Barista in the Wild, Part 1: Coffee Bean Origins

Note: Serious Eats contributor Allison Hemler is a NYC-based barista who recently traveled to Seattle to check out the internal coffee college at Starbucks HQ. This week, she'll be educating us on tidbits she picked up in class, starting with bean origins today.

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Clockwise from top left: Coffee cherries, washed green coffee, roasted coffee beans.

A few weeks ago, I was at the local bar for trivia night when the ultimate question was asked: "Where is the majority of the world's coffee beans grown?" Simple, I thought. I work in coffee and look at names of Latin American and African countries every day. While hesitant, I chose Colombia from my brainstormed list--the popularity of Juan Valdez has got to count for something, right? Wrong. Brazil is the largest producer of coffee beans. I sulked as my friends lost trust in my ability to answer a question in my own industry. I've been so wrapped up in the glamorous life of latte art and timing my espresso shots that I forgot to spend more time with how my precious beans are born.

The next week, it seemed like the god of coffee himself was studying my life and guiding me to enlightenment, as I traveled to Starbucks HQ in Seattle for a look at their internal coffee college. The first sentence I recall spoken by Ann-Marie Kurtz, manager of coffee experience, during a discussion on coffee bean origins, was "Brazil is the largest producer of coffee beans in the world." I laughed and thought: I need to have a talk with my psychic.

Guatemala. Costa Rica. Brazil. Sumatra. Papua New Guinea. Sulawesi. Ethiopia. Yemen. These are areas we associate with the coffee bean. Both large commercial farms or small family-owned plantations line the steep hillsides and plateaus of these countries, but if you're drinking a cup served by a hungover grad student with a band T-shirt on, it's most likely the beans responsible for your caffeine fix begin as handpicked coffee cherries and end up as part of the specialty coffee market.

So how does the coffee cherry become the dark roasted bean we're so familiar with?

The cherries are picked (about 100-150 pounds per day per worker), collected, and sorted, then undergo one of three processes to get to the next step, green coffee. While the three methods are used across all of the growing regions, I've noted the most popular match-ups.

Washed: Used in Latin America and East Africa. Cherries go through both a washing tank and fermentation tank. Fermentation contributes to what you would eventually taste as the acidity or brightness in your cup of coffee.
Semi-Washed: Used in Indonesia. Cherries undergo a quick rinse with no fermentation.
Sun-Dried: Used in East Africa and Yemen. For two to four weeks, coffee is dried outdoors, and bagged overnight. Where is no fermentation, this method produces an intense flavor, similar in character to drying fruit or tomatoes.

The green coffee is sold to various companies (and in a dream world, would all be bought directly from the farmers), from Peet's and Starbucks, to Stumptown and Barrington Coffee. Each company has their own roasting philosophy and style, which in turn means that two companies who buy from the same farm will not produce the exact same cup of coffee.

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Samples from a coffee cupping at Starbucks HQ.

What can you expect from the different growing regions? While every coffee cupping, similar to a wine tasting, may produce different adjectives or taste bud sensations, there will be similar characteristics in a cup from Joe the Art of Coffee (my employer, a NYC-based mini chain) and Starbucks. Some notes from a recent cupping which I've found to be consistent between the two:

Mexican Chiapas: Soft body, grassy, nutty.
Guatemalan Antigua: Has weight & body with a long finish.
Kenya: Hints of grapefruit, currant, and berries.
Sumatra: Earthy, lack of acidity.

Roasting develops specific flavors, or may dominate the characteristics of the growing region if roasted very dark. Coffee roasters will tell you that you don't want to take African coffee beans too dark, but a Panamanian may thrive with a medium-to-dark roast. Coffee roasting is an art, and the bean's origins lay the pencil-drawn foundation for the finished product. Next up, we'll investigate the different stages in roasting coffee beans.

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