When we talk about specialty coffee we are talking about coffee beans with the best flavor coming from a specific microclimate. Originally from Ethiopia, the coffee plant traveled all around the Arab peninsula and arrived in Europe in the 16th century through the port of Venice. By the 18th century, coffee became a popular drink, making its way from coffee houses to regular households. In recent years, we have seen a growing interest not only in coffee in general but especially in specialty coffees, making big coffee companies like Lavazza and Nespresso react to this trend and develop successful single origin lines.
What exactly is Coffee?
Coffee varieties are divided into two main families, Arabica and Robusta, each one with its own flavor characteristics. Arabica primarily comes from Ethiopia and was the first variety to be cultivated. It has a rich flavor with both sweet and acidic notes. Robusta comes from the Belgian Congo and was only cultivated beginning in the 19th century. This variety has a higher yield and can be grown in lower altitudes. In terms of flavor profile, Robusta is more bitter, with less body and is considered to be less flavorful than the Arabica variety. Though it has lovely chocolate notes, a higher concentration of caffeine and creates a wonderful foam that we like so much in an espresso.
The original Italian espresso uses a blend of the two varieties: Arabica and Robusta. In term of efficiency the natural choice of growers is Robusta, but in terms of quality and a more interesting taste, Arabica is the right choice. That’s why for many years most of the coffee producers started to work with coffee blends, achieving a compromise between profit and taste. Today’s coffee production is a mixture of the two varieties, with some countries growing only one of the two and the others grow them both. For example, West Africa only grows Robusta, Ethiopia only grows Arabica, and both Asia and India grow them both.
Coffee is much more than a drink that keeps us awake. It can be evaluated using a combination of its aroma and flavor. The aroma stimulates and prepares the taste buds to perceive the flavors of the coffee. In coffee, the body is of great importance. When we talk about it we describe it as the strength of the flavor and the fullness of the mouthfeel. As with wine, the aromas are described with the help of a special aroma wheel and the final quality of the cup is evaluated by combining of all those parameters.
The coffee that we know today as a final product comes from the bean of a red berry which is grown on a medium sized evergreen tree with jasmine-like white flowers, popular in tropical and subtropical climates around the equator. Each berry contains two coffee beans which are respectively covered with a silverskin, parchment, the pulp and the outer skin. There are different steps in the coffee production process that will affect the final profile of the coffee. The first decision to be made is the type of the plantation to grow the coffee plants, whether it will be fully shaded plantation or fully sunny plantation. Shade positively affects the bean quality as well as making the plantation more sustainable. With more shade comes a smaller output, and some producers prefer sunny plantations for heavy output because of that.
The second decision after the harvest is the processing method. This can be between a wet, semi-washed, and dry method. In the dry process, the whole coffee fruit is dried in the sun and then hulled mechanically. This method is dangerous but with careful work, it achieves coffee with a good body, and full and rich taste (good for espresso). High-quality Arabica is usually processed using the wet method, ripe coffee cherries are mechanically de-pulped and the mucilaginous residues are degraded during a fermentation step and then washed off. A machine separates the ripe and unripe berries using water. The coffee beans are then dried and hulled in the sun or by hot air. The coffee achieved has less body but a better aroma. New and more sustainable methods are being introduced to the coffee market, using less water or other techniques to reduce the waste and a number of toxic compounds produced.
The coffee we receive after processing is “green coffee” and it is usually shipped that way to different countries where roasting will taking place. The roasting will also give its signature to the coffee, eventually, the temperature and the time spent roasting will define the final taste. A light roast will leave more caffeine in the beans and less bitterness, including residual sweet and citrus notes that have a wonderful, delicate aroma. Medium roast is the most balanced one, having dominant chocolate notes with good body and a nice aftertaste. Dark roast contains less caffeine but has wonderful cacao flavors with some bitterness in it.
