Coffee 101 with JBrooks

by Daisy on 10/11/2011

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I was at a family birthday party when I ran into a coffee roaster.  The human kind.  It was John Pitman, one of the principles of J. Brooks Coffee Roasters of Memphis, Tennessee.  John kindly agreed to humor my need to find out how stuff is done, because, like so many things, coffee is something I think I know, but—I actually don’t have a clue about when it comes down to it.

Since a desire to discover the whats and whys and hows of ordinary things is one of the main reasons Deanna and I started this blog in the first place, I jumped at the chance to dig a little deeper into another everyday mystery: that black stuff we guzzle at breakfast in the morning.

Today we’re going to talk.  On Thursday, John is going to show us step-by-step how to make the perfect cup of coffee  On Friday, J.Brooks is going to give everybody the chance to win, you guessed it–delicious coffee.  Itself.

Let’s start with the basics, John.  Because, really, I don’t think many people (myself included) know the answer to this question.  What is coffee?

Coffee is a fruit, believe it or not.  It’s actually a cherry, and the big “seed” in the middle is comprised of two coffee beans with their flat sides facing each other.  The bean is the only part used for human consumption; the rest of it is often re-used as a compost item / organic fertilizer to return nutrients right back to the plot of ground from which it was harvested.

There are two broad types of coffee trees – Arabica and Robusta.  The Arabica variety is generally preferred since it is much more flavorful, while Robusta is commonly used for instant coffee where flavor is not much of a factor.  Robusta also has about twice the caffeine content as Arabica, so if you see a coffee advertised for its higher caffeine content you can expect little flavor to accompany the energy surge.

As a gardener, I’m interested in the cultivation of everything.  How is coffee grown, how long from seed to harvest, and what challenges does the coffee grower face?

The coffee tree produces white, jasmine-like flowers which release a strong and thick but pleasant perfume-like scent.  Grown in the tropical regions of the world, its growing season lasts about 6-8 months.  The trees are usually kept to heights of 6-8 feet to expedite harvesting (done by hand) as well as to promote larger yields.  Coffee also self-pollinates which happily provides stability for the harvest.  If grown from seed the coffee tree generally needs three years to begin producing and will mature even later.

Growers face some of the typical natural hazards of agriculture – disease and bug infestation.  Drought is not as common with this tropical crop, but it does happen.  Of course, they also face the perennial issues of farming and management such as financial shortfall, economic structures that are overwhelming, support infrastructure such as procuring loans and transportation of produce to processing mills, hiring migrant pickers at harvest time, use of their land during off season, attempts at growing other crops on their land simultaneously with coffee to maximize profitability, and maintaining sustainable farming methods to foster independence and greater productivity.

What are the ways coffee berries are processed and how is your coffee processed before it gets to you?

Processing coffee at a mill consists of removing the external parts of the fruit and then drying the coffee according to a precise schedule to preserve its clean flavor and avoid tainted or ‘off’ tastes.

There are three methods of processing coffee: wet (or fully washed), natural (or dry / sun-dried), and semi-washed (or semi-dry / pulped natural) process.  Over 50% of the world’s coffee is processed using the wet method since it typically ensures greater consistency of flavor and is generally preferred for most specialty coffees.

In the wet method, the fruit (skin and pulp) is removed mechanically in water through a carefully controlled process.  The coffee is then laid out on concrete patios to dry, after which the husks surrounding the beans are removed mechanically and the beans sorted into jute bags for export.

The semi-washed method removes the skin mechanically in water but much of the pulp remains on the husk in the drying process.  Once the coffee is dry the husks are removed, but the coffee retains a slightly different flavor absorbed from the extended contact of the pulp with the beans.

Natural coffees are simply laid out in the sun to dry completely while still in the skin.  Their flavors can range from amazingly unique and intensely sweet and fruity to sharp, pungent and unpleasantly funky.  This method involves more risk toward flavor outcome due to being less predictable but when done well produces stellar results.

Currently we are offering only fully washed coffees, but we plan future selections from other methods as well.  The range of flavors to be experienced is phenomenal.

What is your take on the ethics of the coffee industry?

Huge, huge question – and I’m glad you asked.  I’ll have to practice some restraint in the length of my answer, however, or your readers will need to brew another pot while reading this!

The short answer is that they are improving all the time, all along the supply chain.  The advent of certifications such as Rainforest Alliance, Utz Kapeh and Fair Trade have accomplished much positive transformation in business and farming ethics across the board.  In truth, we’ve found that purchasing specialty grade coffee, which is all we buy, has the greatest track record of benefiting farming communities at origin both economically and socially.  As growers learn more about harvesting for quality and do it, they receive higher profits for their crops.  The positive effects on their communities are evident in health and hygiene facilities, education, better infrastructure such as transportation and communication, and more stable family units.

As you might expect, there is still so much to be done but tangible improvements are increasing globally as consumers get educated by reliable sources about what actually happens from seed to cup.  Informed consumers drive better values and promote higher ethical standards.

The health impact of coffee drinking has long been a controversial topic.  What does the latest research say?

Frankly, it’s no surprise that the answer to this question depends on who you talk to or which foundation funded a particular study.  I think most folks understand that ‘all things in moderation’ is a good standard when considering the physical impact of coffee.  Most of us have heard of the antioxidant content in coffee, and that is certainly a benefit.  However, if someone consumes numerous cups a day they need to realize that the benefits will be clouded by the negative impact of excess caffeine.

A cup of coffee typically contains an average of 125 mg of caffeine.  By comparison, a cup of tea averages about 45 mg and a soda averages about 50 mg.

