The first time in my life I saw a coffee plant was on a trip to Guatemala last year. It was September, and most of the plants were already displaying their typical red fruit. Our guide picked one of these berry-like fruits and showed us the stone. My brain recognised this little pip as a typical coffee grain, but with a very different colour, odourless and covered with a viscous membrane.
In the village of San Juan la Laguna, by Lake Atitlan, I also had the pleasure of meeting Juan, the owner of a modest coffee shop set up in a part of his house. After my friend and I enjoyed our coffees, Juan started to talk about the coffee industry in his village and, with the use of some little bowls filled with coffee grains in different stages, he explained the process that coffee usually go through. He showed us the shells of the grain, which poorer people use to make a coffee infusion. He talked to us about the cooperative coffee production plant where he works, and told us about the production of coffee – from the harvest to the final packaging and sale (in this case to my friend Tania, who thought that it would be a good present for her parents!)
And in fact, my friend’s parents confirmed that they couldn’t have received a better souvenir from this trip.
Coffee is a drink taken from the seeds of the coffee fruit which are roasted and then ground.
The coffee tree is probably native to the province of Kaffa, in Ethiopia, and it’s there that it takes its name from. The coffee tree grows In the high forests of south east Ethiopia, between 1300m and 2000m altitude. It’s a wild tree, which can grow to a height of 10 to 12m.
Coffee was taken from Ethiopia to Yemen, where sufis used it to stay awake during their prayers. It was later introduced to Arabia, where it was known as ‘qahwa’, which means “invigorating”.
Coffee arrived in Europe in about 1600, introduced by Venetian merchants. Pope Clement VIII was advised to ban coffee, as it was thought to represent a threat from the non-Christian world. After trying it the Pope baptised the new drink, saying that allowing it to only be enjoyed by ‘infidels’ would be a shame.
The coffee plant – Cafeto – Coffea
Cafeto is an evergreen tree native from the tropical and equatorial zones, and belongs to the coffea genus. It is usually 10m tall in forests, although when cultivated it is often kept at 3m tall. The first flowers appear after 3 or 4 years, are perfumed, they have a white or rosy pink colour and last 4 days. Flowering coincides with the rainy season.
What we know as the coffee grain is actually the seed of this fruit, which is a red colour and covered in a silvery skin.
The process to get the grain of coffee
After the harvest is important to separate the beans from the pulp before 24 hours to avoid fruit spoilage. A natural way to do this is to let the cherries dry under the sun for about 20 days and separate the beans with a machine.
Another option is to depulp the cherries through a machine, immerge the beans in water to remove the mucilage and finally dry the beans.
The result of this process it’s called parchment coffee. If we want to obtain green coffee we will need to use a machine to remove the dried husk.
Finally the grains need to be classified by shape and size to avoid that some grain get burned during the roasting.
In many places the first fruits’ waste are used to make infusions. Our friend Juan in Guatemala talked about these waste products as “poorman’s coffee”, although the infusion is actually a pleasant, fruity and sweet drink with low caffeine levels. Nowadays there are several countries that encourage the use of these shells, along with a message about sustainability – explaining that the coffee plant does not produce waste products.
If you’ve ever tried an infusion of coffee that hadn’t been roasted, I’m sure it wasn’t an enjoyable experience. It’s thanks to the roasting process that coffee grains obtain their refined flavour.
The kind of roasting process depends on the region where it takes place. In this way, coffee is produced which is to the taste of the consumer.
When roasted, the green coffee grain almost doubles in size, changing in colour and density. Given that the grain absorbs heat, the colour changes to yellow, and then to a light brown colour, and finally to a dark, oily shade – which is produced when the sugars present in the grain caramelize. During the roasting process the grain loses its essential oils and its original smell, which are replaced by odours created by the roasting process. For that reason, in darker roastings it becomes difficult to tell the origin of the grains – whereas in lighter roastings the grain keeps more of its original flavour, which is informed by the atmospheric conditions and soil of the place where it was grown. The roasting process also burns the caffeine in the grains – which is why dark roasted coffee contains less caffeine.
In the 19th century, coffee was bought in the form of green grains and roasted in a frying pan. This kind of roasting required great skill, and was abandoned when it became possible to buy pre-roasted grains in vacuum-packed glasses which kept the smell and flavour for much longer.
The roasting stages
Stage 1: the green grains go through a dry process to eliminate humidity and will be brought to a temperature of 200ºC.
Stage 2: the grains reach 60% of its volume and a first crack can be heard. The grain lose 15% of its weight.
Stage 3: at a temperature of 220ºC the grains have a light roast, cinnamon-coloured. The coffee and an acidic flavour and high caffeine content.
Stage 4: between 225 and 227ºC we reach the medium toast. Grains have a chestnut colour. Coffee has a caramelised flavour with high caffeine content. Usually used in filter coffee machines.
Stage 5: at a temperature of 228ºC there is a second crack. The roast is medium dark.
Stage 6: From 230ºC roasts are dark and have different subcategories: Cuban roast, French or Italian. Grains have lost most of the essential oils, they have a low caffeine content and the sugars in the coffee have started to caramelise.
Right after the roasting process is important to quickly cooled the beans and let them reach an optimum temperature to condense the oils and to preserve and enhance the aromas
This coffee is roasted with sugar, which caramelises during the process – creating a shiny caramel patina over the grain and giving a richer, deeper flavour. It has a very dark colour with more body which masks the nuances of the original grain. This technique is usually only used in Argentina, Costa Rica, Bolivia, parts of Mexico, Spain, France, Paraguay and Portugal. At first it was thought that this technique would help bring out the aroma of the coffee, but in reality it masks the smell of lower-quality grains. In addition, because the grains of torrefacto coffee are covered in sugar, it is easy to over roast them. The difference between torrefacto coffee, and natural coffee, is easy to spot.
I would like to close this post with this fascinating video from Kávékalmár, a Hungarian roaster that made a video about the roasting process from the introduction of green grains into the machine, to the packaging. They have introduced a GoPro inside a commercial coffee roaster to give a glimpse from the interior.
I wish I could know what happened to the GoPro after the roasting process 😱😂
There’s a lot more to be said about different types of coffee, so don’t miss the second part of this post. I’ll tell you all about green coffee, grinding the coffee and my visit to some iconic sites in Barcelona, where you can try delicious coffees and listen to the stories of coffee experts.