We have reached the final stage that will determine the flavor of coffee in the cup, but there is one important, final step – the brewing method. This will give the coffee it’s special finish and define the taste. Whether you choose to filter coffee, a French press, a Chemex, a siphon or an espresso maker, an Italian Moka, an Aeropress or V60, each one will give you a different, unique taste. The Italian Moka and the espresso machines are the only ones that work with pressure to create a stronger coffee. The V60 is famous for extracting more flavors and aromas from the coffee. The preparation itself takes extra time, but it is considered to be worth it. The French press is famous for creating coffee with high acidity and an intense body. The siphon makes incredibly pure coffee but, native Costa Ricans will always choose the traditional cloth filter.
But why does it matter? The bottom line is that we want to find a coffee that we will like to drink. Taking into consideration the brewing method that we are using and our preferences in matters of milk, sugar, etc., each one of us has our own preferences in coffee taste. By understanding the influence of the terroir on the coffee beans we will be able to choose the best coffee for us, whether we prefer it rich and full bodied, or lighter with acidic notes.
Single Origin, Speciality Coffee
If we are talking about specialty coffee, we are mainly talking about Arabica beans from a single origin – this is also the best way to understand and taste the influence of the terroir on the bean. The term terroir is something that is frequently used in the wine world, but it simply refers to the influence of the climate, the soil, the topography, the variety, and the touch of the producer on the final product, the coffee. Like wine, in each step of the production, the coffee beans are gaining flavors and aromas which will influence the final taste in the cup. As a sommelier, a wine specialist will be able to detect whether the product is coming from the new world (Australia, New Zealand, USA, South Africa, Argentina, and Chile) or the old world (Europe and the Middle East) simply by the taste of the wine. Similarly, a coffee specialist will be able to detect whether the coffee is coming from Ethiopia or Costa Rica.
Talking about specialty coffee we cannot ignore the Costa Rican coffee that is filling up high-end coffee shops all around the world. Conquering the specialty coffee market, Costa Rican coffee is introducing the world to one of the finest coffees, with a unique flavor of strong, full-bodied coffee with sharp acidity and a powerful aroma. Speaking of terroir, the natural conditions in Costa Rica are very close to the optimum for coffee growing; making Costa Rica one of the most interesting countries for coffee lovers. Although it is not in the top producing countries, the Costa Rican economy depends strongly on coffee as its farmers are focusing on the quality and not on the quantity of the production. The first coffee plants arrived in Costa Rica in 1779 from Cuba by a Spanish traveler who brought with him Arabica coffee beans. From that moment on Arabica was and still is the only variety that has been allowed by law to be planted in Costa Rica. The law that forbids the planting of the Robusta variety and has different policies regarding plant delivery and land concession which economically help the farmers. Since the early years of the coffee cultivation in Costa Rica, the government supported coffee production with plant cultivation and land concession policies.
Costa Rica is a relatively warm and humid country. The temperatures decreases with elevation and there are important differences between the slopes. The eight regions of production, each with different altitudes, temperatures, rainfall, and soil types, produce fine coffee each with its own specialty. The higher regions; those above 1200mm with volcanic soil, are producing a stronger, more acidic and more aromatic coffee, whereas the lower altitudes produces coffee with fruity and floral notes.
Arabica varieties within themselves can be very different in taste, the first variety introduced to Costa Rica was Typica, one of the oldest varieties which provides sweet notes, a very clean taste and light body. Later on with the development of technology and as part of the green revolution Caturra and Catuai were introduced to the Costa Rican coffee growers. Those varieties are much more productive but have less body and sweetness in the taste.
Starting from the Central Valley where the first plantations were planted, nowadays coffee in Costa Rica is produced in eight regions, Brunca, Turrialba, Tres Rios, Orosi, Tarrazú, Central and Western Valleys and Guanacaste all producing amazing Costa Rican coffee.
Coffee is a whole world of history and geography that finds its way into our cup. We shouldn’t forget that in the end it is there for us to drink it and there are some recommended practices to take home in order for us to make the best of our coffee. First remember that the biggest enemies of coffee are light, air, and humidity and those should be the guidelines regarding storage. When buying coffee, try to choose the whole bean and grind it only before brewing, the beans will stay fresher much longer that way and you will taste the difference in taste. If coffee is sealed in its package, keep it in the freezer to help preserve the taste. Once open, the best way to keep coffee is in a hermetically sealed container. Give it a try and enjoy your coffee.