require a burr-grinder which tears the beans into a uniform size. To save money, it really is preferrable to have your market grind your coffee beans for you. Let your market know which type of coffee brewing equipment you will be using, since they can match the size of the coffee grounds to your brewing method.

Strength: How much coffee to use? Of course it depends on the depth of the roast, and personal preference, but a general guide is 2 slightly heaped tablespoons of ground coffee per 6oz water. Experiment with your coffee equipment and record your personal taste. If your local water tastes funny, or is high in lime, invest in a filter for your water supply. Bottled water will do in a pinch, but please recycle the bottle! Using poor quality water wastes your hard earned cash spent on buying decent beans. Not buying decent beans is just too grim to consider and best not discussed.
Water Temperature: recommended brewing temperature of coffee is 200 °F (93 °C). Too cool and solubles that make up the flavor will not be extracted. Too hot, and undesirable, bitter solubles will be extracted, spoiling the flavor. Espresso is an exception, brewed at a water temperature of between 91 °C (195 °F) and 96 °C (204 °F). Espresso is made by forcing hot water through finely ground beans which have been packed into a "Puck." The grinds are only griefly exposed to the water. The essence of taste in espresso is due to the fine colloidal foam ("Crema") containing emulsified oils which layers on top of the brew.
Organic, Fair Trade, Shade-grown: Oh my, can't a guy just get a cup of Joe? Well, that generic mass-produced coffee you buy everywhere in the big boxes is not as cheap as you think it is. We're bearing the cost of conventional coffee in communities barely surviving on rock-bottom pricing, land erosion, more and more chemicals being utilized to produce less and less coffee. I would encourage everyone to seek out markets who only sell organic, Fair Trade, and Shade-grown coffee. What is this?
Organic - obviously no chemicals.
Fair Trade - the growers get a fair price for their crop, workers are paid a fair, living wage, more of the profit from the distribution of the crop goes directly back into the communities who grew it for us. This is evident in higher wages, strengthened communities through profits being used for schools, roads, sustainable farming training, and increased availability of the crop due to more farmers remaining on the land, farming. You've heard it said, "No Farms, No Food." Distribution layers are consolidated with the farmer typically gaining direct access to distribution without multiple layers of handlers.
Shade-grown. In order to maintain low production prices, coffee has typically been grown by clear-cutting native trees and planting coffee bushes in place. With no cover and with a ecosystem disrupted, the soil dries out, and erodes. Also such soil requires masses of chemicals to supplement soil fertility and reduce pests. This causes toxic runoff and loss of wildlife habitat on treeless areas. Shade grown means growing coffee bushes in the shade of native trees, or by planting a forest of shade-trees with many layers of tree canopy to mimic native forests. Wildlife habitats are preserved, or created, soil fertility is built naturally.
Tips and Recommendations: My preferred brewing method is espresso. However Espresso machines are very expensive, so I typically favor the simple French Press as an excellent compromise. The flavor is good since the coffee grinds remain in direct contact with the water, and the press captures more of the coffee's flavor and essential oils. There are very nifty travel mug versions of French Presses now available which makes it easy to get good coffee on the go. French pressed coffee is best drunk within 20 minutes, becoming bitter after that due to the coffee sediment being retained in the brewed coffee. There is some thought that French pressed coffee should be avoided by those with high cholesterol since compounds in unfiltered coffee are thought to increase cholesterol.

Letting coffee sit on a warming plate in a caraffe is not good for flavor since the brewed coffee begins to burn. Best to choose thermal airpots to dispense brewed coffee in food service locations. Do not reheat your coffee in a microwave (sorry Mother-in-law!). You might as well pour it over the garden since coffee (and spent coffee grinds) are high in nitrogen and good for the soil (use organic!).

Always use Organic, Fair Trade, Shade-grown coffee beans.

Recap: What must we do, asides from putting recycle in the trash? And, oh yeah, G4U Market sells loose, Organic, Fair Trade, Shade-grown coffee and can grind it for you. We also use the coffee we sell in Auntie's Bar (our organic juice, coffee and tea bar).


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