Coffee Beans And How To Choose Them
The perfect cup of coffee starts with knowing how to find the highest quality and freshest coffee beans. Here's how.
Choosing the right coffee beans is the first step in brewing the perfect cup of coffee. Why beans and not ground coffee? Grinding your coffee just before making your cup insures a fuller flavor.
Like the wine grape, a coffee bean's quality depends on individual taste. However, if you choose an inferior coffee species, the coffee will taste flat.
There are two main species of coffee found on the market- arabica and robusta. The arabica bean is used for the highest quality coffee. The robusta bean produces more beans per plant, and can grow at lower altitudes. Commercial companies began to favor the robusta for canned coffee because of the higher profit margin. But, the robusta bean brews a coffee that is vastly inferior to the arabica. So, buy only arabica beans.
All the potential flavor of a coffee bean is locked in the green (raw) bean. Roasting releases the oils and acids that gives each variety of bean its unique flavor. Once these oils and acids are released from the inside of the raw bean, they are vulnerable to flavor loss. To get the richest flavor into your coffee cup, start with the freshest beans possible.
When you go to your local gourmet shop, you have no idea when their coffee beans have been roasted. You need to ask. Ideally, coffee beans should be bought within a week of roasting. The finest coffee shops are aware of this necessity, and will know the roasting date.
Next, observe how the shop stores their beans. This is an important indication of how aware they are of the volatile chemistry of roasted coffee beans. They must be protected from light and air as much as possible. Clear lucite bins may look appealing, but are one of the worst storage methods.
Ordering beans from a mail order roasting merchant is the best way to find the freshest beans. Many are on-line. Using your search engine, enter coffee+retail. Look through the list to find coffee retailers who are also roasters. Companies that roast their own beans usually ship within a couple days of roasting.
Once you have found a source for fresh beans, you are still confronted with a dizzying array of varieties from Brazil to Zimbabwe. Like wine, there are distinct aromas in different bean varieties that you will smell before the coffee even hits your taste buds. Again, like wine, there are good years and bad years for certain coffee beans.
The type and amount of acidity in a coffee bean varies, depending on the variety and the way they were roasted. Acid in coffee does not mean sour, but provides a sparkle and complexity that is due to the chemistry of bean varieties. It makes the coffee interesting and lively. The darker the roast the more body the coffee has, but it is gained at the expense of losing the subtler acid overtones. Roasting is an art. A roaster will vary the darkness of a roast according to the coffee bean variety, aiming at a very definite balance between acid and body.
Finally, there is flavor. Flavor is described by such ambiguous terms as earthy, grassy, winey, spicy, and fruity, just to name a few. The flavor can be described as clear or sharp. Flavor is the attribute that most separates bean varieties. Trying different varieties will educate your palate to the fine differences, and help you decide which one you like the best. Don't give up on just one try. Sometimes a different roaster may bring out the beans' flavor in a way that is more appealing to you.
In addition to the one bean coffees, there are the blends. Many coffee shops have a secret blend of their own, often called their house coffee. As you become discerning in your tasting experience, you may want to experiment with your own blends.
The last choice you need to make when purchasing fresh beans is the roast. What you need to remember is that as the beans get darker, acids are lost. But, this is replaced by a heavier body.
The only roast I would not recommend is the lightest, also known as cinnamon roast. This roast has been favored by commercial companies and put into the cans you see at the grocery store. Roasting eliminates moisture from the bean, so the lighter the roast the fewer beans it takes to make a pound of coffee. Again, this coffee is driven by profit margin, and not taste. It results in a roast that is very low in body and high in acids. All acids are not equal. The lightest roast is high in chlorogenic acid, which gives the coffee an unpleasant sourness.
A roast slightly darker than cinnamon is known as city roast or light medium. Next, is the medium roast, or full-city. These labels vary across the country. What is medium to one company is much darker to another. With these roasts the oil has not usually come to the surface of the bean.
Finally, we come to the darker roasts, where the oil of the bean is coming to the surface. The body and flavor of these beans will come through if you like to add a lot of cream to your coffee. Vienna, French, Italian, and Expresso roast are among these. The darker the beans, the more caramelized they become. The darkest, Expresso roast, is very low in acid and has lost the subtle flavor that distinguishes one bean from the next, but is very heavy bodied. This is a necessity when brewing with the high concentration of an expresso machine.
Try different roasts, depending on how you drink your coffee, and how you brew it. Mix the different blends together. I like to get a medium-dark roast by mixing medium and a darker roast. To sum it all up, finding the perfect coffee bean is an adventure.