The Story of Coffee
Follow your morning coffee from tree to cup.
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When you’re sipping your morning brew, you probably don’t look beyond your barista or coffee pot, but if you did, you might be surprised to learn how far that brew has traveled and how many people have had a hand in your cup. It all begins in a land far, far away
There are two kinds of coffee trees: Arabica and Robusta. Robusta trees, often used as a “filler” in canned coffees, are hardier, grow at lower altitudes, have more caffeine and are less flavorful and aromatic than Arabica beans. Almost all specialty coffees, including those roasted at Water Street Coffee Joint, are Arabica beans.
The arabica plant is an evergreen that grows up to twenty feet tall in the wild, but is pruned to about six feet tall when cultivated, to facilitate picking. Coffee flowers resemble Jasmine and emit an intense, pungent scent which, when an entire field is in bloom, can be detected from several miles away. Each tree takes about four to five years to mature and begin producing berries.
The berries, which appear after the flowers fall, are known in the industry as “cherries.” In appearance, they resemble the cherries grown in Michigan. Inside the inedible skin and pulp are two coffee beans. It takes about 2,000 coffee cherries to yield a pound of roasted coffee beans. Each tree can produce between one and twelve pounds of coffee per year, depending on a multitude of factors, most notably soil and climate.
Coffee is harvested once a year, with the time of harvest dependent on the geographic region. Although a coffee-picking machine exists, they are very expensive, don’t work well in all environments, and simply don’t do as careful or as thorough a job as a person can. For these reasons, almost all coffee is still picked by hand. One picker can pick as much as two or three hundred pounds of cherries per day. This is the equivalent of 40 to 60 pounds of green coffee beans.
Processing of the beans for market, which includes removing the cherries’ fruit, parchment and inner parchment and outer hull, and drying the beans, begins within twenty four hours of picking. These layers are removed in one of two ways.
In the wet method, the layers are removed mechanically and the beans are soaked in fermentation tanks for up to three days. These “washed” coffees, predominantly used in Central and South America due to the abundant supply of clean, fresh water, are typically higher in acidity with sharper flavor than the “natural”, or dry method, coffees. In the dry method, predominantly used in East Africa and Yemen, the beans are spread out on large patios to dry in the sun. They are raked periodically for seven to ten days, until the moisture content has lowered to 11% and the beans rattle inside the dry cherry. The beans are then de-hulled mechanically, producing coffees that are typically lower in acidity, fuller bodied, and more complex than “washed” coffees.
The coffee is stored in bags, often artfully decorated with the name and logo of the region or grower, made of jute or sisal. The coffee is then stored in warehouses until it is ready to be shipped by importers/exporters.
Before an importer of specialty “green” (unroasted) coffee beans makes a purchase, he/she evaluates the quality of a coffee by a process called cupping. In this process, the cupper evaluates the coffee’s unique characteristics, including aroma, acidity, body and flavor.
At a cupping, a sample of the green beans is lightly roasted and set out on a table next to the same beans, unroasted. Cupping is generally done in groups, with several coffees being tasted during a sitting, so that participants can compare coffees and share opinions. Cuppers start by examining the beans for imperfections. Then eleven to twelve grams of ground beans are put into each cup and topped with six ounces of very hot water. Some of the grounds sink to the bottom and others float to the top of the liquid, forming a “crust.”
After allowing the grounds to steep for a few minutes, the cuppers “break” the crust with a spoon, at which point most of the grounds sink to the bottom of the cup and the full aroma of the brew is released. After experiencing and evaluating the aroma, cuppers remove the remaining grounds from the top of the coffee and take some of the coffee onto the spoon. They then slurp the coffee loudly, with the goal being to spray the coffee evenly over the tongue. This method of sipping allows the cupper to more easily identify distinct elements of the brew. Much like experienced wine tasters, cuppers have well-developed palates and can easily identify the subtle characteristics of each coffee. The green coffee dealers will purchase only those beans whose characteristics meet his/her own standards of quality.
At this point, we come into the picture. Coffee roasters, like Water Street Coffee Joint, go through this exact same process of cupping when they purchase beans from the green bean importer. Like fine wines, certain crops of beans will be prized over others, depending upon how the climate conditions each year affect the crops in a particular area.
At Water Street Coffee Joint, our goal is to offer coffees with a diverse spectrum of flavors, as well as a selection of fair trade certified, shade-grown, certified organic, and decaffeinated coffees. Once we’ve cupped for quality and chosen the raw beans with which we’ll be working, the fun begins!
Although coffee roasting really has only three ingredients: green beans, a roasting machine, and a roastmaster, the roasting process involves a complex set of variables. At Water Street Coffee Joint, we roast by hand in small batches. This gives us precise control over the quality and consistency of our roasts. Because each variety of coffee bean is different, our roastmaster carefully crafts each coffee, constantly monitoring time and temperature, considering density and humidity, and making subtle adjustments throughout the roasting process, to enhance the bean’s inherent qualities and bring out the best in every bean.
And because we know that freshness matters, you won’t find a warehouse full of roasted beans at any of our facilities. We encourage our customers to order only as much coffee as they will use in a week and we roast to order, always shipping within twenty-four hours of roasting. Freshly roasted coffee is richer and more aromatic, offering fragrant aromas, a fuller range of flavors and greater complexity.
But it takes more than beans to make a great cup of coffee. Low-quality equipment and inexperienced baristas can make a bad cup of coffee from even the most delicious roast. At Water Street Coffee Joint, we only use and sell equipment that we have carefully tested and found to be the best in terms of quality, durability and value. For our cafes, we roast all of our coffees within seven days and grind within seconds of brewing, and we only sell coffee that has been brewed within the hour. Our coffee to water ratios are within the range recommended by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, and we take good care of our equipment so that it takes good care of our coffee.
Additionally, we’ve invested lots of time in our barista training program. Our baristas are not just the fabulous, friendly bunch that they appear to be-they really know their stuff! And, as any coffee lover knows, a good barista makes all the difference! And we think ours are the best! If your coffee shop or restaurant doesn’t have these same standards, you’re not getting the most out of your brews.
Water Street Coffee Joint offers coffee seminars on a variety of topics, staff training and consultation services. We are a Fair Trade Certified and Organic Certified Roaster and a member of the SCAA. We keep abreast of the latest trends through trade journals and conventions and through our own research.