The most consistent and trustworthy data that I’ve seen over the years agrees that up to two cups a day generally has no negative impact on health, excluding caffeine sensitivity.  The nice thing about decaffeinated coffee is that you get the antioxidant benefit without the effects of caffeine.

I’ve read there are many different ways to decaffeinate.  They all confuse me.  My bottom line is health and safety.  What can you tell me about decaf?

There are mainly two widely practiced methods of decaffeinating coffee and both are absolutely safe, leaving no chemical trace for consumption.  The older method uses a solvent which draws out and bonds with the caffeine molecules in large soaking tanks, leaving the coffee caffeine free when dried again.  The solvent evaporates completely at under 200F and coffee is roasted to a range of temperatures over 400F however, so there is no trace of it left in roasted coffee.

More recently the Swiss Water Process has been developed, which uses no chemicals.  The coffee is soaked in very hot water which pulls caffeine and other compounds out of the bean.  That water is then filtered through activated charcoal to remove only the caffeine molecules; the coffee is then re-soaked in the water to reabsorb the other lost compounds and dried.

What does it mean that there are different roast levels with your coffees?  If it’s dark, doesn’t that mean it will be bitter?

Coffee generally has three roast levels: light, medium and dark.  Each one displays different flavor characteristics, so let’s first take a look at how coffee is tasted.

The two main domains for taste assessment of coffee are acidity and body.  Acidity comes from its identity as a fruit and refers to the nice tangy or zesty sensation on the palate; it has nothing to do with pH balance.  Nice acidity can be described as bright, active, citrusy, tangy, etc.  Body refers to the presence in the mouth, or mouthfeel.  It can be light or heavy, creamy or velvety, oily or thin, etc.

Acidity is more prominent in light roasts, while body is more noticeable in dark roasts.  A medium roast strives to capture some of the best of both worlds.

A good light roast should never be sour; a good dark roast should *never* be bitter.  Light roasts should be more active on the palate and generally carry higher sweet notes, as in some fruit.  It might even have fruity, floral or herbal associations.  A good dark roast should be somewhat creamier with more noticeable or heavier body, and often has nutty, caramel or even chocolate notes in its flavor.

Finally, attention can be turned toward the finish, or aftertaste.  It should be clean and pleasant, whether lingering or short, and should never be chalky, sour, sharp or unpleasant.

Does it make a difference how coffee is ground?  How do you grind your coffee?

Yes it really does.  The most common home grinders are blade grinders, small and inexpensive.  The downside to blade grinders is that they produce an inconsistent grind size which causes unfortunate variation in flavor due to inconsistent extraction during brewing.

A burr grinder is preferred for home use.  This type of grinder has a rotating disc that grinds the coffee in a more uniform manner and can be adjusted to produce various grind sizes.  It is more expensive but will last a very long time and is certainly worth the investment.

Tell me – what is the best way to store coffee at home?

Great question!  Coffee remains freshest if it is airtight at room temperature.  There’s a pervasive but unfortunate myth that it should be kept in the fridge, but that is not so!  In fact that will ruin coffee.  The big enemies of coffee freshness are air and cold, because they’ll both cause staling to accelerate much faster.  So keep that bag rolled down tight, whether it contains ground coffee or whole beans, and keep it at room temperature.

Ground coffee actually does not stale quite as quickly as many people think, *as long as* it’s stored as I’ve just described.  The freshest coffee experience will of course result from grinding your beans when you are ready to brew.  For the average consumer, however, if you will consume the coffee within 10 days, ground coffee is fine if stored properly.

I tasted your coffee.  I couldn’t stop at one cup.  It was really very smooth, full-bodied, and delicious.  And that’s from a non-coffee-drinker about black coffee.  I tried it with cream, too, but I think I preferred it without, which was a new experience for me.  I think it was even decaf.  John, what did you do to those beans?

Thank you so much!  I’m smiling, because we just love hearing that from our precious customers!

There are two reasons J. Brooks Coffee creates an outstanding experience in the cup.  First, we purchase only specialty grade beans, which comprise only the top 7% of all coffee in the world.  Second, we roast our coffees with artisan skill in small batches to develop the maximum flavor potential of each one.

Coffee is graded according to its quality, just like so many other food items.  The poorest grade coffees are least expensive and normally used in office coffee.  Since it’s given away for free, suppliers don’t want to spend any more than absolutely necessary on it.  Above that level we have conventional grade coffee, which includes several grade layers determined by the amount of defects present in the green coffee.  The world’s best coffee is rated specialty grade; it is the highest quality and is effectively defect-free.  It also must meet other requirements such as being grown at high altitude (above 1000 meters elevation); higher altitude means longer ripening process and better flavor.  Double and triple picking the same plots of ground during harvest means cherries are only picked at the peak of ripeness, and removing defects requires far more attention during processing at the mill.  Numerous inspections during harvesting and processing ensure the quality is not compromised.  All of this is extremely labor intensive and time consuming, thus specialty coffee commands much higher prices than conventional coffee.

Once we’ve sourced premium quality beans, we roast each origin individually to its own sweet spot.  Coffees from different growing regions each have unique flavor characteristics, so a Sumatran tastes different than an Ethiopian, which is different than a Guatemalan, and so on.  For our blends we roast individual components to develop their own flavor and then blend them to allow for a maximum flavor experience.

Thank you so much, John.  I’m looking forward to your tutorial.



{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ann October 13, 2011 at 4:18 am

Thank you for this! I have always wanted to know more about coffee and I think you answered most of my questions.

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