When it comes to brewing coffee, there are a lot of factors that affect the taste and even more opinions on the right way to combine those factors for the perfect cup. If you are looking to go on to the world barista championships, this is not the right resource for you. My goal here is to give you the core best practice principals for coffee preparation that will hold true across most methods you are likely to use. Additionally, we will throw in some practical alternatives that can give you a great cup of coffee and require minimal gear. So, without further ado…
Coffee undergoes a lengthy and complex journey to make it into your cup and not all paths are created equal. Every step of the journey can be (and often is) run as its own separate business, each with its own nuances. The factors affecting coffee’s integrity are many but we are going to touch on those that make the biggest impact on quality.
First off, specialty Arabica coffee is very particular as to where it will grow. It requires the right combination of climate, altitude, rainfall patterns, and topography among other factors. In addition to needing the right location for the coffee to grow, the farmer must take a great deal of care to yield the most flavor from of the bean. They must ensure the trees are properly shaded, prune them correctly, and that the soil is properly cared for and nutrient rich. But more than all of that is picking the coffee cherry at peak ripeness. This sounds simple but takes an intimate connection with the coffee plant to know where that optimal ripening point is. If picked too early, the sweetness and character will not be fully developed but if left too long, the coffee cherry could over ripen and have fermented flavors in the coffee. Additionally, not all cherries ripen at the same time so every bean must be hand picked at the right time to capture the best flavors possible.
After picking comes processing, and there are three main methods: washed, natural, and pulped-natural processing. Coffee grows as a fruit or coffee cherry and has many layers. The three most notable for our purposes are the bean, a sticky fruit layer (called mucilage), and the outer skin. The end goal of all the methods is to separate the bean from the other parts and dry it in a way that captures the best flavor of the coffee beans.
The washed (or wet) process starts by putting the picked coffee cherries into a washbasin and filling it with water. The best beans are dense and sink to the bottom while the less desirable beans with defects float to the top. They are then skimmed off or floated away while the choice beans remain. The coffee then undergoes the pulping process to separate the skin and mucilage from the bean after which it is then dried (typically in the sun). Coffee has a thin parchment layer surrounding the bean. Once dry, the coffee is put through a huller to remove the parchment and the green coffee bean is exposed.
In natural processing, the coffee cherry is left to dry either partially or fully on the tree. They are then set out in the sun to dry with the skin and mucilage still on the bean. During that time, they are raked and turned to ensure even drying. Once dry, the cherries are put into a huller to separate the skin, mucilage, and parchment from the bean. The extended exposure between the mucilage and the bean allows for more time for flavor development in the bean, which can prove to be either beneficial or detrimental.
Pulped-natural processing (or honey processing) resides somewhere between the two other methods. The coffee cherry is picked at peak ripeness and the skin is removed but the mucilage remains on the bean. The coffee is then set out in the sun to dry as it is raked or turned regularly for even drying. Once dry, it is hulled to remove the mucilage and parchment. Although often not specified, there are different names (black honey, yellow honey, or red honey) depending on how much of the mucilage is left on the bean while it dries, so if you hear those terms, that is what they are referring to.
Washed coffee tends to be cleaner, more acidic, and have bright, subtle, sweet flavors. Natural processed coffee has more deep and earthy notes with a deeper body and vibrant aroma. With naturals there can be great reward of rich, sweet, and unique flavors when fermented (process that happens when left on the tree) properly but when improperly done can result in over fermented or even winey notes. Pulped-naturals often result in a cup that is a little sweater and cleaner than naturals, yet still have potential for the uniqueness of naturals. Each of these methods produces great coffee. Every coffee is different and therefore may favor one method over another. There is a time and a place for each. The trick is to match the right method with the right coffee to bring out the most desirable flavors.
Once processed, the coffee is prepared for shipment. Coffee is traditionally shipped in burlap bags. As of recently, GrainPro bags are becoming more and more common. These bags are hermetically sealed and help maintain coffee quality by limiting exposure to moisture and other odors.
As you can see, by the time green coffee makes its way to the roaster it has undergone quite a process to get there. A lot of care has already gone into preserving the coffee’s integrity so it’s our job to roast in a way that extracts the unique flavors encapsulated in that coffee. When heat is applied in the roasting process, the cellular structure of coffee changes as water is released and sugars develop (giving coffee its sweet properties). This is where it gets interesting and where we come in. Not all roasting is created equal; the goal is to develop the sugars evenly throughout the bean while also reaching a roast level that highlights the unique traits in that coffee. Roast too light or with the wrong heat application and the sugars do not develop properly. Roast too dark and the natural subtleties of the coffee are overtaken by burnt or charred flavors. To ensure optimal quality, we sample roast and try every coffee at a variety of roast levels to dial in the sweet spot. In addition, we roast small batches in an artisanal roaster to be sure your coffee is fresh and every bean gets the attention it deserves.
So now we get to making your cup of coffee. We have provided a Detailed Brew Guide to help give a few recommendations for best preparation results. Now it’s up to you; choose wisely.
If anyone out there is interested in more details or additional information, please feel free to contact us directly. We believe that transparency is paramount to facilitating a positive impact and are glad to help in any way we can.