Coffee: Fine Ground

Coffee,beans People & Places Articles
  • Friday 9 October 2009

The finest coffee in the world costs only 16 times as much as Nescafé, yet the drink’s connoisseurs claim it is nuanced as wine in terms of terroir and origin. How can this be? Francis percival spills the beans

Wine lovers should understand coffee. Not via compendious coffee knowledge, rather at a deeper emotional level. Both beverages are agricultural products that can convey the sense of the place in which they were grown and offer a richly varied, sensual experience. Indeed, within the coffee industry it has become something of a cliché to talk enviously of the ‘wine model’ through which wine has successfully communicated its origins and diversity to the consumer.

It is true that wine – simple fermented grape juice – is easier to understand. For coffee, the route from plant to cup is far from simple, and at each stage there is the potential for the unique qualities of any particular coffee to be lost. And where wine has the advantage that it leaves the winery as a finished product, we must brew the coffee ourselves and assume at least some of the responsibilities that we otherwise delegate to the winemaker.

Anita Le Roy, owner of Monmouth Coffee Company in London, has been roasting and selling top-quality coffee for more than 30 years and is still amazed that coffee is produced at all. ‘Imagine what people would say if we invented it today. “Oh, you grow coffee cherries, so you’re going to make a fruit drink? No actually, we’re going to remove the flesh of the fruit and then dry, sort, roast and grind the seeds, which we will then infuse in hot water.” They’d think we were mad!’

But the biggest difference between coffee and wine is in our attitude towards them. I doubt that any Decanter reader would dream of ordering an unspecified ‘glass of wine’, but that is exactly how coffee is normally consumed; even at Michelin-starred restaurants the coffee is merely generic. It should not be so.

Special brew

All great coffees belong to a single species, Coffea arabica, native to Western Ethiopia. And just as with Vitis vinifera, the species encompasses many different varieties with different flavour profiles, which can be – also like wine – notoriously imprecise between regions. The degree of varietal expression as opposed to individual terroirs or methods of processing is also somewhat unclear, but it is significant that the coffee industry does not place the same importance the wine industry does on the ability to accurately identify variety and origin.

Whatever the variety, good coffee needs ripe cherries. Stephen Hurst, founder of Mercanta, the UK’s leading importer of speciality coffees, also owns a coffee estate in Brazil, Toca da

Onça Inglaterra, and he is all too aware of the challenge to pick ripe, clean fruit. When I spoke with him he had just returned from a mid-harvest visit to his farm and brought out photos of bunches of yellow bourbon coffee cherries ripening on the tree. Like grapes, each bunch bore evidence of differential ripening, with perfectly ripe cherries intermingled with both green, under-ripe and shrivelled, over-ripe ones.

In Brazil, the entire coffee crop is generally harvested at once and then sorted with Burgundian determination. In Central America, harvesting takes place by trie, like in Sauternes, with selective pickers making multiple passes through the trees. For Hurst, this sorting is the difference between those growers who perform well harvest after harvest, versus those who might receive acclaim for a single magic vintage. ‘A great many farms in Brazil (as elsewhere in the coffee world) are not “professional”, relying instead on rustic harvest practices. And, without reference to quality, millions of bags of rain-damaged, commodity grade Brazil coffee changes hands.’

Once the fruit has been picked and sorted, the method by which it is processed is hugely important to the taste of the finished coffee. The technique chosen to remove the flesh of the cherries heavily impacts the beans’ sugars, which then dramatically change how we perceive the acidity of the coffee.

As a comparison of the significance of methods of processing versus variety and terroir, imagine an appellation where it is possible to make sweet wines by any method you choose. From a single parcel of vines you might produce a vin doux naturel, a vin santo-style dried grape wine, a super-clean ice wine, and another wine rich with botrytis; the same variety and site would give you four different wines, each with some similarity to one another, but also similar to other sweet wines processed by the same method.

Roasting might be thought of as analogous to a winemaker’s use of oak; too dark and you will taste the roast rather than the beans (something exploited by the larger enterprises who want stylistic consistency across huge blends).

Just as with wine, local preferences for particular processing methods create potentially divisive expectations of typical flavours – coffee even has its own version of Château Musar and the love-it-or-loathe-it technical eccentricities that characterise its wines. The wild and untamed blueberry notes found in coffees from around the eastern Ethiopian city of Harrar, for example, reflect the process by which they are handled, kickstarting a familiar-sounding debate about typicity. James Hoffmann, co-owner of Square

Mile Coffee Roasters and the 2007 World Champion Barista notes: ‘An identical cup from Central America would likely be considered a defect, whereas the Harrar will command a premium.’ The final hurdle comes when the coffee is actually brewed. Everyone involved in the speciality coffee industry, from growers to baristas, is united in their plea for one major intervention in British coffee habits: buy a grinder and grind freshly roasted beans (no more than one month after roasting) as and when you need them. My own experiments confirm the difference when you grind to order; it is astonishing just how quickly ground coffee starts to oxidise. And forget about attempting domestic espresso and instead arm yourself with a trusty cafetière with which to explore the great coffee terroirs. Unlike wine, good coffee is simple and cheap.

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